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Since we started sending ships around the world with giant trawls, miles of longlines, nets, and floating factories, we have lost our sense of responsibility for the fish that were once our neighbors. The nicest thing you can do for the fish you’re eating is to make sure you know who its relatives are and where it lived before it ended up on your fork or in a bun with cheese and tartar sauce. Becoming a responsible consumer takes work, but here are some basics:

  • Don’t eat seafood that is overexploited. Atlantic swordfish, for instance, has been one of the mainstays of restaurants and backyard barbecues, but the ancient Xiphias gladius are in deep trouble. Like their cousins, the marlin, swordfish have been badly overfished–over the last three decades, the average landed weight of a swordfish has plummeted from hundreds of pounds to tens of pounds. Unfortunately, they’re still on the menu.
  • Avoid eating seafood from “dirty” fisheries, where fishermen discard more edible protein than they deliver at the dock. Specifically, you might want to reconsider eating shrimp. For every pound of shrimp that makes it to your plate, as many as eight pounds of other ocean critters were caught and dumped. The celebrated Alaska king crab, too, is from a very “dirty” fishery. For every legal-sized adult male caught, five small or female crabs are thrown back, many dead or dying.
  • Be wary of fashionable seafood. Too much hype can really kill a fish. In 1985, when New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme made his blackened redfish (red drum) a celebrity dish, fishermen on the Gulf of Mexico almost wiped them out to feed the insatiable national market. State and federal managers finally shut down the commercial fishery. Redfish are now making a comeback, and hopefully we’ll exercise a little restraint next time. Slowly reproducing species like rockfish are especially vulnerable to bursts of overexploitation, because they’re slow to recover. The key to enjoying rockfish such as snapper and yelloweye for dinner is knowing exactly what species you’re eating, where it was caught, and whether the fishery is healthy or not.
  • Think twice about farmed ocean fish, particularly salmon. Since 1980, world production of salmon in pens has soared from just 15 million pounds to about 681 million pounds, compared with catches of about 1.5 billion pounds of free-swimming salmon. Though a lot more aquatic protein will certainly come from fish farms in the future, freshwater species, rather than marine fish, will fill the bill. Farmed, hatchery, and wild stocks compete in the ocean food web, and the specters of genetic mutation and weakened biodiversity are looming. Just lately, too, alarms are sounding about the use of antibiotics and other drugs in marine fish farms. If we replace wild fish and other creatures that depend on healthy oceans with farmed replicas in the marketplaces of the world, we’ll gradually lose our motivation to protect and restore the sea.

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