Milwaukee County Zoo
Sustainably sourced seafood is defined as seafood from environmentally responsible fisheries or fish farms. Fish are the last wild animals being hunted on a commercial scale. As catch methods continue to improve, we are able to fish more deeply and thoroughly than ever before, leaving many populations of popular fish dwindling in numbers and disappearing from their historic range. A change in these trends must be effected in order to maintain our ocean ecosystem in perpetuity.
Why should we care?
Many threats to the perpetual health of our planet can overwhelm even the most environmentally minded individual. Global climate change, habitat loss, mass extinction events that are unprecedented in recorded history, waste management and pollution plague our natural world. With such a barrage of issues, why should ocean conservation be viewed as an important topic? Globally, our oceans are being depleted by unsustainable fishing practices, habitat destruction and pollution. This threat affects not only ocean health, but others that would rely on its resources. There are seventeen different species of Penguin on our planet, thirteen are considered endangered or threatened. In many cases pressures due to habitat or food scarcity further impede their ability to recover. Species worldwide depend on healthy oceans but it should be considered that humans require perpetual ocean health as well. Fisheries, economies and families benefit directly from attention to ocean conservation.
Our Natural Resources are not free
Ecosystems such as Coral reefs provide important marine habitat, offering nurseries and shelter for marine life. Reefs also provide a buffer for the coastline from major storm events. As hurricanes become more of a threat due to changes in the global climate, these infrastructure barriers become more and more valuable in coastline preservation. Reefs are also natural reservoirs that sequester carbon. By utilizing carbon in the atmosphere to create the rocky infrastructure that hard corals bind to, the carbon is effectively sunk into the structure indefinitely. These structures can store up to five times more carbon than a tropical forest. Coral reefs are also valuable for commercial and recreational fishing industries. Along with the financial boost from the tourism industry, they provide an enormous input to economies. In fact, the value of the living resources that reefs alone provide is an estimated $375 billion U.S. Dollars per year.
There are three main issues that are reviewed by researchers assessing sustainability, Over-fishing, bycatch and habitat damage. Each of these issues is considered carefully by seafood watch researchers for the negative impact on the environment when reviewing fishing practices.
Nearly eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity. Approximately 90 million tons of fish are extracted each year. Species such as tuna, swordfish and shark are estimated to have roughly ten percent of their populations remaining. Many fish cannot reproduce quickly enough to keep up with the demand. In some cases, animals under these pressures even mature at smaller sizes so that reproduction remains possible. North Atlantic Cod are thought to be at one percent of their historic population, at best. Atlantic bluefin tuna are gone from most of their range. Ocean white-tip and silky sharks have declined by ninety-nine percent in the Gulf of Mexico. These startling trends suggest little option for these species to rebound.
Bycatch is defined as any marine life unintentionally caught. For every one pound of shrimp an upwards of five pounds of other marine life is caught. Pelagic long-lining targets swordfish and tuna but frequently catches seabirds, marine mammals, sharks and sea turtles. These animals often perish before the nets are hauled in. By-catch is routinely discarded back into the ocean and remains unused.
Trawls and dredgers are types of nets that dragged along the sea floor, typically to catch shrimp. These methods destroy sponges, corals and other living infrastructure. Bottom trawlers drag their nets along million square kilometers annually. This is an area greater than all of the forests cleared each year. The same areas are often dredged several times per year which leaves slow establishing coral reefs no time to recover or rebuild. Loss of this infrastructure is significant as fish use these for shelter, foraging and reproduction.
Fish Farming and mercury loads
Fish farming can also be problematic as this practice is frequently linked with high diseases and parasite presence. Due to an often-high concentration of the farmed fish, a high bioload of waste dumping occurs in one area. Open-net pen fish farming also results in many cases, releases of invasive species into new areas.
Mercury from human industrial activity collects in waterways and then bio-accumulates in popular predators that consume other fish. Animals like shark, swordfish and Tuna often have very high levels of mercury and can cause health problems for those that would consume them.
With so many compounding issues it can be dizzying for even the most conscientious of consumers to make informed sustainable choices. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program was established in 1999 to present comprehensive directives for ocean stakeholders. Seafood Watch researchers work with fisheries to determine which follow best catch practices. Researchers also consider current ocean life population trends and along with catch methods, determine if an animal is being over-fished or caught in a manner that is not environmentally responsible. These assessments become recommendations for consumers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the commercial seafood industry.
In 2013, The Milwaukee County Zoo joined over one hundred partner institutions and became a Conservation Outreach Partner (COP) with the Seafood Watch Program. As a COP, the Zoo commits to educate and provide guidance to zoo visitors in ocean conservation issues. The Zoo has fulfilled this commitment through several avenues. Ocean conservation is promoted on graphics in the Aquatic & Reptile Center and will be available for guests near the penguin and harbor seal exhibits in the future. Sustainable seafood information can also be found in the Zoo restaurant. Whenever possible, sustainable seafood is sourced for zoo guests and collection animals. The Education Department also features sustainable seafood messaging in several programs including “Treasure of the sea” and “A Tale of two hemispheres”.
Another crucial component of public education happens with volunteers and staff interacting directly with guests. In cooperation with Zoo staff, Zoo Pride volunteers have formed the Seafood Watch committee. Wielding handouts, pocket guides and ocean life figurines, volunteers go forth and regularly promote the sustainable seafood message with zoo guests. Direct interaction engenders environmentally responsible thinking among zoo guests.
Milwaukee County Zoo also holds ocean conservation events and will continue to work with the public to make this issue an important one amidst our conservation initiatives.
For more information on how to effect change in this important issue please review the www.seafoodwatch.org website.
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