Eat more sardines and herring to help fisheries, experts advise

Sep 8, 2011

Responsible fishing and fish consumption were among the agenda items at the annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Seattle. The conference (in its 141st year) has brought thousands of scientists, wildlife managers and other experts together for five days of wide-ranging discussions.

One of the more intriguing messages: Eating more sardines may be one of the best things you can do to help keep the planet healthy.

Will there be fish in the oceans in 2050? 

That’s a question Villy Christensen has been tackling.  He’s a professor at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre, where he led a team of scientists looking at more than 200 marine ecosystem models charting fish populations from 1880 to 2007.

More sardines than ever

The researchers found that over the past one hundred years, big predatory fish such as cod, tuna and grouper have declined by two thirds.

“We also found that the small fish, the prey fish: sardines and anchovies and lots of small fish that we don’t eat have increased over this period – they have more than doubled,” Christensen says.

They expect that trend to continue – so Christensen says there will be fish in the ocean in 2050, but they will be mostly of the smaller variety. At the same time, climate change is predicted to bring warmer temperatures and less plant production in the oceans – leading to fewer fish.

He says this means fisheries must be better managed, worldwide.

Another recommendation: Get people eating a bigger range of seafood – expanding our palette to include more of the creatures that are lower on the food chain. He says many eco-savvy foodies are already getting on board with the idea, including one of Vancouver’s best seafood restaurants, the Blue Water Café.

“They have a program called ‘the unsung heroes.’ So for one month, they’re serving things that we normally don’t like to eat: periwinkles and jellyfish and lots of other things that we normally don’t like to eat.  And when it’s well prepared, it’s actually pretty good.”

Eating sardines is also green

Another researcher at the conference,  Ray Hilborn from the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, showed that small fish such as sardines and herring also have one of the best ecological footprints. 

If you’re concerned about energy consumption, greenhouse gas production and biodiversity, Hilborn says eating them is even better for the planet than eating vegetarian.

And despite concern over the depletion of some fish stocks, Hilborn advocates eating all kinds of fish over other forms of animal protein. Currently, he says captured fish provide 20% of the world's animal protein and it remains one of the most efficient and least polluting ways to feed people.

"You need to look at not just what the impacts of catching that fish are, but what are the impacts of the alternative to that fish. ... If you don't eat that fish, what are you going to eat? And what's the cost of producing that?" Hilborn asks.

"Because everything you  eat has an environmental impact."