The Secret Lives of Fisheries Scientists

IMG_7965_2OK, so I figure that since I mentioned sustainable seafood in my last post, and also because I said I’d discuss it in future posts, there’s no reason for me not to write about it now. (Holy negatives, Batman. Sorry, must be Monday…) I’ll try to keep it simple and include a nice practical application (i.e. dinner) at the end.


In a general sense, the term sustainable is probably the biggest environmental buzzword of the 2000s. Well, maybe it’s tied with climate change. And fair trade is gaining momentum. At any rate, people toss around sustainable in relation to pretty much any and every natural resource. But I’ve come to realize that, in many cases, this word is both poorly defined and understood. And, sometimes, it’s just downright misused. And while sustainability is only one very, very small piece of the complicated mess that is global fisheries, it’s still an important concept—for anyone who eats seafood.

For fisheries—in its simplest biological terms—sustainability refers to the exploitation of a natural (wild) fish stock such that in catching a certain number of fish, fishermen* are not compromising the stock’s ability to produce the same level of catch in the future. Naturally, fish stocks produce more fish every year than are needed to replace those lost through natural causes (e.g. predation by orcas), so as long as fishermen catch only this excess, then the size of the stock will be maintained indefinitely. (Well, barring any serious environmental changes. But that’s another topic…)

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And while this seems pretty intuitive, many of the world’s fish stocks are actually being overfished (a.k.a. overexploited). You probably guessed it, but just so we’re all on the same page: overfishing occurs when fishermen take more fish from a stock than are produced in surplus. This is unsustainable because it causes the stock’s size to decreases and, if fishing pressure isn’t reduced to allow for recovery, the fishery could ultimately be driven to commercial extinction. Atlantic cod: perfect example. Unfortunately, in the case of the cod, despite efforts to reduce fishing (i.e., a moratorium since 1992), recovery to the level required for the resumption of a commercial fishery has not yet happened.

Not rocket science. Possibly harder. Not because it’s a difficult concept, but mostly because knowing the actual situation is nearly impossible. People can see when a forest has been chopped in half, but because fish are mobile and live in an inherently inaccessible habitat, studying and managing stocks is pretty tough. But, with what we do know right now, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations’ most recent SOFIA report estimates that 30% of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, 57% percent are fully exploited, and 13% are underexploited. Not good at all.

For most people though, fisheries management problems start and end with figuring out if the fish they’ve bought for dinner is actually a good (i.e., sustainable) choice. And if you want to cut out a lot of the uncertainty, a really good start would be in downloading the Ocean Wise app or picking up a little pocket guide from the Vancouver Aquarium. Luckily, many Canadian grocery stores and restaurants are also good featuring Ocean Wise seafood; so keep an eye out for the logo. It looks like this:


On a lighter note…

Last Friday, a good friend and colleague of mine, Wilf, hosted dinner for some Fisheries Centre folk. He provided a delicious homemade (and sustainable) fish chowder and everyone else brought equally tasty sides. The fish he used was quillback rockfish. And while rockfish are pretty common around here, I didn’t know this particular species. (On a personal note, I also think it’s only right that you know what the fish you’re eating actually looks like in the wild.) My Google image query was followed by two (very unique) chalk renditions. Which subsequently led to everyone contributing their artistic talents to complete a much larger chalk ecosystem. And all before we opened the wine…

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For anyone who likes cooking, the recipe Wilf used was largely improvised, but it was loosely based on this one. And, as mentioned above, it was an excellent choice.


 *I use the term fishermen here to denote both male and female fishers. There is a general consensus in the fisheries academic community that this is still acceptable. And, in talking with female fishermen here in BC, I’ve learned that they actually prefer being called fishermen instead of fishers. So, that’s what I’m going with.

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