TERRY GROSS, host:
These are hard times for fish lovers and for fish. Yesterday on our show, marine ecologist Daniel Pauly warned us about how industrial fishing, with the help of trawls as large as six jumbo jets, is depleting stocks of fish and changing the ecosystems of the oceans. As areas get fished out, industry boats move to deeper waters and more remote areas. Pauly says we're now at the last frontier of fishing, although not all experts are as pessimistic. Today, we're going to hear his suggestions about what fish to eat, which fish have the highest mercury content, and what about farmed fish?
Pauly is a professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia and principal investigator of its Sea Around Us Project.
Let's start with his suggestions about how to prevent more fish stock from being depleted. He opposes subsidizing fisheries because, in his opinion, this can be an incentive to continue overfishing. And he supports creating areas where the stock can recover and replenish themselves - marine protected areas or sanctuaries.
Professor DANIEL PAULY (Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia): The U.S. actually is doing this. In California, there is a system of marine protected areas. Parts of Alaska also are not going to be exploited, also. That is very positive measures. And in Hawaii - the Northwest and Hawaiian Island - there, stocks of fish can recover and repopulate the areas that are being fished.
The scientists tell you how much can be fished in a certain area. Listen to them. In most fisheries, once the scientists have said 10,000 tons can be fished there, the politicians say oh, we have to have 20,000 ton exploited because of social consideration. And this result in one year or two years of happiness so to say, but after that, stock goes and then it costs even more to maintain the fisheries that are being helped that way.
GROSS: I love fish and you're painting a very grim picture of our fish future. Let's talk about eating fish. You complain in your article that we continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. And you say eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. So you're saying we shouldn't be eating fish or we shouldn't be eating certain fish or shouldn't be eating as much fish?
Prof. PAULY: There's a big debate about that. And I'm not sure what I should answer because on one hand I very much sympathize with a notion that we should regulate our consumption to reflect our values. That's one thing. On the other hand, no fishery has ever been managed based on consumption patterns. They get reasonably managed when the government intervenes and say you should catch so much and we're going to have a surveillance program, we're going to have an observer on board to make sure that you do the things that you said you would do. Without a compliance and surveillance program, you cannot regulate fisheries, and I have problems linking the good intention of consumers with these surveillance programs.
GROSS: So in other words, good intentions of consumers - if I eat less fish, it's not going to stop the fisheries from continuing to fish out.
Prof. PAULY: That's the question I have. This is like I separate the paper from other garbage and I do all the good things and I drive a Prius. But I don't fool myself that it is going to - it's my contribution to global warming. This is a big problem. It can be addressed by big powers, and a big power is the government. I think we must act as citizens and not only as consumers.
GROSS: As consumers- I'll speak about myself here. I mean, I eat a lot of fish and I love, like, salmon and flounder and tilapia.
Prof. PAULY: So do I.
GROSS: Yeah, catfish is really good. And do you prefer as a consumer yourself choosing one fish over another because of your knowledge of which fish are depleted?
Prof. PAULY: Certainly. I - here, I live in British Columbia and I eat wild-caught salmon as opposed to farmed salmon. And...
GROSS: Can I stop you there? Why is that? You know, I go to the store and I always figure like farmed salmon, well, they're not going to run out because - they're not going to be depleted because they're farmed. I mean, they're just restocking the supply and, you know...
Prof. PAULY: Yeah, but to produce one pound of salmon, you need three pounds of other fish that are ground up and fed to them. The food that they eat is made out of other fish that are ground up. And these fish are perfectly edible. They are anchovies, sardines, herrings, mackerels and so on that are caught elsewhere. That's the first reason that people are not aware about farming. Fish farming cannot produce fish when it produce the equivalent of lions that need to be fed gazelles to produce their bodies. Fish farming is not producing fish. It's consuming fish.
Prof. PAULY: At least when it is the farming of carnivorous fish, of fish that eat other fish. On the other hand, when you eat a catfish, catfish are fed soymeal. Soymeal is a vegetable matter and you end up with a net fish production, but not with salmon.
GROSS: So farmed catfish are - eating that is better environmentally because...
Prof. PAULY: Yes.
GROSS: ...you're killing fewer fish.
Prof. PAULY: Yup.
GROSS: What about tilapia?
Prof. PAULY: Tilapia are herbivorous animals also. They consume algae and to the extent that they're not fed with fishmeal, as sometime happens, tilapia are environmentally very friendly.
GROSS: What other fish are environmentally friendly?
Prof. PAULY: Mussels, if you will count the shellfish. All bivalves -all oysters, mussels, clams and so on - are feeding at the bottom of the food web. They are good things.
GROSS: Do you think about mercury when you eat fish?
Prof. PAULY: Now, mercury comes from a consumption of fish on the top of food web - carnivores. And carnivores enrich the pollutants that accumulate in the bodies of the prey, and they are the worst accumulators of nasties like dioxin and PCBs - and mercury is one of them. And a dish like sushi or sashimi that in Japan was a festive dish that you ate from time to time has become something that some people eat regularly, even daily. And that is high risk - especially for pregnant woman, for example.
GROSS: Health-wise, are we better off eating smaller fish?
Prof. PAULY: Yeah, certainly. The anchovies, for example, they are very tasty and they don't bioaccumulate the pollutant that we talked about. So both in terms of taste and in terms of health, eating small fish is better for you.
GROSS: What other small fish should we be thinking about?
Prof. PAULY: Well, herring, sardine, anchovies, for example. In fact, in Europe if you go as a tourist to Germany, you will have matjes herring, herring in various forms, or in Spain and Portugal you will have all kind of sardines. And these fish are excellent.
GROSS: When you eat sardines, are they in a can or are they fresh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. PAULY: They can be in a can, they can be fresh, they can be grilled. In Spain they eat a lot of grilled Sardine.
GROSS: Daniel Pauly, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. PAULY: You're welcome.
GROSS: Daniel Pauly is a professor at the Fishery Center of the University of British Columbia and principal investigator of its Sea Around Us Project.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.