Conscientious Seafood Buyers may be Greatest Hope to Reverse Widespread Destruction of Fisheries

Low-Impact Fish Farming and Eating Lower on the Food Chain Can Provide More Jobs and Increase Seafood Quality and Safety

Washington, D.C. — The world’s beleaguered fish populations have found an unlikely ally: seafood eaters, according to a new Worldwatch study by Brian Halweil, a senior researcher and globally recognized food expert. From Chinese universities that refuse to serve shark fin soup, to U.S. supermarkets that feature sustainably harvested shrimp, to Japanese consumers who are restoring wild oyster beds, a well-informed population of seafood eaters, distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets is playing a growing role in fostering a more sustainable, lower-impact fishing industry.

“Today, most of the world’s seafood, from tuna to salmon to bay scallops, is threatened with extinction,” writes Halweil in Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans. Studies show that fishers have eliminated at least 90 percent of tuna, marlin, swordfish, and other large predatory fish in just the past 50 years, and United Nations surveys show that roughly two-thirds of the world’s major fish stocks, from cod to salmon to mackerel, have been pushed to the verge of collapse. “A public that better understands the state of the world’s oceans can be a driving force in helping governments pass legislation to ban destructive fishing, mandate fishing labels that indicate how fish were caught, and create marine preserves off-limits to fishing where fish can spawn.”

But this growing movement is still fragile, Halweil notes. The commitments of many participants, from retail giant Wal-Mart to the Red Lobster restaurant chain, remain incomplete. For instance, Wal-Mart’s recent pledge to sell only certified sustainable fish in the next 3–-5 years involves no commitments with respect to farmed salmon and Asian-farmed shrimp, which constitute the bulk of its seafood sales. And endangered swordfish, Atlantic cod, and Chilean sea bass are making a comeback on some restaurant menus as chefs forget earlier campaigns to protect them.

The rapid decline of marine life is largely a result of increased seafood consumption and the use of high-impact fishing technology, which not only raises yields, but also requires about 12.5 times as much energy to catch fish as the fish provide to those who eat them, explains Halweil. He notes that the United States, Europe, and Japan—the world’s largest seafood consumers—receive most of their seafood through large distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets, so changes in buying habits in these channels could have a profound impact on the health of today’s fish stocks.

“In the same way the organic food movement is evolving beyond the culinary fringe, sustainable seafood can make its biggest impact when it starts appearing at popular supermarkets and restaurants,” says Halweil. “Fish is an incredibly healthful food, but we’ll need to eat less of certain kinds and more of others if we want fish in the future.” Salmon farms, for instance, consume more fish in the form of feed than they yield in seafood, and large ocean species like tuna and swordfish are most likely to be contaminated with mercury and other toxins. Eating clams, oysters, and smaller species, in contrast, puts less strain on oceans and protects consumers from contaminants.

Recalling the success of the “dolphin-safe” tuna campaign of the 1980s, Catch of the Day draws attention to a wellspring of private initiatives that are helping to save marine life—from color-coded seafood selection guides to targeted purchasing by large seafood buyers like pioneering restaurant company Bon Appétit. These efforts are boosting the sales and reputations of participating companies, protecting jobs in developing countries where seafood is the dominant industry, and increasing the overall quality and safety of fish products worldwide.

“Some scientists predict that if current trends continue, the oceans will be reduced to a trawler-scraped wasteland inhabited primarily by sea slime and jellyfish,” Halweil notes. “The fishing industry and fisheries regulators have spent decades trying to prevent this grim outcome, but they have largely failed. Whether it is helping a marine conservation group push through laws prohibiting deep-sea trawling or supporting more restrictive trade in endangered species, seafood shoppers can help reverse the damages humans have created and preserve the fresh catch of tomorrow.”

See below for a one-page fact sheet on Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans, a list of tips for seafood lovers,” and a summary of policy recommendations. The full report is available for download at


Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans



Growing Seafood Consumption Worldwide

  • The world’s fish farmers and fishing fleets harvested 132.5 million tons of seafood in 2003 (the latest year for which data are available), nearly seven times the harvest of 1950.
  • People in the developing world eat most of the world’s fish (thanks to larger populations there), but they eat much less per capita: 14.2 kilos per year, versus 24 kilos in the industrial world.
  • Chinese consumers now eat roughly five times as much seafood per capita as they did in 1961, and total fish consumption in China has increased more than tenfold. Over the same period, U.S. seafood consumption jumped 2.5 times.

