• WorldView
  • 19 Min Read
  • 1 Feb 2017

Should I Stop Eating Fish?

Global efforts to protect our depleted ocean ecosystems present difficult choices for a world that depends on the consumption of fish.  Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

My seafood vs. wildlife conundrum about fish really started about two years ago, when I started traveling the world with a partner who shares my deep love of the ocean. We began exploring, ocean by ocean. The more I saw, the more I learned. We witnessed pristine seas, rich in wildlife, but commonly saw destroyed ocean ecosystems. The more I experienced, the more I felt both strong love and awe for the ocean, and also a heavy concern for the loss of fish and ocean destruction. Over 70% of the earth is covered in ocean, and reports point to the fact that ocean fish populations have been cut in half since 1970. That’s a lot of life on earth lost.

Where did all the fish go? We have consumed them. Nearly three billion people rely on fish as an important source of protein. The trend seems to be: eat the big fish. When they are depleted, eat smaller fish. When they are gone, only the smallest edible fish will remain, and we will, out of necessity, eat them. Eventually, all of them. Until the fishermen catch what they refer to as “the last fish.” Scientists refer to this chain reaction as “fishing down the food chain.” In the 1870s, Atlantic cod were so abundant in the North Atlantic Ocean that it was a popular belief that one could walk across the ocean on the backs of cod fish and never get wet. Today, there is barely a geographical area in the world unspoiled by fishing and containing primeval, non-exploited fish populations and intact ecosystems. Aside from a few remote, far-off reaches of the globe, most places are missing their stars of the sea.

There are still some spectacular exceptions to this devastating trend. Hope spots: places where you see and experience biomass as it swirls around you and the abundance darkens the waters above. It is in these areas, mostly “no-take” protected zones and remote areas far from humans, that I began to understand what it felt like to be a fish. I saw life through their eyes—sometimes looking into their eyes. Because of this connection, I then lamented the loss of these creatures at a personal level—something I had never experienced. But my heartache soon turned to hope and a new determination to take action to inspire others to understand the fragility of these ecosystems and work toward solutions.

Recently, I dove in the Galápagos, a place found to have the largest shark abundance in the world. Healthy oceans need sharks. Marine biologists point to the presence of large predatory fish as a sign of the health and resilience of an ocean system. What I found in the Galápagos was biomass unlike anything I had ever seen—massive schools of fish, from the surface to the depths.

Lost in a school of small brown striped snappers, I submerge in their darkness, not seeing the light of the surface, no sense of up or down. Sharks circle, coming close and then disappearing … always keeping an eye on us, as we do the same to them. Sea lions dot the shores, and when not resting, they are playful torpedoes in the seas, performing unparalleled underwater acrobatics. When a school of eagle rays emerge from behind and glide by, looking into their eyes is looking into the soul of the ocean. My heart feels peace and pain. Approximately 1 in 4 species of sharks, rays and skates are now threatened with extinction, primarily due to overfishing, and the rest are threatened.

Despite the significant conservation legacy, which far surpasses that of most places in the world, the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador for decades have been impacted by overfishing, both legal and illegal. The legal local sea cucumber, lobster, and grouper fisheries have been heavily overexploited and depleted for years. This poses dire consequences for the fishing sector in the Galápagos, likely causing local fishermen to turn increasingly to illegal practices, such as shark finning, overfishing of tuna, and the illegal export of sea cucumbers. But it was the local fishermen themselves who spearheaded the efforts to create the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1998. They saw their livelihoods threatened by industrial and illegal fishing. The fishermen knew they would lose large parts of their system. They wanted more power and more local decision-making, and respected the idea of a multiple use reserve that would combine science, tourism, and fishing.

In a storyline becoming all too familiar around the world, the announcement of expanded “no-take” zoning plans for the marine protected areas (MPAs) of the Galápagos Islands in the Spring of 2016 created a frenzy in the local fishing community that spilled over into NGO (non-governmental/non-profit organization) positioning and governmental politics. The no-take designation, covering a full third of the marine reserve, forbids the removal of natural resources of any kind, including fish. Although not all are opposed to the existence or expansion of the marine reserve, the fishermen were primarily concerned over what they considered to be a hasty decision that did not involve their insight, and a perceived threat to their livelihood.

