Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Something Fishy (Originally Published March, 2002)

Spring is here, daylight savings time has begun and the nights will soon be warmer. For me, and for many others, these changes ring in the beginning of barbecue season. Neighborhoods will soon be filled with the smells of meat cooking on the grill. For some their barbecues will be filled with tasty slabs of beef and pork ribs, for others it means a big juicy steak, or beer can chicken (see my next column), but for a growing number of home cooks it means a nice light flaky and moist fish. But before you slap that Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, shark or swordfish on the grill consider the manner in which it was caught.

The above fish are among a growing list of fish and shellfish that are being overfished from the world’s oceans. Since the 1950s, governments worldwide have pumped billions of dollars into the fishing industry in order to encourage more people to become fishermen and to make the industry more efficient. Fifty years ago, the fish supply seemed endless and plentiful, and with more fishermen and better technology available, governments could stimulate the fishing industry and turn handsome profits. By 1994, ocean fishermen worldwide were catching 4 times more fish than they were in 1950.

The reproductive capacity of fish like Chilean sea bass, shark and swordfish can not compete with this improved technology or with the increasing numbers of fishermen. The Chilean sea bass for instance matures slowly--it spawns after 10 years--and is often caught before it has a chance to reproduce. Beyond its slow reproductive system the fish dwells in remote areas where regulation is haphazard, making it virtually impossible to control the way the fish is caught and sold. According to the New York times 16,000 tons of sea bass were harvested legally in 2000, but nearly twice that amount was taken illegally. That means that 80 percent of the Chilean sea bass on the world market is illegally obtained.

Swordfish suffer the same fate as Chilean sea bass. According to an 1998 article in Time magazine, it was in the 1950s that swordfish populations first threatened by overfishing. Until then, swordfish were generally harpooned, and only the largest, usually weighing more than 200 lbs. and sometimes as much as 1,200 lbs., ended up on dinner plates. This fishing technique left the smaller swordfish to grow. In the 1960s, fishermen adopted a more devastating technique called long-lining, which makes catching swordfish cheaper and quicker. Hundreds of hooks are attached to a line that stretches for miles at a depth where swordfish congregate. Anything that bites gets hooked and often suffocates--mainly swordfish but also sharks, sea turtles and other marine species. Most worrisome is that much of the catch consists of small swordfish, averaging 90 lbs. or less At this size, females have not reached reproductive maturity. According to the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Game web site in 2000 an estimated 68% of the Atlantic swordfish catch was of immature fish.

The North Atlantic swordfish, Chilean sea bass and orange roughy have become so scarce that many of this country’s top rated restaurants have stopped serving them in order to protest the near depletion of these species. Chefs like Charlie Trotter, in Chicago, Paul Prudhomme in Louisiana and over 200 top rated restaurants in the Mid West and on the Atlantic, Gulf and West Coasts have pledged not to serve swordfish, orange roughy or Chilean sea bass. Some of these restaurateurs have even printed information about the campaign on menus. In this way diners will learn that fish populations are under pressure everywhere and severely depleted in the Atlantic.

The most depleted fish species today is the bluefin tuna. The number of bluefin tuna in the Western Atlantic Ocean has dropped 90 percent since 1970, making them much harder to fish and buy in supermarkets. A single bluefin tuna can bring a fisherman as much as $20,000 at U.S. docks. This high price increases the chances that the fish will be poached (no pun intended) or caught illegally.

There have been various efforts to reverse the damage that overfishing has caused. In recent years, the U.S. government has imposed stricter regulations on fishermen, setting limits on the number of fish caught and restricting the use of environmentally-destructive equipment. These remedies along with fish farms, setting aside preserves and regulating the number of boats a country can use to fish have had a positive impact on the number of fish available to consumers world wide. But these solutions present environmental problems of there own.

Ultimately, you the consumer will decide the fish's fate. Restoring world wide fish populations to healthy levels could take up to 20 years--a long time to forgo a favorite treat. But if swordfish and other popular fish become too scarce to catch, future generations may never taste it at all.