Eaten a Threatened Species Lately?

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
October 16, 2008

How would you feel eating an animal whose population is on its way to extinction in a remote but beautiful habitat that you will never see? For your answer, think about how it felt to bite into your last fish sandwich.

The world’s oceans cover three quarters of the planet’s surface. Given their up to six miles of watery depth, oceans represent over 90% of the planet’s inhabited space.

All that habitat suggests an inexhaustible wealth of food for us dry-landers. Unfortunately, many of the world’s once-plentiful fish species are in danger. Oceans are getting stripped bare and left to die.

Pollution and ocean-front destruction of buffer ecosystems are partly to blame. Overfishing of international waters and the destructive effects of nets and trawler scoops on ocean ecosystems also wreak devastation.

There are four solutions to this catastrophe in the making. One is to better regulate world fishing. Another is to work to begin reversing the damage we are doing to ocean habitat. A third is to quit consuming fish from endangered populations. The final one is to eat fish whose numbers are sustainable.

Some of the more threatened species are common names on America’s seafood menu: Atlantic cod and halibut, Atlantic salmon, king crab, Chilean sea bass, and red snapper.

There is a parallel to this problem, as well as its solution, in local history.

When settlers arrived in Northeast Iowa nearly every creek was home to brook trout. In the 1850s and 1860s, local fishers would come back with up to 50 brookies on a single outing. Local wild-caught brook trout were available in all the local markets.

Within 25 years of settlement, it was hard to find a stream with a single living trout in it. What happened?

Those clear trout streams turned to rivulets of mud due to farm erosion. On the unregulated frontier, the few hardy trout that survived the silt got caught as the numbers of people hooking, netting, and dynamiting skyrocketed.

Today only one stream in Winneshiek county, one stream in the whole state, supports a population of native brook trout. They survive in part because of regulations that limit the method of fishing and require the immediate release of caught fish back into the stream. Conservation measures keep the stream cool and relatively unpolluted.

Today, lots of people catch and eat trout from Northeast Iowa but most of the fish caught to eat in this region are rainbow trout, an introduced species that is farm-raised to catchable size, and then released to tantalize weekend anglers.

In a few of the colder and less silted streams, brown trout, another introduced species, naturally reproduce or grow from fingerling size in the streams. And in a few exceptional streams the offspring of native brook trout are now being reintroduced.

Regulation, conservation, and a shift in what people catch and eat are slowly reversing the catastrophe that people brought to this area’s fishery.

The same remedies are needed for the world’s biggest habitat. The oceans’ depths are out of sight for almost all of us. That does not mean that they should be out of mind.

It’s time to quit thinking of Atlantic cod as a little square, nugget, or chunk that comes packaged frozen for fast frying. Recognize it instead as the flesh of a fish whose numbers are down up to 99% in some fisheries from what they were even a half century ago.

Look instead to fish or shellfish that can be farmed safely: catfish, rainbow trout, domestic tilapia, or farmed oysters, mussels, and scallops. Or buy wild fish from fisheries where regulation is keeping catches to sustainable numbers: Great Lakes whitefish or wild-caught Pacific salmon.

Farming is not always the answer. It works for fish like rainbow trout, but spells disaster for species such as salmon. Ocean fish farms pollute the surrounding ocean with waste and antibiotics and introduce weak and diseased fish into the wild population. Freshwater farms in developing countries often pollute area streams and introduce invasive species.

The simplest way to educate yourself about what fish to eat and what fish to avoid is to go to the Seafood Watch tab of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Web site. Choose the Regional Seafood Guides page and click the menu for Central U.S. It tells you in detail which populations are safe, relatively safe, or threatened.

Then read labels or ask questions to find out the source of the fish you buy or are served. Cod from the Pacific, for example, are less threatened than Atlantic cod. If people can’t tell you the source of the fish they are serving; don’t eat it.

You wouldn’t feel good about eating a spotted owl as part of your next chicken McNugget. You shouldn’t feel that different about eating the increasingly rare fare from the world’s biggest habitat.