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Why National Geographic Is Watching Its Seafood Diet

  Photo by James L. Stanfield/NGS For Enric Sala, saving the oceans is personal. By personal he doesn’t mean only himself. He means me, and you, and every one of our six billion fellow humans. “If we all did something it would be huge,” he said at a lunchtime forum at National Geographic headquarters in...



Photo by James L. Stanfield/NGS

For Enric Sala, saving the oceans is personal.

By personal he doesn’t mean only himself. He means me, and you, and every one of our six billion fellow humans.


“If we all did something it would be huge,” he said at a lunchtime forum at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., today.

Sala is a marine ecologist and a National Geographic Fellow. His research was used to justify scientifically the proclamation of vast new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, announced by President Bush earlier this month.

Photo by James L. Stanfield/NGS

Sala also has been educating National Geographic employees about the consequences of eating certain types of seafood.


Because of his recommendations, wallet-size seafood and sushi guides were distributed at headquarters “to foster a better understanding of the sustainability questions surrounding some seafood and its disappearance from the National Geographic cafeteria menu,” we read on our intranet today.

Our cafeteria no longer offers tuna, shrimp and salmon. Other fish, such as tilapia, continue to be served regularly.

The cards were provided by the Blue Ocean Institute, which uses four basic criteria to evaluate sustainability of an ocean species — its life history, its abundance in the wild, habitat concerns, and the catch or farming method.

Sala’s forum today addressed some of the issues behind the decision to forgo certain types of fish on our lunch menu — and he asked us to help spread the word, “horizontally to friends and neighbors,” and “vertically to supermarket and restaurant owners” and higher up in the authority chain of society.

“But before we do that,” Sala told us, “we need to be setting the example.”

Most of the fish Americans eat, Sala pointed out, is not caught in American waters. It comes from across the world, as far away as the Southern Ocean. “We are having to go deeper and farther to catch fish that are smaller and smaller,” he said. “The total biomass of what we consume remains constant, but the fish we are eating are different.”

A 2003 study found that some 90 percent of the large fish had been removed from the oceans. In the case of some species of sharks, Sala said, it was 99 percent. “We are taking 100,000,000 sharks out of the ocean every year … and less than 10 people are killed by sharks every year.”

One reason why sharks are being sucked out of the ocean on this scale is that shark fin soup is served as a status dish in China, especially at weddings — and there are something like 10,000 weddings a day in China, Sala said.

Shrimps should not be eaten because industrial shrimp fisheries deploy destructive dredging that demolishes everything on the ocean floor, Sala said. “It’s like cutting entire forests with a giant chain so you can harvest the mushrooms on the ground … In some cases, the discarded bycatch of this type of fishing is ten pounds of biomass (plants and animals) destroyed for every pound of shrimps retrieved.”

Orange roughy is a popular item on restaurant menus, but every time we order one we may be helping devastate a distant seamount, according to Sala. This severely depleted fish doesn’t mature until it is at least 20 years old and can live for over 100 years. It gathers on seamounts for mating, where commercial trawlers armed with sonar find their congregations. “It’s being killed by its sex life,” Sala noted.

Photo by Bates Littlehales/NGS

Trawling smashes everything in its path, destroying precious deep-sea corals, some of which can live longer than 4,000 years, Sala said.

Many other species, including rare deep-sea sharks, are often caught with the orange roughy. What you see on your plate is only a tiny portion of what should really be there, if you were to include the bycatch destroyed in the process.

Salmon is to be avoided because of bad farming practices, Sala said.

Yes, there are sustainable sources of salmon, but it is not really possible for consumers to be sure they are eating fish from only those sources, Sala said. He painted a grim picture of what happens on some salmon farms, from the large-scale use of fish meal (made from wild fish caught in the ocean) to feed the salmon to pesticides to kill parasites (sea lice) and antibiotics to prevent the overcrowded salmon from getting diseases.


Another concern about seafood is that so much of it is contaminated, especially the fish on top of the ocean food chain, Sala said. “Our problem is that we take too much out of the sea and throw too much into the sea,” he said. Pollutants from rivers and atmosphere poison the oceans and concentrate in fish. The higher the fish on the food chain, the more toxic they are.

Photo by James L. Stanfield/NGS

So dangerous is this that the fish cards published by The Blue Ocean Institute flag species that contain levels of mercury or PCBs that may pose a health risk to adults or children. Contaminated fish include mackerels, striped bass, swordfish, Atlantic flounders and soles, groupers, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic Bluefin tuna, sharks, and farmed salmon. 

seafood6.jpgThere is some good news.

Sanctuaries have demonstrated that fish stocks can recover and fisheries have found that they catch more fish along the perimeters of protected areas than when they used to be allowed to fish anywhere, Sala said.

The system of catch-shares, in which fishers receive a share of fixed seasonal quotas, also seems to be having a stabilizing effect on fish stocks.

But there’s still more that can be done. Governments can stop subsidizing unsustainable fishing practices, Sala said, citing a World Bank study which reported that reduction in fishing effort could increase productivity, profitability, and net economic benefits of fisheries.

And then there is the personal factor. We can all take this situation seriously and do something about it. Educating ourselves and sharing that knowledge with others would be a good start.

We can never return to pristine oceans, Sala said. But the golden objective is to restore the sea and harvest it sustainably.

Photo by W. Robert Moore/NGS

Additional Resources:

Blog Entries:

Mass Extinctions Loom in Ocean Habitats, Scientist Warns

World Governments Subsidize the Wrong Fisheries, Survey Suggests

Global Fisheries Forfeit $50 Billion a Year, UN Report Says

Quarter of Northeast Atlantic Sharks and Rays Threatened With Extinction

Coral Triangle Rescue Plan Gathers Momentum

Vast Tracts of the Pacific Saved for Conservation

National Geographic News:

Seafood May Be Gone by 2048, Study Says

Marine Reserves Found to Boost Nearby Fishing Grounds



Photo by Bates Littlehales/NGS 




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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn