By RAY HILBORN and ULRIKE HILBORN
WHOLE FOODS recently stopped selling fish that are on the “red lists” of seafood to avoid, issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. Other major food retailers are considering similar measures, under the assumption that because a species is overfished, it is not sustainable.
Those decisions are based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a sustainable fishery. The fact is that we can harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock. Instead of calling on consumers to abstain from all overfished species, we should direct our attention at fisheries that consistently take more fish than can be naturally replaced.
Bluefin tuna is a classic example of a species that has been consistently harvested too hard and should be avoided by consumers. But at the same time, the United States has made remarkable progress in rebuilding overfished stocks. Wild populations of 27 species have been rebuilt to “healthy” levels in the last 11 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Earlier this month, the agency announced that six formerly overfished stocks had been rebuilt, including Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic Coast summer flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock.