Finding Nemo on Your Plate

I started my conservation career working in the U.S. Virgin Islands and have a clear memory of my orientation tour of St. Croix. One of our last stops was the Frederiksted pier, where we lept into the clear blue water to cool off — something that a bunch of local kids were doing that day as well.

After climbing out of the water, I noticed two young boys fishing off the rocks. I went over to see their catch. I was shocked to see that they had a beautiful and tiny reef fish (maybe 4 inches long). Commonly known as the cow fish or box fish, this fish actually doesn’t even have much flesh on it, is pretty boney and doesn’t get bigger than 18 inches (I’ve never seen one that big though!).

It is a curious creature and one of my favorite finds when snorkeling — definitely not something I expected to see being fished. I figured that perhaps it was a local delicacy so I inquired further. “What are you going to do with this fish?” I asked.  The young boy answered simply “pot fish.”

Since I was new to the island, I got some clarification. It turns out that pot fish is a favorite local food — basically a fish stew of sorts, and this little guy was going to be used to give it a fishy flavor. I had always thought of those wild looking critters as a treat to find, but not a treat to eat.

This experience blew me away and was the first of many realizations I had while living there about the state of the fisheries in general, and how much people relied on the sea for their food.

Make your own connection between food and conservation this Earth Day and throw a Picnic for the Planet. Join all the others who are putting their dot on the map and taking the Earth to lunch.

What I learned in my years living and working in the Virgin Islands was that pretty much any fish is fair game, no matter the size, just as long as it was not considered toxic, and even then some folks chose to take their chances.

Long gone are the days of plentiful grouper and snapper that steam on the grill with sweet goodness all around. Today, those fleshy fish are few and far between and now folks rely on fish you would expect to see in your fish tank, not on your dinner plate. Overfishing has become a major problem for coral reefs. For a coral reef ecosystem to function properly, it depends on the presence of the wild diversity that it attracts and is home to.

From the predator to the grazer (herbivore) to the very picky eaters (specialists), each fish plays an important part in the coral reef ‘city.’ What has happened in the Caribbean and in many other parts of the world is that people have essentially fished down the food chain so that the reef city is out of balance and in some cases, basic functions come to a screeching halt. Think New York City with no garbage pick-up in the summertime – a big stinking mess!

In the case of coral reefs, the fish that are now landing on the dinner plate, the grazers, are extremely important for keeping coral competitors in check (namely, seaweed). If the seaweed doesn’t get mowed down by herbivores like queen parrotfish or spiny urchins, they overgrow the corals and the corals disappear. Fish need corals too, so this becomes a vicious cycle if something isn’t done to help fish populations recover.

There are many ways to address this problem, and we are working locally all over the globe to help communities manage their coral reef and fishery resources so that they benefit long term from the sea’s bounty.

In this case, everyone is part of the solution, including you. Make sure that you choose sustainable seafood. There are great guides that help you determine whether the seafood is free of toxic metals, how harmful the fishing method is on ocean habitats and the condition of the particular fish population you are considering for dinner (i.e., in decline, recovering, or healthy).

The latest recommendations change frequently to reflect the latest guidance thanks to proactive programs like Blue Ocean Institute’s FishPhone and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

These guides are simple, color-coded and have gone from providing wallet cards to smart phone apps, making your decision process easier.

These guides require you to know where your fish comes from because this can make all the difference in terms of how it was farmed or caught. If the menu or market isn’t labeling their fish, just ask. These days, most places will be able to tell you where their fish is from. If they don’t know, don’t buy it.

Now with your new tools in hand, and grilling season on the horizon — be sure to take a few extra steps to make sure your seafood isn’t harming the reefs and the people that depend on them.

(Photo Credit: Flickr User missmeng via a Creative Commons license.)

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