Pelayo Salinas de León, PhD is Senior Marine Ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation and on the front lines of saving the ocean treasure that is the Galápagos. “The Galapagos islands represent a window back in time of how rich oceans once were. The establishment of the no-take marine reserve has contributed to the conservation of sharks, tuna, and other large predatory fishes at risk globally due to continuous overfishing.” He also sees the need for attentive fisheries management in order to create a robust system. “We also know that unregulated artisanal fisheries can have a severe negative impact on slow-growing coastal species like groupers. Therefore, there is a need to implement artisanal fisheries management plans, including the implementation of large no-take areas, where exploited populations can recover.”

There has been a positive and exciting acceleration in the creation of large marine protected areas the past several years, including the expansion of global no-take zones. The number of marine protected areas is increasing monthly as people race toward the goal of 10% protection by 2020, or 30% by 2030. The tremendous momentum of efforts to protect the world’s ocean led the headlines in the past year, including announcements in Chile, United States, Russia, French Polynesia, United Kingdom, Palau, and New Zealand, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Philippines, and Colombia.

But there remains the volatile delineation of no-take areas and intense discussion over best practice management. In the negotiation of an equitable share of assets in protected areas, fishermen and conservationists often come head to head. One side talks in benefits of animal abundance, biomass, and ocean health, the other talks of economic and physical survival. And there are different categories of fishermen weighing in; the main ones being local community non-commercial food fisheries, small-scale coastal industrial fisheries, sport fisheries, and of course, large-scale industrial commercial fisheries. Conservationists run the gamut between adamant no-take supporters to strategists re-envisioning the practice of fishing on a global scale, and everything in between. Achieving economic and ecological stability and sustainability for ocean communities is complex and challenging, but a challenge we must face collectively with openness, innovative thinking, and empathy. And quickly. The ocean doesn’t have an unlimited fish supply; ecosystems have their limits.

How do we protect places we deeply care about? How do we manage that protection? Do we look at fish as wildlife or as food, or maybe both? How can we be sure that there will continue to be fish in the sea? How can we respect the supportive commerce, particularly at a local level, that fishing has traditionally supplied communities? How do local fishing communities peacefully co-exist with their marine protected area? Protected areas are most often designated with different types of zoning which allow for various activities. Although exact numbers fluctuate depending on source, recent numbers point to approximately 4% of the world’s oceans under some form of protection, with approximately half of that designated no-take. At the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii in September 2016, there was significant debate in the corridors about this new focus on large MPAs versus multiple-use marine areas, community managed areas with fishermen, or smaller networks of no-take zones. People are questioning whether the large surface area percentage goal for MPAs is giving sufficient voice or analysis to reaching the most effective way to establish and enforce the MPAs, or how they are affecting local communities—economically and culturally.

Just before the event convened in Hawaii in August, President Obama made an announcement that created the largest protected area anywhere on Earth—a half-million-square-mile arc of remote Pacific waters covering the northwest Hawaiian Islands. With his announcement to quadruple Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument’s size, he extended the prohibition of commercial fishing out to the 200-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone. Conservationists internationally celebrated the big win for the ocean and Hawaii, but Hawaii’s commercial tuna fishing industry leaders still continue their adamant opposition. They cite economic challenges to fishermen, despite the fact that in reality, less than 5% of their fishing effort is in those areas that are now newly added to the expanded Monument. Perhaps they believe giving up this battle will only lead to further limits.

Indigenous rights stand alongside economic strife as some top opponents to no-take zones. Just across the Pacific Ocean in New Zealand, the Kermadec Marine Sanctuary, announced in September of 2015, has created a similar type of on-going uproar from local fishermen, in this case the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, the Māoris and their Te Ohu Kaimoana (the Māori Fisheries Commission). The Māori Party asserts that the establishment of the new marine reserve with its fishing zoning designations is in denial of previous fishing settlements established by treaty, stating their indigenous rights of access to fishing grounds. The topic of fishermen compensation (which is monetized using catch history as a basis) is also on the table, however the Te Ohu Kaimoana seem adamant that this discussion is about ensuring fishing rights, “perpetual rights” of an indigenous people, not about being paid off.

Alan Friedlander, Ph.D. and Chief Scientist of Pristine Seas of the National Geographic Society, points to the importance of protecting what is left of our global pristine sea area. “Remote ocean areas are the last intact functioning ecosystems we have, and give us a window into the past, prior to modern human extraction and thus providing baselines for comparisons with more exploited locations. While these areas are remote and unpopulated, they still embody important cultural connections to oceanic peoples, which are essential for effective management.” Through his work with the University of Hawaii, he has also been close to the expansion of the Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, “Papahānaumokuākea is a groundbreaking idea that management of a large scale protected area could recognize both natural resources and cultural resources. This bio-cultural approach has increased our understanding of the physical, spiritual, and intellectual functions and role of places to people.”

