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A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish

I suppose you might call me a wild-fish snob. I don’t want to go into a fish market on Cape Cod and find farm-raised salmon from Chile and mussels from Prince Edward Island instead of cod, monkfish or haddock. I don’t want to go to a restaurant in Miami and see farm-raised catfish from Vietnam on the menu but no grouper.

Those have been my recent experiences, and according to many scientists, it may be the way of the future: most of the fish we’ll be eating will be farmed, and by midcentury, it might be easier to catch our favorite wild fish ourselves rather than buy it in the market.

It’s all changed in just a few decades. I’m old enough to remember fishermen unloading boxes of flounder at the funky Fulton Fish Market in New York, charging wholesalers a nickel a pound. I remember when local mussels and oysters were practically free, when fresh tuna was an oxymoron, and when monkfish, squid and now-trendy skate were considered “trash.”

But we overfished these species to the point that it now takes more work, more energy, more equipment, more money to catch the same amount of fish — roughly 85 million tons a year, a yield that has remained mostly stagnant for the last decade after rapid growth and despite increasing demand.

Still, plenty of scientists say a turnaround is possible. Studies have found that even declining species can quickly recover if fisheries are managed well. It would help if the world’s wealthiest fish-eaters (they include us, folks) would broaden their appetites. Mackerel, anyone?

It will be a considerable undertaking nonetheless. Global consumption of fish, both wild and farm raised, has doubled since 1973, and 90 percent of this increase has come in developing countries. (You’ll sometimes hear that Americans are now eating more seafood, but that reflects population growth; per capita consumption has remained stable here for 20 years.)

The result of this demand for wild fish, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, is that “the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached.”

One study, in 2006, concluded that if current fishing practices continue, the world’s major commercial stocks will collapse by 2048.

Already, for instance, the Mediterranean’s bluefin tuna population has been severely depleted, and commercial fishing quotas for the bluefin in the Mediterranean may be sharply curtailed this month. The cod fishery, arguably one of the foundations of North Atlantic civilization, is in serious decline. Most species of shark, Chilean sea bass, and the cod-like orange roughy are threatened.

Scientists have recently become concerned that smaller species of fish, the so-called forage fish like herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines that are a crucial part of the ocean’s food chain, are also under siege.

These smaller fish are eaten not only by the endangered fish we love best, but also by many poor and not-so-poor people throughout the world. (And even by many American travelers who enjoy grilled sardines in England, fried anchovies in Spain, marinated mackerel in France and pickled or raw herring in Holland — though they mostly avoid them at home.)

But the biggest consumers of these smaller fish are the agriculture and aquaculture industries. Nearly one-third of the world’s wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil. (To make matters worse, as much as a quarter of the total wild catch is thrown back — dead — as “bycatch.”)

“We’ve totally depleted the upper predator ranks; we have fished down the food web,” said Christopher Mann, a senior officer with the Pew Environmental Group.

Using fish meal to feed farm-raised fish is also astonishingly inefficient. Approximately three kilograms of forage fish go to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon; the ratio for cod is five to one; and for tuna — the most beef-like of all — the so-called feed-to-flesh ratio is 20 to 1, said John Volpe, an assistant professor of marine systems conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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