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Opinion: Let Us Eat Fish (All Kinds)

Timothy Fitzgerald

May 03, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and all that’s in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about. Our latest entry comes from Timothy Fitzgerald, director of the Impact Division at the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fishery Solutions Center. Inspired by our recent op-ed by Barton Seaver, Fitzgerald shares his vision of a future where sustainably farmed and wild-caught fish can find space together on a diner’s plate.

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My friend Barton Seaver recently wrote an eloquent piece about the need to give farmed fish a second chance. Just as he has set out to change the narrative around aquaculture, I feel that I must do the same for wild fisheries.

You see, many people view commercial fishing as a thing of the past—the last great wild food source, hunted by the last great hunters, whose time has come and gone. We don’t rely on wild buffalo for food anymore, so why should we waste all this effort chasing fish around the vast, global ocean?

Wild fisheries are not a dead-end proposition. In fact, if you ranked all of the major environmental challenges of our time by our collective ability to solve them, fishing would be right up there near the top. That’s because despite a history of way too much fishing effort, decades of overfishing, incomplete science, and regulations that incentivize fishermen to compete rather than conserve—we’ve actually started to get it right in a lot of places in recent years.

For examples, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, and Namibia are living examples of some of the world’s best fisheries management. Alaska is renowned for its sustainable salmon, crab, halibut, cod, and pollock industries. And thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the longstanding federal fisheries law), the U.S. is experiencing its lowest level of overfishing on record.

Success stories like this are possible, even in places where it may have never seemed conceivable. New research reveals that sustainably managed fisheries could increase wild fish catch around the world by enough to feed an additional half-billion people in the coming decades, tripling annual profits for fishing communities, and more than doubling global fish populations by 2050. Read that last part again: we have the tools at our disposal to double the amount of fish in the ocean within our lifetime.

This is already playing out in our own backyard, where better management and improved science have transformed the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery from federal disaster to sustainability success story. As a result, tens of millions of pounds of wild-caught rockfish and other species are now available to the U.S. market, but to date, not enough seafood consumers or buyers have taken note. It’s time we took advantage.

So just like we must get aquaculture right, we have no choice but to also get wild fisheries right if we are to be able to nutritiously feed billions of people while supporting an important and demanding livelihood.

And as I’m sure Barton would agree, seafood lovers and chefs are just as critical to that equation as talking fish-heads like us. So the next time you’re deciding what to eat, just remember that buying responsibly produced seafood—farmed or wild—makes you part of the solution. If enough of us make those choices, then the day when we can all sing that redemption song together isn’t far off.

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Timothy Fitzgerald directs the Impact Division of EDF’s Fishery Solutions Center. Learn more about his work at EDF.org.

Learn more about the JBF Impact programs.

The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.