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After oil spill: Taking stock of fishing industry

By Fedele Bauccio, Special to CNN
  • Opinion: One of the most harmful human activities to the oceans is industrial-scale overfishing
  • We can take simple steps that make a big difference, says Fedele Bauccio
  • Bauccio: The answer to "Should I choose farm-raised or wild-caught fish?" is, "It depends"

Editor's note: Fedele Bauccio is the CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company, an onsite food service that provides sustainable, local foods a variety of cafés in the U.S., including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Last year he received the Going Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is Chairman of the University of San Francisco Hospitality Management board and is also a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

Palo Alto, California (CNN) -- On April 20, we witnessed one of the worst oil spills in American history, an event that has caused oil to surge into the Gulf of Mexico for weeks now.

Workers installed a siphon into the broken pipeline to capture some of the flow on Monday, when an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil were spilling into the Gulf every day. But the spill continues, and the estimates of its flow have grown, creating an environmental disaster not seen since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and threatening to disrupt yet another of the fisheries that are already compromised all over the world.

As environmentalists, government officials and average citizens take to the shorelines along the Gulf to track the oil and try to ensure our food supply remains safe, it's a good time to reflect on how our actions can profoundly affect the world's oceans. These actions include not just those that involve pollution and global climate change, but also the type of seafood we choose in restaurants and supermarkets.

Many people don't realize that one of the most harmful human activities to the oceans is industrial-scale overfishing. The increasing worldwide demand for seafood and the depredations of pollution have led to deteriorating ecosystems and the decline of entire fish species.

Industrial fishing methods, such as trawling -- dragging large nets mid-water or across the sea floor -- are highly destructive, damaging fragile coral and ensnaring and killing dolphins, sea turtles and other species. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's 2009 report, "Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood," if significant efforts are not made to reduce overfishing and restore depleted fish stocks, many fish populations will "decline precipitously." Scientists at Stanford University have already forecast the collapse of all commercially fished seafood by 2050 unless we change our ways.

There are indeed solutions, which include changing how and what we eat from the ocean. Important institutions and thought leaders are working to raise awareness about sustainable seafood -- seafood caught using methods that do minimal harm to the ocean floor or that's farmed in environments that produce a lower environmental impact.

In my own company, I am in charge of leading a team that serves over 100 million meals per year at companies, colleges, and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. At such volume, we know that we have an impact. That's why, since 2002, we've chosen to only serve seafood that is purchased in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guidelines for sustainability.

This week we're sponsoring an annual conference and fundraising event at the Aquarium, "Cooking for Solutions," where great chefs from around the country can flex their culinary muscle with sustainable cuisine. All proceeds go to the Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

Overfishing and the efforts being made to save our oceans can be complex at first blush. But just as we do in our cafés, consumers who love to eat fish can take simple steps that make a big difference:

• Only consume or buy fish that has been obtained in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program -- meaning, fish that is either from an abundant species, a well-managed fishery or caught or farmed in an environmentally friendly way. The website provides a list of choices that are both good for you and don't harm the oceans.

• Encourage local restaurants to serve sustainable seafood and ask the server how your fish was caught or farmed before you order.

• Ask your local grocer/fishmonger to stock up on sustainable fish and carefully read labels in stores that offer "country of origin" information.

• Do your part to fight climate change because it contributes to making the waters inhospitable to certain kinds of marine life. As always, little things add up: Drive less, use energy-efficient appliances, and eat more foods with minimal carbon impact.

• The answer to "Should I choose farm-raised or wild-caught fish?" is, "It depends." Both can be good choices depending on the specific methods used to catch or farm the fish, so make informed decisions that are best for the fish and the health or our oceans.

The overfishing problem is a formidable one, but, as with similar environmental challenges, the daily choices we make can have a positive impact. Make a commitment today to learn more about sustainable seafood, and help raise awareness among your friends and family.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fedele Bauccio