State of Today’s Fish Stocks

  • As more vessels work a limited number of fisheries, roughly two-thirds of the world’s major stocks have been fished at or beyond their capacity. Another 10 percent have been harvested so heavily that fish populations will take years to recover.
  • In 2004, marine scientists concluded that industrial fleets had emptied the oceans of at least 90 percent of all large predators—tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounder—in just the past 50 years.
  • Worldwide, fishers catch an estimated 18–40 million tons of fish and other marine creatures that are discarded—as much as half of all official marine landings.

Rapid Growth in Seafood Trade

  • Since 1976, the volume of seafood trade has jumped fourfold, to 30 million tons, while the value has jumped ninefold, to $71 billion (in 2005 dollars). Fish processors exported 14 million tons of frozen fish in 2004, over six times more than in 1976, with frozen shrimp and squid experiencing particularly rapid growth.

Inefficient Energy Use

  • In 2000, the world’s fishing fleets burned about 43 million tons of fuel to catch 80 million tons of fish. In other words, they use 12.5 times as much energy to catch fish as the fish provide to those who eat them.

Illegal Fishing and Its Impact on the Developing World

  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that illegal fishing robs sub-Saharan Africa of more than $1.2 billion annually in stolen fish, unpaid taxes, and lost work.

Positive Trends

  • The Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies certain seafood as “sustainable,” has granted its label to 18 fisheries worldwide, including North Sea herring and Australian mackerel. More than 370 products in nearly 30 nations now carry the group’s “Fish Forever” logo.
  • Scientists estimate that establishing no-catch marine reserves over 20­–30 percent of the oceans would provide spawning grounds and refuges to sustain all major fisheries. This would create 1 million jobs and cost $5–19 billion each year—far less than current fisheries subsidies.

What’s a Seafood Lover to Do?

  • Eat low on the seafood chain. This means fewer salmon and more clams and squid. Fish lower on the ocean food chain tend to be less endangered, and catching them is less energy intensive. They are also less likely to accumulate mercury and other toxins in their flesh.
  • Get to know where your fish comes from and how it’s caught. Avoid seafood caught using large-scale indiscriminate techniques, such as long-lines (tuna and swordfish) or bottom trawling (shrimp and cod). Seafood guides, like the ones put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium ( and the Blue Ocean Institute (, often include this information.
  • Support small-scale boats and fishers. Smaller boats support more people per fish caught than large vessels. They also tend to use more selective and less destructive fishing practices.
  • Consider what you wash down your drain. Much of the water we use in our homes—for showers, sinks, washers, and toilets—ends up in the oceans. Switch to non-toxic, biodegradable cleaners and dispose of paints, car oil, and other toxins at recycling centers.
  • Consider the other food you eat. Runoff from large livestock farms and agricultural chemicals often ends up in the ocean, where it encourages algae blooms that rob other ocean life of oxygen. Animal feedlots also feed livestock large amounts of fishmeal and fish oil. Favoring organic food and pasture-raised meats means fewer farms dumping waste into the oceans.

Proposed Fisheries Policy Reforms

  • Eliminate fisheries and energy subsidies. Propped up by $15–20 billion in annual subsidies, global fishing fleets are estimated to be up to 250 percent larger than are needed to catch what the ocean can sustainably produce. The United States, European Union, and Japan account for 75–85 percent of fisheries subsidies. Payments that encourage the use of less-destructive gear, direct marketing to consumers, and ecological fish farming are better options.
  • Establish a global network of marine reserves and protect future fishermen. Studies show that putting just 20–30 percent of the oceans off-limits to fishing would provide sufficient refuges for major fish populations to spawn and reproduce. While fishermen might lose access to their favorite grounds in the short term, such reserves result in more fish to catch in the long term.
  • Eliminate bottom trawling. Dragging a net across the ocean bottom has been compared to clear-cutting a forest in search of squirrels and chipmunks. Such fishing is energy intensive and destroys habitat that can harbor future populations of fish. Such trawling should be banned from the most sensitive deep-sea areas (coral forests) and gradually eliminated in other areas.
  • Reduce wasted and illegal catches. Canada, Iceland, and Norway have adopted “no discard” policies that create an incentive to minimize bycatch. Existing international fisheries laws would be adequate to reduce illegal fishing if they had sufficient staffing and the support of governments to enforce them.
  • Encourage ecological fish farming. Large fish farms currently follow the model of land-based industrial farming, raising large numbers of nearly identical species in tight, unsanitary conditions. Raising multiple species together (e.g. salmon and mussels) can reduce pollution, disease, and the need for inputs. Raising herbivorous fish (e.g. tilapia rather than salmon) can reduce aquaculture’s massive use of fishmeal and fish oil.

Notes to Editors:

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