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
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
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. …