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Time for a sea change

Making any New Year’s resolutions for 2019? Interested in adding eating more sustainable items to the list?

Why choose sustainable seafood? The ocean helps us in numerous ways, providing food, helping to regulate our climate, and providing jobs and incomes to millions. We depend on healthy oceans and unfortunately, unsustainable fishing practices hurt our oceans in a multitude of ways.

Unsustainable fishing practices present four major threats to our oceans and marine life: overfishing, habitat damage, bycatch and illegal fishing.

From above the water, our oceans’ resources seem limitless; however, a deeper dive shows a different, more concerning story: overfishing. Overfishing comes from unsustainable fishing practices from a lack of effective management and our own consumption habits. Just in the past decade, populations of halibut and yellowtail flounder joined this list of species at all-time lows, much like the cod fishing industry, once the backbone of the North Atlantic fishing economy, which nearly collapsed completely in the early 1990s and still hasn’t recovered. In fact, 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed. When one species of fish is no longer plentiful, fishermen move on to the next and “fish down the food web” to crabs, sardines and squids. These lower-level species are necessary prey for other fish, sea birds and marine life like dolphins and sea turtles.

Unsustainable fishing practices can have huge, negative impacts on habitats for marine life. Among the numerous forms of fishing gear and methods, bottom trawling can have the most damage as it involves dragging heavy gear across the sea floor to catch shrimp and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut and sole. In just Alaskan waters, bottom trawls remove over 1 million pounds of deep water corals and sponges yearly.

Bycatch happens when fishing operations are fishing for one species and accidentally catch/harm other marine life in the process. One fishing method that is a big cause of bycatch is the use of mid water trawl nets used to catch large schools of fish like tuna. The nets are gigantic and can span the length of five football fields, catching tuna but also catching and killing hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, sea turtles and even sea birds. In fact, as many as 250,000 sea turtles are caught annually. Shrimp fisheries can also result in bycatch. It is estimated that for every pound of shrimp caught, up to six pounds of other species are discarded.

As we overfish, ruin marine habitat and kill fish through bycatch there are inevitably fewer fish to catch. With fewer fish come more desperate practices to catch them, leading to illegal fishing. International fisheries management agencies report that one-fifth of the world’s catch is illegal, unreported or unregulated. Fishermen violating laws not only deplete fish stocks but also cost honest fishermen and governments millions of dollars by flooding the market with cheap products.

The good news is that your choices can and do matter! Choosing sustainable seafood when out to eat or at the grocery store doesn’t just safeguard the fish we’re eating; it also helps to save the marine habitat and other marine life that share their home. The easiest and most effective way to help protect marine life like shorebirds, dolphins, endangered sharks and sea turtles is to download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app and use it while making your seafood choices.

Zoo Atlanta is proud to use Seafood Watch® guidelines to purchase sustainable seafood when feeding fish-eating animals, including giant otters, scarlet ibis, bald eagle, and numerous turtle species.

Check out our web page on Sustainable Seafood for more info.
Carissa Bishop
Conservation Education Initiatives Supervisor

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