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Eat Small: Why our Big Fish Problem is leading to big fish problems. (VIDEO)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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We like big fish. And that’s a problem, according to Andy Sharpless, CEO of the ocean conservation organization Oceana, and co-author (along with Suzannah Evans) of the book The Perfect Protein. The book describes how regulations from a small group of countries, and a shift in the way we think about seafood, could ensure a sustainable source of healthy food for the future, even a future featuring 9 billion mouths to feed.

The ocean is a food-making machine. We don’t even have to do anything to it, like give it fresh water or fertilizer, clear forest land, or feed it. The ocean grows food, and we’re free to go on out there and get it.

Unfortunately, we have become a little too good at “getting it.” As productive as the sea is, we are well on our way to decimating its bounty. Fisheries across the world are a shade of their former abundance. We overfish, destroy habitat with sea floor-scraping trawlers, and toss out the less valuable creatures unfortunate enough to have to have strayed in front of our undiscerning nets.

Protections are needed. The good news,  Sharpless says, is that most of the worlds’s fisheries are under national control, and if those countries put sensible regulations in place, the oceans can begin to recover, and continue to feed a growing world population.

But regulations will need to be supported by consumers making more sensible decisions about the food they eat. Wealthier markets like the U.S. prefer the higher-value fish, the kinds that can be cut into steaks and filets (we love our grills and our sushi). In 2011, Americans ate 4.7 billion pounds of fish, about 90 percdent of it imported. Yet we caught about the same amount, in our own U.S.-based fisheries, only to ship it overseas, Sharpless says.

Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana

By eating more of the smaller forage fish, especially fish caught in our own waters, we get the benefit of a highly nutritious (as Julianne Wyrick explained a few weeks ago), tasty meal, while reducing the burdens placed on our food system that come from industrial fishing and land-based animal production. In one of many examples from the book, Sharpless points out that it takes five pounds of smaller feed fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. Imagine the relief on our food system, if more of us chose to skip the middleman (or fish) as it were, and go straight for the source. And they can be so good! If you look closely at the video above, you may find the ingredients to one tasty salad…

This video is the first in a short series of posts about how our oceans can help  feed us, if we do what is necessary to take care of them.

*NOTE: In the video Chef Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi prepares a some bluefish. Bluefish are actually voracious predators, but they are abundant and are underutilized as food. While not exactly the forage fish we’re talking about here, this shows us that there are a number of ways we can use the oceans more sustainably, and I’ll be exploring more of those ways in future posts.

For more on sustainable seafood:

New England Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Video co-produced and narrated by my brilliant sister, Andrea Mustain.


Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Spironis 12:48 pm 01/23/2014

    Too many people means starvation. Everything else is footnotes, religion, and war. A tipping point is the promontory receding in the distance as you fall. Cf: Canada sterilizing the Grand Banks with intensive professional management (plus politics).

    The ocean is a food-making machine.” Not without lubrication it isn’t. Inputs, outputs, processing, and maintenance are not independent variables.

    First World Near everybody slathers sunblock, eats female hormones, or micturates antidepressants. The oceans are dumps for remarkable tonnages of remarkably active pharma and its metabolites that are ever so adept at avoiding sewage treatment. A large fraction of the ocean is iron-deficient and forever starving. Smooth ocean bottom is desert. We are kicking a delicate thing to death. Kicking it elsewhere is not a remedy.

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  2. 2. RobLL 1:23 pm 01/23/2014

    Long time favorites of mine are tinned anchovies and sardines. Also pickled herring. But the best very small fish were grilled, as per video, in Morocco. I can’t buy small fresh whole fish at any market, even Pike Place in Seattle.

    Would the various small fish freeze well? If I could take out 5 or 6 ounces per serving I would buy and keep these on hand.

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