Just as 2007 was the year of the locavore, 2010 is already shaping up to be the year of sustainable seafood.
While concern for the health of the oceans -- the world's largest ecosystem -- has been growing steadily over the past decade, this year we've seen a sudden swell in interest, coverage and conservation efforts.
In January, Safeway announced it will develop sustainability standards for its seafood with the help of FishWise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping seafood businesses with marine conservation efforts. This month, Target Superstores announced they are replacing all their farmed salmon with wild Alaskan salmon. Consumers can now get the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide to sustainable seafood as a mobile application for BlackBerries and iPhones.
These initiatives are making it easier to find out whether a type of seafood is "abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways" -- the seafood guide's definition of a "best choice" and optimally sustainable seafood.
In March, the United Nations will discuss and possibly vote to place the bluefin tuna on the endangered species list, after a failed attempt last September. If successful, it would be the first time the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned a major commercial fishery.
Bluefin tuna is most commonly offered at Japanese restaurants, where it is prized for sushi and sashimi preparations.
Ken Peterson, communications director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., calls it "the poster child for the movement." Stocks of the fish declined 60 percent in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean between 1997 and 2007, and a scientific consensus has formed that unless substantial changes are made, the bluefin tuna will likely be fished to extinction.
But it's not just bluefin tuna that is in serious trouble. According to a report on the state of seafood, "Turning the Tide," published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in October, "Most commercially important populations of ocean wildlife have been in decline for decades. Food webs are becoming less robust, and marine habitats are continuously being altered and degraded."
These changes have much more serious effects than the need for new menu items at white-tablecloth restaurants.
Already, subsidence fishers in developing countries have seen their catch disappear. Shrimp farms, which are often clustered around tropical coasts, are responsible for the destruction of a quarter of the world's mangrove forests, ecosystems that protect against storm surges during typhoons and even tsunamis.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the ways in which global warming will affect the world's oceans, and there are concerns that in their current state, the oceans are more vulnerable to its effects.
Despite terrible conditions, many conservation organizations, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, are optimistic about the possibility for substantial recovery.
"It started really with consumers at the grass-roots level who were concerned with what they were buying and eating," said Mr. Peterson. Now, in the United States, that grass-roots effort has begun to influence many of the country's largest seafood buyers including grocery store chains and wholesalers.
Target and Safeway are joining other corporations that have begun to seriously consider the importance of sustainability.
More and more scientists are advocating for stricter government regulation, often pointing to Alaska as an example of best practices. Alaska is a key example of a fishery-dependent economy that has focused on the long-term health of the fishing industry, rather than just maximizing short-term profits, by recognizing the connection between the industry's health and the health of the oceans.
Alaska provides about 17 percent of the world's salmon, according to Mark Tupper, president of Triad Fisheries, headquartered in Seattle. Mr. Tupper emphasized the importance of strict quotas based on scientific evidence, marine protected areas which ensure that species can repopulate, and careful monitoring of the catch each year -- practices that must be mandated and enforced by government agencies.
Alaska has also benefited from technological innovations. All 19 of Mr. Tupper's boats use flash-freezing techniques developed by Triad's previous owner Bruce Gore. Within 20 minutes of being brought out of the water, the salmon are gutted and frozen. Salmon are about 98 percent water, Mr. Tupper said, and "if you don't freeze them quickly or cold enough the water cells are going to burst." But at extremely low temperatures, the fish "just set."
Flash freezing preserves the quality of the fish, but it also allows the boats to stay out longer, conserving fuel. It then allows the fish to be transported by barge, rather than air, decreasing its carbon footprint.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's report on the state of seafood emphasized some of the ways that new technologies and prohibiting certain types of fishing can limit bycatch -- fish or other animals, caught accidentally. (In extreme cases, such as some shrimp trawling, bycatch can outnumber the target catch by 10 to 1.) Also, restricting or prohibiting the use of "trawling," dragging large, heavy nets across the ocean floor, can minimize habitat damage.
The aquaculture, or fish farming, industry has grown at such a pace that sometime this year farmed species will become the leading source of seafood in the human diet for the first time. However, the sustainability of aquaculture varies wildly, depending on the technology used and the fish bred.
But practiced correctly and using the right kinds of fish, it can be a sustainable and profitable supplement to wild fish populations. Some farmed seafood, such as carp, catfish and scallops, thrive on a vegetarian diet and have a much lower impact than carnivorous fish such as salmon, which need to be fed large amounts of smaller wild fish, ground up into fish meal, to grow. On average, it takes 3 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon. Raising the fish in enclosed systems can help protect against farmed fish escaping into wild populations and prevent contaminants from getting into the water system.