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Speak Up! The Fish Can't Hear You

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At lunch with a new acquaintance the other day and the guy orders Chilean sea bass. I almost coughed my water all over him. He looked at me. The waiter looked at me. I folded.

At lunch with a new acquaintance the other day and the guy orders Chilean sea bass.

I almost coughed my water all over him. He looked at me. The waiter looked at me. I folded.

What am I supposed to say? “Chilean sea bass is totally over fished, you dolt,” or “Sure, and I’ll have the grilled right whale with whooping crane sauce and a bowl of mountain gorilla soup to start.”

Maybe I should have said something, but I had just met the guy and it felt awkward, so I gritted my teeth and stared at the menu. How could he not know? Come to think of it, how could this popular restaurant not know? Chilean sea bass, or Patagonian tooth fish, is one of the most overfished species on the planet. In just one decade it has gone from being completely unknown to being a staple item on restaurant menus across North America. To feed that demand, stocks are hammered and scientists are worried that we’ll eat this species to extinction.

When Chilean sea bass stocks collapse, we’ll go after the fish that our fish of choice used to eat for its dinner, points out University of British Columbia fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly. When they’re gone, we’ll move another step down the food chain. At this rate, Dr. Pauly says, we’ll be eating jellyfish.

We’re eating up the food chain, too. Sharks used to be a minor player in global fisheries, but with the loss of other stocks and the surge in popularity of shark fin soup, they are hit hard. A recent study found that populations of many species have plummeted by 75 percent in just 15 years.

So what do we do? On the surface, farming fish may seem like a sensible alternative to catching wild fish. But farming salmon in floating net cages spreads disease and leads to the excessive use of chemicals and drugs. That’s no answer.

Clearly, we need to manage fish stocks better. We also need to create marine protected areas where fishing is not allowed, to give fish a safe haven where they can reproduce and grow. That’s great. But most people don’t manage fish stocks, so what can the average person do? Obviously, avoiding eating threatened or endangered fish is a start, but what else?

Simple. Tell other people. After that lunch I e-mailed the guy who ordered Chilean sea bass and told him the fish’s story. He was aghast. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. Good question. Then I e-mailed the restaurant and told them I was disappointed to see it on the menu.

A little information goes a long way. If people know a fish is threatened, most will avoid it. If restaurateurs receive enough complaints, they’ll look for more sustainable options. When they do that, demand goes down and the fish get a much needed break.

So speak up. From now on, I will.

Don’t Order or Buy These Fish

  • Chilean sea bass
  • Farmed salmon
  • Monkfish
  • Shark
  • Imported or trawled shrimp
  • Wild sturgeon
  • Atlantic swordfish
  • Bluefin tuna
  • Orange roughy
  • Beluga caviar
  • Lingcod

Better Fish Choices

  • Wild salmon, including most canned
  • Sardines
  • Oysters
  • Freshwater trout
  • Farmed catfish
  • Black cod/sablefish
  • Halibut
  • Clams and mussels
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