Best choices for the planet: big fish or little fish?

February 12, 2009


Recently I interviewed Mike McDermid manager of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, about why we all need to be careful to choose sustainable fish and seafood. He had many valuable things to say on the topic but our discussion about whether we should eat big fish or little fish was particularly interesting. 

Overfishing and habitat damage have led to massive species declines, even extinctions, and have caused dramatic shifts in ocean ecosystems. Within the past century, 90% of all large fish species are gone; we are now fishing the last 10%. The good news is that as consumers we can help to reverse these trends by choosing seafood that is harvested in a sustainable manner,” explained Mike.

Which led me to ask him if that meant we should be eating sardines and anchovies and foregoing salmon and tuna?

His reply:

“I’m not sure if it is important – I included that statistic to illustrate where we are currently with respect to commercial fisheries and the dire need to start considering where our fish are coming from. There are sustainable fisheries for large fish species, making them a good option, but I wanted to illustrate that the oceans are not this “endless bounty” that we once considered them to be.

Having said that, there are a lot of proponents to eating lower on the food chain (the smaller fishes that are prey for larger predatory ones). The selective removal of larger fish species has thrown many marine ecosystems out of balance.  Smaller fish species do tend to be more resilient to fishing pressure because they have shorter lifespans (commonly) and produce more offspring. But, some species of tuna, for example, also exhibit fast growth, short lifespans, and produce a lot of offspring as well. As you can see, it very much depends on the exact species and fishery that we are talking about and generalizing can be very difficult.”

Because my husband Martin Kouprie has long been a member of associations such as the Endangered Fish Alliance and now Ocean Wise, I’ve  been trained to make my fish choices carefully.  How about you? Do you choose fish based on the recipe you plan to make or choose the recipe based upon the fish that experts like the Vancouver Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium deem most suitable?

Tip: By the way, If you have an iphone, you might like to download this free Seafood Watch application that you can use at restaurants and grocery stores to make planet-friendly fish and seafood choices.