The price of seafood rises when it is overfished.

Current overfishing problems are well-known by the inhabitants of coastal areas such as the North Shore, Chesapeake Bay, and Florida coast. Many of our readers may remember the days when abalone were caught off the west coast by anyone, in any amount, and sold dirt cheap along the California coast. It wasn’t inflation that put abalone at $500 per dozen in 1993 (according to a U.C. Davis publication), it was overfishing. As relatively unknown seafood becomes popular and demand rises, it becomes a profitable business for commercial fishermen. This can cause a sudden dip in population as in California and Alaska, where strict limits have had to be instituted to save what remains of local abalone.

If you are buying abalone at a market or in a store, ask if it is wild caught or farm raised. For example, Monterey Abalone Company raises abalone for sale, so buying from them does not have any effect on wild populations. In many cases, a farm-raised alternative can be a better choice if you are concerned about overfishing. Farm raising comes with its own environmental and health impacts however. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Center provides lists of recommended fish to eat without damaging the environment, either by overfishing, trawling, or pollution caused by certain types of farming. For the west coast, a few good bets are pacific cod, farmed shellfish, Alaska salmon, pacific sardines, California spiny lobster, and Oregon pink shrimp. Stay away from imported king crab, U.S. dogfish, monkfish, imported mahi mahi, marlin, farmed salmon, and shark. For tuna, the general rule is to look for tuna that was caught by pole fishing or trolling.

Always ask where the fish is coming from, as many countries do not have protections against overfishing or destructive types of fishing, such as muroami, pelagic driftnets, and bottom trawls, which harm coral and sea grass habitats. With the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries were instructed to patrol their own waters and become responsible for overfishing there. The U.N. has also banned large pelagic driftnets entirely, but again enforcement is a difficult issue. Muroami is the exotic name of a terrible practice where fishermen simply smash coral reefs by dropping a large rock onto them repeatedly. This forces out the fish, which can then be caught. Muroami is second in destructiveness only to fishing using explosives – called blast fishing. According to the FAO, many places in Southeast Asia are still using these techniques. Thus, if there is no overfishing problem with the local seafood, it’s best to eat fish that were caught according to the stricter regulations of your area.

The Chesapeake Bay is a current example showing how U.S. legislation follows population.

Blue crab and oysters are widely loved delicacies that are becoming more and more scarce in the Chesapeake and Atlantic coastal areas. As is often the case with a dwindling population, size limits, prohibited areas, number limits, and restrictions on the method of fishing have all been used to curtail the overfishing of blue crabs and oysters. For the last few years, the minimum size of a caught blue crab has been growing and growing. Conservationists also seed new oyster beds in no-fishing areas to allow them to grow to maturity.

The real problem is the same as most cases of overfishing. People have invested their lives in a fishing business, and every new restriction makes their career less and less profitable even as finding the catch becomes harder. So legislation proceeds slowly to avoid bankrupting the people while not allowing the animal to be overfished to extinction. Consumers can help by shifting the market toward more sustainable seafood in the Chesapeake region. This includes eating farmed catfish and shellfish, dungeness and stone crab, U.S. tilapia, summer flounder, farmed trout and wild salmon. Stay away from imported crayfish, conch, sole, non-summer flounder, halibut, grouper, skate, red snapper, and tilefish.

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