I admired the jellyfish, the octopus, and the nudibranchs, but in the end, it was the California leopard sharks that won me over. They cuddled up against the diver and nudged their heads against her arm, taking squid gently from her hand. It was the first time ever a shark had elicited an involuntary “Aww” reaction from me.
I’ve been going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium since I was eleven. (Honor roll field trips FTW!) There are arguments against keeping animals in captivity, but for me, getting up close and personal with a leafy sea dragon reminds me why I care about this planet and inspires me to keep caring.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium earnestly promotes ocean conservation, particularly through its Seafood Watch program. Overfishing is one of the most critical issues facing our ocean ecosystems, and the MBA’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide distills a whole lot of solid scientific data into a handy wallet-sized guide of which fish you can enjoy without guilt, and which you’re really better off avoiding. They take into account fishing practices, population, and impact on habitat. Your seafood choices matter!
I’m vegetarian and have fond memories of my pet betta fish (RIP, Superfishy), but if you eat seafood, please download the free pocket guide or Seafood Watch app and tell your friends about it. There are different regional versions that address the choices you’re most likely to face at the supermarket or in a restaurant. They’ve made making good choices as easy as possible.
Since I’m nosy, I got in touch with Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch Outreach Manager, and peppered him with questions about Seafood Watch. Read on for his thoughtful answers.
Q: How did the Seafood Watch program get started?
A: Conservation has always been one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s founding principles. Back in 1999, we were looking at our internal purchasing decisions. (The aquarium goes through a lot of seafood to feed its animals!) We started putting out informational placards on our restaurant tables about sustainable seafood. When those started disappearing, rather than hiring more security guards, we came up with the Seafood Watch pocket guide. Since then, we’ve handed out more than 40 million pocket guides and worked with major companies like Whole Food and Aramark, restaurants, commercial fisheries, aquariums, and other conservation groups. Basically, we provide the science behind the sustainable seafood movement.
Q: How’s the ocean looking in 2013?
A: There’s room for hope, especially in US, Canadian, and Australian waters – places where government regulations have been driven by consumer consciousness. More and more fishermen are on board. We’re definitely not out of the tunnel yet, but there’s some hope, including for species like the bluefin tuna.
Q: What are the most important factors that go into deciding how sustainable a species is?
A: Our scientists look at both wild seafood and aquaculture (farmed seafood) and evaluate their impact in a lot of ways. For wild seafood, we look at how a species is fished, levels of bycatch, habitat damage, overfishing, and more. For aquaculture, we go by what type of species is raised, what it eats, and how the farm affects the environment. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has 2,500 total recommendations, about 270 of which are online. A pocket guide has about 75. It’s incredibly difficult to condense so much information, but our goal was to offer enough information to help people make good choices without being overwhelmed.
Q: Would you ever put invasive species like Asian carp on the green list?
A: Yes, we absolutely would. The problem is that there is rarely an established commercial fishery for invasive species. And there’s potential that creating a market for invasives is that fisheries might not just fish until a species was gone – they might want to maintain it or even expand it.
Q: The pocket guide makes distinctions between fish raised or caught in different ways or places. What if we can’t get this information?
A: Sometimes consumers just won’t have the information they need, and this brings up issues like the need for better labeling. For example, wild salmon caught in Alaska might be processed in China before being sent back to the US. It can legally be called wild Alaskan salmon, but it’s probably not what you had in mind. Even though people won’t have all the pieces, we hope Seafood Watch gets people to think about the issues, ask questions, and start conversations. If you can’t tell if something is sustainable, we recommend not buying it. Most restaurants will have at least a few options that are on the green or yellow list.
Q: What about pet food? I have no idea what kind of tuna is in tuna for cats, much less how or where it was caught. Is there a way to buy canned fish responsibly for my cat?
A: We pay attention to what kinds of people are interested in our program, and pet owners keep coming up. The best answer I can give right now is that we’re looking into it. The problem with pet food is that it’s made as cheaply as possible, and that often means that sustainability was not a consideration. A good rule of thumb – not just for pet food – is that if it’s caught in an environmentally responsible way, it will be marketed that way. For example, troll/pole caught canned tuna is always touted as such.
Q: Why doesn’t the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommend just eating less fish?
A: That hasn’t been our message up to now; rather we recommend that people try to diversify the types of fish they eat, moving away from just tuna, shrimp and salmon . We work closely with fishermen and want to support those doing the right thing. We don’t want people to think that eating seafood is bad – we believe seafood can be sustainable if done well, and we want people to continue enjoying it.
Q: I’m a vegetarian. What else can I do to take care of our oceans?
A: Even if you don’t eat seafood, you can help get the message out, ask questions at restaurants and supermarkets, and advocate for the oceans. Any support is good support!
Thanks, Ryan! I hope you’ll take a moment to download the guide and tuck a copy in your wallet today. I’m planning to snoop around my local supermarket and see if they’re up to snuff and write letters if they’re not…
Do you eat seafood? Do you try to ensure that it’s sustainable?