As a marine scientist, I am often asked how to make the "right" choice when choosing which type of seafood to buy. Although people have different reasons for choosing which food they eat, I always give the same answer: Buy American.
Buying American seafood makes sense no matter what the motivating principle is. Here in the United States we have the most sustainably managed fisheries in the world. It's true. After the collapse of several fish and shellfish stocks during the 1980s, such as the famed North Atlantic cod in New England, scientists and policymakers took notice.
With little fanfare from the general public, and lots of controversy from within, policymakers enacted strong legislation that required the National Marine Fisheries Service to end the overfishing of all of our seafood stocks by 2010.
While the United States was making difficult decisions about our fisheries at a great expense to the short-term economy, the European Union took a different path. Despite Europe's well-established fisheries science and management bodies, the EU chose to knowingly overfish their stocks for decades. The rest of the world unknowingly did so as well.
Now fast forward to 2011. A worldwide study of the oceans estimated that 90 percent of the world's big fish — think tuna and sharks — have disappeared from the planet. Europe's cod population is at 20 percent of its level in 1970, and the EU continues to overfish that population at a rapid pace. As a whole, the EU overfishes 72 percent of its managed stocks; this from arguably the second most progressive fisheries management body in the world. Little is known about the state of the rest of the world's fisheries, including China. But what we do know isn't encouraging.
Here in the United States we've managed to buck the worldwide trend. Nearly two-thirds of our fish stocks have seen a bounce-back due to our policies. In 2011, the former chief science adviser from the NOAA Fisheries Service (turned USF professor) Steve Murawski declared: "For the first time in at least a century, U.S. fishermen won't take too much of any species from the sea."
The argument to buy American-caught seafood isn't based purely on environmental reasons, but on economic ones as well.
Allowing fish to grow up to a harvestable size in the wild isn't exactly free. It costs fisherman in the form of restrictions. These restrictions limit the allowable fishing areas and the amount of fish they can keep in order to ensure the long-term sustainability and profitability of our fish stocks. The short-term effect of fisheries quotas can be devastating to an individual fisherman.
However, recovering fish stocks allow us to take more fish from the sea on an annual basis. This translates into higher economic returns from our oceans, which could ultimately lead to fewer imports.
In the United States we import 84 percent of our seafood. Compare this number to the percent of produce (35 percent), total food supply (20 percent), and GDP (18 percent) derived from international trade. This disparity isn't necessarily due to a lack of production. We are exporting nearly two-thirds of our total fish production to other countries.
Exports limit the economic return on our fisheries investment. Each fish shipped overseas is one less fish packed at the fish-house, processed at a plant, sold to a food distributor, and served at a restaurant. Furthermore, if we shipped our entire fish stock overseas, there would be no reason for tourists to charter boats, fill them with gas, buy bait, or book hotel rooms.
Importing the same products we have here in the United States doesn't help the economics or the sustainability of fisheries either. Here in Florida, we import the majority of our grouper from abroad, mainly from Brazil. This doesn't make sense for the economy or the environment. Importing our seafood results in an export of jobs and money.
As a nation we should celebrate the fact that we have taken the proper steps to ensure the long-term production of our wild-caught seafood supply.
When buying seafood, whether you choose to support your local fisherman or to protect the environment, the answer is simple. Buy wild-caught U.S. seafood, made and caught in America.
Michael Drexler is a doctoral student at the USF College of Marine Science, Marine Resource Assessment Program. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.