The Valuable Fish We Consume

Many fishes are delicious. Grocery stores sell a variety of fresh, frozen and canned fish as well as derivative products such as Omega-3. Once exotic and rare in the U.S., sushi containing raw and cooked fishes is practically a fast food. The selections made possible by international trade and cultural exchange are remarkable. But there's a tradeoff - gains come at the expense of wild fishes whose numbers are dwindling. Even farmed fishes take their toll on wild stocks because there is no truly free lunch in biological systems.

Packages of frozen fish at a supermarket in Ireland.
Packages of frozen fish in a supermarket in Ireland. Photographer and © Diane Duane.

Changes at the grocery store - consumer choice or shortage of fish? It varies by species. That consumer response to concerns about fishes such as Swordfish and Chilean Seabass could made a difference at the fish counter is promising. Instead of wild fishes, we consume more farmed fishes, giving us hope about the possible, but these are isolated successes. The larger problem of avoiding depletion of many fish stocks remains. But what's the right thing to do? We need to eat something, fishermen need jobs, and we only have so much time and money. Choosing to act wisely requires information about specific populations of fishes and making priorities.

Packages of frozen fish at a supermarket in Ireland.
Packages of frozen fish in a supermarket in Ireland. Photographer and © Diane Duane.

Not long ago - before the beginning of the 90's, fish counters stocked lots of halibut, swordfish and cod. As tastes and the reach of global commercial fishing expanded, fishes such as Orange Roughy, Thresher Shark and Chilean Seabass appeared in local supermarkets. Today these fishes are less common and in there place, we find more farmed species such as Atlantic salmon, tilapia, catfish, and new arrivals like basa and swai which are both catfishes from Asia.

The dwindling catch - Although not the same as counting fishes where they live, variations in year-to-year catch can track population variations. Populations can vary for natural reasons that are part of the normal life cycles of certain fishes, or in response to naturally-occuring climate cycles such as El Niño. Populations of sardines are naturally cyclic.

But for fishes such as Orange Roughy and Thresher Sharks, overfishing may be the primary cause of the dwindling catch. Fishing to near depletion has been a recurring theme, affecting fishes that were once common such as Atlantic Cod. Managment of fisheries and allocation of a sustainable catch involves international coordination because many marine fishes swim through many waters. Recent tagging programs reveal that fishes like Bluefin Tuna and Great White Sharks travel thousands of miles over annual and multiyear migrations. Since fish don't recognize protected areas, protecting them in one place but not the other wouldn't work.


Has the fish selection at the grocery store changed noticeably over time?

What is the most fished commercial fish in the world?

How many fish can we harvest without eroding next year's catch? Making that determination is a fishery mangers task. Which fish are so few that their numbers are too low to sustain current rates of fishing? Which fish reproduce faster?

To decide what's most important, we need basic information about fishes That information includes how many fishes there are, how fast they reproduce, and what they need to survive. We've tried to find useful information where you can start to find answers to these questions.

Whether individual anglers, aquarists, recreational divers, gourmets, citizen scientists, or nature-lovers; or groups representing commercial fisheries, grocery stores, restaurants, resorts, governments and conservation groups, and whether we belong to more than one group, we all need the fishes to be there.

Highlighted on this page -

  • The unfamiliar fishes we consume and utilize.
  • How much we fish and how it's changed over time.
  • The growth in farm-raised fishes.
  • Polluting the fish we eat.
  • Native and non-native species in local streams and rivers.

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What we catch     show

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It takes food to make food     show

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The scale of modern fishing     show

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Where we fish     show

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Keeping fishes edible     show

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Recreational fishing     show