Fish: It's Not What's for Dinner

Feature story - March 24, 2005
On March 24, federal officials, members of Congress and fisheries industry representatives gathered in Washington, D.C. for an evening of fine dining, hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But they received a surprise when they were presented with menus showing what was not for dinner that evening – namely Red Snapper, Yellow Tail Flounder, Atlantic Cod and other major species of fish. Dressed as waiters, six activists interrupted the gala event to deliver the message that the nation's fisheries are in crisis.

A menu of endangered fish

The activist-waiters distributed menus reading "Mismanaging Our Nation's Fisheries: A Menu of What's Missing." The menus highlighted species that have been managed out of commercial existence or are at risk of collapse as a result of overfishing. Wanting to keep the occasion festive, we also released balloons into the room which carried the message "Who Stole Our Fish?" and listed the agencies and policymakers responsible. These include NOAA; the Director of NOAA Fisheries, Bill Hogarth; the regional fisheries councils and coastal commissions; Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and the company "Omega Protein."

Not on the Menu

For years, we've allowed the fishing industry to be responsible for protecting marine life. This is akin to letting logging companies manage our national forests - it doesn't work. Now, as a result, marine ecosystems are degraded, fish populations around the world are greatly diminished, and we've lost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars from the collapse of fisheries.

Every year we take billions of pounds of marine life out of the oceans. This is changing marine ecosystems in ways we do not fully comprehend. Globally, only 10 percent of the largest fish are left. And just as destructive fishing practices affect our dinner menus, they more severely affect animals that depend on fish for sustenance. Sea lions, fur seals and sea otters are among the many species in steep decline, but policy makers have failed again and again to incorporate ecosystem-wide impacts into their management plans.

In the Chesapeake Bay, for example, industrial fishing giant Omega Protein continues to vacuum up menhaden - a fish typically used for fish meal, oil and fertilizer - by the thousands of tons with no catch limits. This destructive fishing has grim consequences for striped bass and other popular fish that depend on menhaden for food.

Nearly all of the appointed members of the regional fishery management councils represent the fishing industry. These are the folks who are responsible for the stewardship of our oceans. Council members routinely vote on measures that directly affect their businesses, and enjoy a unique exemption from criminal liability for conflicts of interest.

Eat Responsibly

As a consumer, your eating habits are intimately tied to global fishing practices. So if you're going out to shop for a seafood dinner or plan on ordering off the menu, first check out the Consumer's Guide to Sustainable Seafood, published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.