I remember growing up being treated to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips restaurant only every once in a while. It was good fish; but, as a kid I didn’t know what kind of fish it was and I didn’t really care about such things. Fish was fish, and the oceans were full of them – right?

I remember growing up being treated to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips restaurant only every once in a while. It was good fish; but, as a kid I didn’t know what kind of fish it was and I didn’t really care about such things. Fish was fish, and the oceans were full of them – right?

Actually, back then (I shant tell you how far back that was…) the oceans probably were full of fish.

It’s scary to think about how much has changed not only within my lifetime, but within the last few decades.

Due to overharvesting, habitat destruction, illegal fishing, and bycatch, fish populations worldwide have drastically declined (Bycatch is the process of accidentally catching up fish, seaturtles, dolphins, and other marine life, other than what you were fishing for. Bycatch wildlife are thrown back either dead or dying).

Just within the past few years fish that were common household names (like cod, halibut, tuna, and tilapia) are in serious trouble.

Overharvesting is the single biggest threat to wild fish populations. Worldwide more than 75 percent of the fisheries are either overexploited or have already collapsed. Across the globe, fishing boats are harvesting more than two and a half times the sustainable level. Simply put – we are taking them out faster than they can reproduce.

Like many things in life, it seems that what we can’t have is what we want the most. International fish management agencies report that nearly one quarter of all fish caught are taken illegally. How does this happen? Mainly by pirate fishermen (we typically call them poachers) who fish outside the boundaries of the management plan set by national laws. They also harvest undersized fish, during closed seasons (usually when fish are spawning), using illegal methods, or through over-limit.

You may have heard the story of the Chilean sea bass. These fish have been particularly affected by poachers. A slow-growing fish that breeds late in life, the future of the sea bass is threatened. Recently, I saw sea bass on a menu at a local restaurant. I was fairly surprised and explained to our server the threatened status of this fish and asked where it came from. After our server checked with the chef, she said that it was farm raised. Nope, sea bass are not farm raised. This restaurant, with a reputation for excellent seafood, went down in my opinion considerably. I haven’t eaten there since. 

You may have heard of the traumas of bycatch and just not known the technical name for it. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals are needlessly killed annually through this method of harvest. Longlines and bottom trawls cover huge distances in the ocean, some dragging 50 miles or more.

By the time the fishermen haul in the lines, they realize they’ve caught sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and sea birds. Trawls are basically big nets that drag on the ocean floor picking up everything in their path and causing massive habitat destruction. The numbers are devastating, and depressing. Nearly 20 percent of the world’s shark species are near extinction, primarily as a result of longlines and, as many as 250,000 sea turtles are caught annually in bycatch.

Adhering to proper management methods, legal fishing, and observing thoughtful fish purchasing could help turn around the desperate situation of our fisheries. The Alaska Salmon is a good example. Not too long ago, the future of this fish was threatened. Through careful management, concerned fishermen, and a conscientious public, the Alaska Salmon is doing fine and back on the safe list.

Missouri may be far away from the nearest ocean, but the choices we make at the restaurant and grocery store affect world populations of fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, has a Seafood Watch Card. You can download this card, print it, and carry it in your wallet; they also have a version which you can download to your IPhone. Then when you’re looking at a menu, you don’t have to feel guilty for choosing a tasty fish and wondering if it’s a threatened species.

With some effort we could keep the diversity of fish around for a long time – I hope long enough that I could take my grandchildren out for fish and chips!