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, once said in discussing Alaska’s beauty and bounty, “We need to transition from extraction to attraction.” Shifting from resource extraction to attracting tourism is a lucrative strategy for many coastal areas. If done correctly in a minimally invasive manner that least affects the flora and fauna of a natural environment, tourism has been proven to be a good economic counter to income from fishing, particularly in already overfished zones. Ocean wildlife, in most cases, are worth more alive than dead. In a 2015 report that was co-authored by Enric Sala of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Program, researchers determined the value of a dead shark compared to that of a live one in the eco-system in the Galapagos. A dead shark provided $200 to its fishers, while its lifetime value was found to be $5 million dollars. Yes, that’s a difference of $4,999,800 financial benefit over the life of the shark, giving one pause over the old choice: “dead or alive.”

Proponents of no-take zones also point to the fact that the area’s increased long-term benefits will serve fishermen well for generations to come. A small marine protected area in Baja California Sur, Mexico, Cabo Pulmo National Park, is the poster child for such efforts. The biological richness of this North American gem of a reef was threatened in the latter half of the 20th century as artisanal, sport, and commercial fishers decimated fish populations. Concerned for the future of their reefs and livelihoods, local communities pressured the government to declare the region off-limits to fishing. Comprised mainly of fishermen and their families, the communities banded together twenty-five years ago to put their small bay under protection. They realized their seas were becoming bare, and changed focus to developing a flourishing tourism business. In 1995, with support from the University of Baja California Sur and the National Institute of Ecology, the marine area adjacent to Cabo Pulmo was declared a Natural Protected Area, with severe restrictions on fishing and other resource extraction. In 2000 the site, which includes 7,111 hectares (17,570 acres) containing the Cabo Pulmo Reef, was named the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Because of the efforts of this fishing community, in just two-plus decades, biomass has increased many-fold and the area now offers a series of zoned areas for diving and other recreational activities, and one of the most pristine reefs in the Americas for tourists to enjoy. In addition, the community has economically benefited from tourism efforts. All fishing—save for a few permits for local residents—takes place outside the park. Scientific monitoring has shown that fish biodiversity is growing in the park, while fish biomass in the park increased by over 460% between 1999 and 2009 alone. In the same time period, the biomass of top predators such as groupers increased by 11 times. This has been made possible by a stringent no-take policy that has been effectively enforced by local residents, who recognize the value that ecotourism and conservation of marine resources can provide over the long-term. Because of these numbers, adjacent waters to the park are also proving to be more lucrative for the local fishing community.

Last January, I had the opportunity to see first-hand what Cabo Pulmo represented. On our second dive our dive master said, “Now we find the jacks!” I had no idea that this seemingly trivial goal would turn into the most powerful moment I had ever experienced in the ocean. Trained as a fisherman, he saw an almost imperceptible change on the water surface.

We quickly descend. My heart skips many beats as I first see a coordinated mass of tens of thousands of large, shimmery jacks moving in synchrony. Soon we are in the middle of them, suddenly part of their dance. I can’t believe my eyes. To see such an expansive school of large fish … feel what life was like before the net. When we surface we are speechless.

We experienced the beating heart of a healthy, vibrant ocean, an ocean that had returned from complete devastation. My baseline had radically shifted and my commitment to do whatever I could to promote ocean health elevated exponentially. I knew it wasn’t too late to make the changes that make a difference. For me, it wasn’t a choice, but an imperative.

So to the fisherman trying to survive, keep his livelihood, and raise his family? He is rarely thinking long-term; he is thinking about how his family is going to be fed today. But a shift of thinking is a necessary component to solving the global ocean health crisis. Juan Castrano, born in 1947, is a local fisherman born and raised in Cabo Pulmo. He was in the first generation of fishermen that made the decision to protect the reef and change the economic activity in Cabo Pulmo. “We realized at the end of the 1980s that we had to increase the effort to continue fishing, because we could not find the same amount and quality of fish close to our home. Around that time, we were visited by some tourists that wanted us to take them to visit and dive on the reef! My brother Jesús told me that this was a better business than fishing because when we take the panga (small boat) to the water, we already have an income.” Soon professors and students from the University of Baja California Sur came to Cabo Pulmo and advised the community to ask the federal government to declare the reef as a marine protected area. There was a lot of discussion in the community about this matter, but in the end, the group decided to protect the reef.

