Thinking Tech

Q&A: Eat that fish! When overfishing is also sustainable

Q&A: Eat that fish! When overfishing is also sustainable

Posting in Food

Many overfished species should not be boycotted by retailers or consumers, according to Ray Hilborn, professor of fishery sciences at the University of Washington.

Many of us think that if a fish species is overfished we probably should be wary about choosing it at the supermarket or on the restaurant menu. But the opposite may be true. Our boycotting of some overfished species may be hurting us and the American fish industry, not the fish.

This counterintuitive opinion is laid out by Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and co-author of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Hilborn holds that the public, food retailers, NGOs and congress have misunderstood what defines a sustainable fishery. In fact overfishing and sustainable can, oddly enough, go together.

SmartPlanet caught up with Hilborn in Seattle, WA to get a better understanding of this paradox and why he thinks a fish boycott doesn't make sense.

SmartPlanet: What are red listed fish?

Ray Hilborn: Red lists are advice that a number of NGOs provide on what species of fish one should avoid eating.

SP: And Whole Foods stopped selling such fish based on these red lists?

RH: Yes Whole Foods made a commitment to not sell any food that’s on the red list of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Oceans Institute.

SP: And other stores and restaurants have done similar things?

RH: Yes red lists are widely used.

SP: What are the criteria for red-listed fish?

RH: The three criteria that most NGOs use. One is status with respect to overfishing. The second is concerns about bycatch. So if you have a fishery that is catching a significant number of turtles, or sharks, or other species they’ll often get red-listed. Finally there are concerns about the environmental impacts of fishing, particularly concerns about trawl nets, or nets that touch the bottom and change bottom habitat.

SP: But you have made the point recently that if a species is overfished it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be sustainable. And this seems counterintuitive. People might say well red lists sound more like the right thing to do.

RH: There’s an enormous lack of understanding about what sustainability really is. Essentially sustainability has nothing to do with the abundance of the fish and much more about the management system. So if you’re managing it in a way where if it gets to low abundance you’ll reduce catches and let it rebuild. That’s clearly sustainable.

You can have fish that are overfished for decades but still be sustainable. As long as their numbers are not going down they are sustainable. Some of it is “overfished” with reference to the production of long-term maximum yield. It doesn’t imply declining and it doesn’t imply threat of extinction.

SP: And even if it falls into this latter category that you just described it should be safe for consumers to eat?

RH: So long as it’s in a management system like the U.S. where when stocks get to low abundance we dramatically reduce catches, and the evidence is they then rebuild. Then yes, those stocks are perfectly sustainable.

SP: What about this issue of bycatch?

RH: OK, so the NGOs will say, “Oh this stock is not sustainable because there is bycatch of sharks.” Well the stock is sustainable. Every form of food production has negative impacts on other species. And that’s where there’s an enormous double standard applied to fish.

For instance, I guarantee you there’s a big environmental impact of buying soybeans that come from cutting down rainforest. There’s a much higher standard applied to fisheries than almost anything else we eat.

SP: What goes into creating a sustainable fishery?

RH: The first thing is you have to monitor the trend in the stock. You have to have a  system based in good science, that says this stock is going down. Then your management actions have to respond to the trend.

SP: What about foreign fish? Which ones can we eat?

RH: Much of the fish of the world do not qualify as sustainable because we just don’t know what’s happening in other countries like Africa or Asia. Now, very few fish from those markets makes their way to the U.S. market. But some of the Atlantic cod populations in Europe are still fished much too hard. But the big propulsions in Europe are actually quite sustainable. Much of the cod that make it to the U.S. are coming from Iceland or Norway where the stocks are in good shape.

SP: But how do you tell the difference if it’s cod coming from an overfished area?

RH: Well, that is a major problem. But if it’s Marine Stewardship Council certified you can be pretty sure that it’s what it claims to be. Personally, I tend to buy a pretty narrow range of fish that come from my region, like salmon, halibut, and black cod. And pretty much all of those are MSC certified.

SP: You mention that the boycott on sustainably caught fish does nothing for conservation.

RH: You can boycott this all you want, it’s not going to affect what’s caught. Because for these overfished stocks enormous effort is being taken to catch as little as possible and it’s not the consumer market that drives the amount of catch. Those fish are going to be caught and they’re going to be sold because there are a lot of markets in the world that don’t care about classification and red lists, essentially all of Asia, which is the world’s biggest seafood consuming market.

The places that consumer boycotts might have an effect is for fish like bluefin tuna or swordfish.

SP: Well if boycotting makes no difference, is there a negative side to boycotting?

RH: My real target is to tell retailers and the NGOs, “Look, let’s get more reasonable about what we mean by sustainability.”

SP: And we need to get more reasonable about the definition of “sustainability” because there are real economic dangers to the fishing industry? Or is it because of something else?

RH: Yes, that’s certainly one of the issues. Let’s not punish these fishermen who have paid a very high price to rebuild these stocks. Let’s let them sell what they’re currently catching.

SP: So it seems the word “overfished” is also more nuanced?

RH: Well I think Congress had this very naïve view that somehow you could manage every stock separately and if cod is depleted, at low abundance well we stop fishing it, but they don’t appreciate the cost of all the other species that we could not catch because we can’t catch those species without also catching some cod as bycatch.

Now, there’s a lot of work going on to try to solve that problem. But I it's important to convince people that we will always have some overfished stocks. And if we continue with our current U.S. statement that ‘no stock shall be overfished’ we’re going to have to give up a lot of food production. We’re certainly doing that now.

SP: You’ve also argued that fish is a food we need?

RH: If we don’t catch certain fish with trawl nets, and let’s say it’s twenty million tons, then that food is going to be made up some other way. And what’s the environmental cost of the other ways of producing the food? My initial calculations suggest that it is quite a bit higher. We should always be saying, “Well if we don’t eat this, where else is the food going to come from, and what’s the environmental cost of that?”

SP: So you ultimately feel that the marketing of these red lists has gotten to the point where it’s lost rational sense?

RH: Yes. I’m pretty convinced that seafood production is more sustainable than growing corn in Iowa or wheat in Kansas. Because growing corn in Iowa forces us to lose topsoil every year. In another 200 years the topsoil will be be largely gone. Is that sustainable?

SP: So your feeling is that disappearing fish from the store shelves is going to force us to lose food and presumably money?

RH: Yes, and to eat more livestock or chicken now.

[Photo courtesy of Ray Hilborn]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure