By Jennifer C. Berkshire Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Stop by the seafood section of a typical supermarket these days, and you'll see a vivid testimony to the bounty of the oceans: piles of snowy white North Atlantic cod, glistening red snapper, and thick swordfish, halibut, and sea bass. But beneath this display of abundance lurks the reality that many popular fish will soon be missing from fish markets because large numbers of them are already missing from the oceans.
Last month the National Marine Fisheries Service and ocean conservation group Oceana listed species that have declined as much as 90 percent from their estimated original populations. And earlier in the fall, the US Commission on Ocean Policy, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by President Bush, released a study warning that too many marine species are being extracted from the oceans faster than they can reproduce.
While there is growing consensus about an impending underwater crisis, there is less agreement regarding what to do about it - particularly as it concerns the behavior of consumers, whose appetite for seafood seems to be growing with each passing year.
Americans ate a record 16.3 pounds of fish and shellfish per person in 2003, up from 15.6 pounds in 2002, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now, say ocean activists, these seafood lovers will also have to learn to be stewards of the seas' bounty - or risk seeing their favorite fish disappear forever.
But consumers often aren't sure what they should be doing.
The key to making smart seafood choices is having the right information, says George Leonard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Mr. Leonard is the science manager for the Seafood Watch project, which produces a popular line of wallet-size cards (www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp) that rank fish species according to whether consumers should purchase them or not.
While the group's assessment of individual fish stocks is based on a complex formula - five different variables are considered, including the species' history, its genetic vulnerability, and the fishing gear used to catch it - the ratings are a snap to follow.
A green light for plentiful fish
Consumers who arrive at a restaurant or supermarket, cards in hand, can see at a glance that red snapper, Atlantic cod, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass are on the "red list" of fish to avoid. Recommended choices get a green light, while fish that are threatened but not on the verge of commercial extinction get a yellow light for caution.
But surveys conducted at the aquarium indicate that consumers are hungry for still more information. While encouraged by that demand, Leonard also worries that by providing too much information Seafood Watch could end up overwhelming the vast majority of consumers, who, he notes, are largely uneducated on seafood issues.
Dan Dupont, an Arlington, Va., resident and frequent seafood shopper, says he doesn't need a wealth of information, just a bit of guidance about what to buy and what to avoid. He's concerned about purchasing fish that are endangered, or that contain unhealthy levels of mercury.
"I worry, but sadly, I do very little research on it. …