Wouldn’t more fish in the sea solve everyone’s problems? It’s easy to see that the long-term value for a society is when a whole system is healthier and more robust. More and more examples are showing that in cases of preservation and protection, if a system is allowed to replenish itself, it will end up being of greater benefit to all people as well as itself. The stronger marine environments are, the more resilient they will be to any type of change- climate change, pollution, toxins, ocean acidification, warming sea temperatures … to name a few villains. The keys to successful MPAs rest in community involvement, scientific alignment, long-term sustainable financing, and political support. And as challenges become exponentially greater with larger areas of ocean, enforcement is a crucial component of protection. Smart fishermen around the world are realizing that the status quo, in regards to fishing, is just not going to cut it anymore. In Cabo Pulmo, Juan Castrano and his family have seen first-hand the benefits of successful no-take MPAs. “More than twenty years later, our families have grown and have a better quality of life! Our sons and grandsons have better opportunities. And the reef is in very good shape, according to the studies made by the University. I know now that it was a hard decision, but the right one.”

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has recently announced a campaign heralding “fishing rights” curbing overfishing by working with fisheries to institute rights-based management. Fishermen under this model have become highly motivated to become stewards of their oceans. In 2011, EDF teamed up with local partners and other environmental groups in Belize to help local fishermen transition to a different management system. Fishermen get dedicated rights to fish, in exchange for respecting vulnerable no-take zones and other regulations. The fishermen collaborate on self-enforcement, submitting catch data for accountability. They also extend the reach of underfunded officials as rangers or custodians. Since program implementation in 2011, fishermen report their catches have gone up and illegal fishing has dropped 60%. Pleased with the results, thousands of Belizean fisherman asked for a nationwide system of rights-based management, and in June of 2016, the government implemented the program nationwide. EDF believes that by spreading this model of fishing rights around the world, we could double the amount of fish in the sea by 2050, increase fishermen profits three fold, and increase seafood production to feed an additional half billion people around the world. Changing the policies and practices of just twelve nations would get 70% of the world’s catch under managed rights, tipping the system toward sustainability.

Brett Jenks, President & CEO of Rare Foundation, is leading some cutting-edge efforts to reform global fishery management and believes the path forward is a smart synergy. “Pitting protected areas against sound fishery management creates a false dichotomy. We need both. MPAs don’t necessarily benefit people and fishery management doesn’t necessarily benefit local habitats,” he states. “But well-designed fishery management regimes, in concert with well-designed marine protected areas, are an ideal combination.” The facts are clear and indisputable; fishers now spend more time at sea for smaller yields. A small-scale fisher who used to catch more than forty kilograms of fish per day can now expect to catch just three kilograms with the same amount of effort. Rare’s program Fish Forever approaches fishing communities at a grassroots level, empowering communities to manage their own fisheries and be part of the solution to enhancing their livelihood. With local communities exhibiting management authority over their coastal waters, a unique opportunity is presented by creating a system of exclusive access areas combined with fish recovery zones. Since 2009, Rare has partnered with more than 20 coastal municipalities in the Philippines to help their fisheries recover. This was achieved by building local capacity to strengthen fish recovery zones through better enforcement and monitoring activities — both critical components of the Fish Forever strategy, addressing the sociopolitical problem of open access and providing a mechanism to protect critical habitat that underpin coastal resources. Across Rare’s first twelve projects in the Philippines, the abundance of coastal fish species increased by an average of forty-seven percent within fish recovery zones in two years. All twelve sites increased community enforcement of their fish recovery zones, with most sites maintaining around-the-clock-monitoring. In 2013, Rare signed a memorandum of understanding with the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources to help communities establish sustainable fishing practices in the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape.

Meanwhile back in the Galápagos Islands, fishermen, NGO’s, and the government are currently in the midst of a year of mediation surrounding the designation of zoning rights within the expanded Galápagos Marine Reserve … further efforts to create best practices in the combination of science, tourism, and fishing in marine protected areas. The key to success will be openness, innovative thinking, and empathy, as well as good science and economics rooted in equity. Certainly the makings of a great model for the world to “catch” onto.


For an analysis on the health of our marine world and the impact of human activity on it please review the World Wildlife Fund Living Blue Planet Report 2015.

Kristin Hettermann is a writer and photographer. Through her consulting entity, Grace Delivers, she strives to share positive stories, document the earth and its cultures, inspire people to explore, and raise awareness for important causes–particularly the protection and restoration of the world’s oceans. Follow Kristin on Twitter and Instagram @gracedelivers and visit Grace Delivers.