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Reflections on the Future of Fish in a Changing Climate

June 6, 2022
Paul Greenberg shares insights into how to improve the health of global fish populations – and how seafood consumers can help

Paul Greenberg is the best-selling author of the James Beard Award-winning “Four Fish” and writer-in-residence at The Safina Center. A lifelong sport fisherman, Paul has traveled the globe researching the impact that overfishing, illegal fishing and climate change is having on people and the planet. I spoke with him about the greatest threats facing fish, the greatest opportunities to restore ocean health and the everyday steps seafood consumers can take to help improve the sustainability of fish populations and maintain healthy oceans.

What’s the most dangerous fishing practice most people don't know enough about right now?

When conservationists hone in on what’s to blame for overfishing and ocean degradation they often point the finger at bottom trawling since it can be indiscriminate in what’s caught and can destroy fish habitat in the process of harvest. But there’s a more under-the-radar bogeyman out there and that’s transshipment. A lot of fish are caught and then transshipped to floating processing vessels which can more or less erases provenance – we don’t know where the catch has come from. What we are striving for is a world in which we know exactly what we're eating and exactly how it was caught.

"I think the most dangerous trend is consumers just not really having any idea where their seafood is coming from," says James Beard award-winning author Paul Greenberg.

What is the most worrisome consumer trend in seafood?

I think the most dangerous trend is consumers just not really having any idea where their seafood is coming from. They may be eating illegally caught fish that has traded hands so many different times that it's nearly impossible to trace. By kind of sleepwalking and choosing seafood based on what's cheap, we often don't honor the sustainability that we'd like to see become the norm.

What is one thing American seafood consumers can do to help improve sustainability of fish populations and healthier oceans?

The United States has some of the most well-managed fisheries in the world. So, a very simple thing to do is just buy American if you can. If you want to get more fine-scale, eat smaller fish like sardines and anchovies. They actually make very nutritious, low-carbon, low-impact meals. Similarly, favoring farmed bivalves like mussels, clams and oysters is not a bad way to focus your seafood eating habit. All of those species come to market with a minimal carbon footprint. They have very high nutrient levels, high omega-3 levels and under the right conditions can contribute to ecosystem health.

What fish are you eating right now and why?

I went vegan for a number of years but I recently decided to put fish back into my diet. I eat sockeye salmon from the Bristol Bay region in Alaska. I also recommend clams, mussels, oysters as well as small pelagic fish like anchovies and sardines, for the reasons I just mentioned. Finally, I eat the fish that I catch. I follow the regulations when I go fishing. I know the fisheries from which I harvest fish, so I feel comfortable eating those fish. I live in New York City and will often take the ferry to Rockaway Beach. I've become friendly with the fishing community out there and I will fish for striped bass, porgies, tautog and a few other fish.

You grew up fishing. Knowing the challenges facing fish populations globally, why do you still fish?

I have a very deep emotional connection to fishing. When I'm at the shore, I'm always looking for birds diving for fish, so I can see the actual ecosystem in action. What I like about fishing is that it makes me feel like I am participating in the whole ecosystem. I fish for a prescribed period of time to take home a meal, which I think is in keeping with our historical role as omnivores in the ecosystem.

What can we do to ensure our consumption of seafood isn't contributing to climate change?

Wild fish, from a carbon perspective, can be an incredible bargain. We don't have to grow them. They come to us fully formed—a veritable gift of nature. Species like Alaska pollack, which are often in your Filet-O-Fish sandwich, are caught in midwater trawls. They have a low carbon footprint. As consumers, we can avoid imported fresh fish. A lot of the carbon footprint from seafood comes from flying fresh fish around the world. When you freeze a fish, you don't have to fly it. You can put it on a boat and ship it, resulting in a fraction of the carbon footprint per mile as airfreighting. With today’s freezing technology, you really don't notice a major quality difference between a well-frozen fish and a fresh fish.

Where do you see signs of hope for the health of fish and the health of our oceans?

The United States’ ability to manage its fisheries well is a pretty strong signal that the fisheries can be managed. I also think we're seeing hopeful signs about action to limit fishery subsidies, which end up keeping vessels fishing a stock that's already overfished.

What concerns you most about how climate change is impacting fish and oceans?

The death of coral reefs due to bleaching events is going to cut a sizable portion of fisheries off the table, since tropical fish often rely on coral reefs. Further north, warming ocean temperatures in places like the Gulf of Maine are going to cause very rapid movement of fish stocks. There are indications that Maine lobsters are moving north. The big question is whether fisheries management can move at the same pace as climate change – to make sure we have the right rules for the right regions and the right fish, at the right time.

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