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Buying Sustainable Fish in IL: It's Complicated

April 13, 2011

CHICAGO - The law that has helped rebuild depleted ocean fish populations turns 35 today. While the Magnuson-Stevens Act ended foreign overfishing and ensures that fishing is done in a sustainable manner, consumers in Illinois may have a tough time sorting out which fish populations are still endangered and which are best to eat.

While some fish species have rebounded since the act was passed, others still have not completely recovered. Environmentalists say it's important for consumers in Michigan and around the nation to pay attention to how the fish they eat are managed - and that's a complicated task. In some cases, they say, it's best to buy farm-raised fish, while in other cases, wild-caught is better.

Kassia Perpich, sustainable-food manager at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, suggests some broad rules to remember, such as buying domestic rather than foreign-caught fish.

"Certainly not all of the domestic fisheries are sustainable. But on the whole, the United States has more stringent environmental regulations in place that protect fish stocks and the environment."

Wild salmon from Alaska should be chosen over farmed salmon, Perpich says, but trout from farms in the Midwest are good choices - as are farmed catfish. The farm-raised fish should be kept in closed systems where waste is controlled, she says.

"Catfish, tilapia, rainbow trout, particularly in our region, in the Midwest, that the fish come from what's called a 'closed farm,' so that the fish are farmed in man-made ponds."

Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, acknowledges that consumer awareness is important, but stresses that the fishing law's conservation and sustainability measures are making the biggest impact.

"I think that we're going to see in the next couple of years that we are turning the corner and the stocks are rebounding. We're going to have healthier fisheries and more sustainable options for consumers in all parts of the country."

Some fishermen complain that the fishing law inhibits their ability to make a living, while others believe managing the fish populations for the long term is most important. Crockett suggests that there may be a way to subsidize the income people make from fishing.

"If they spend a lot of time on the water, they can be extremely helpful in collecting information about our fish stocks and our oceans, and that information is used to better manage our resources."

For more information about sustainable fish choices, visit the Shedd Aquarium website or download a sustainable fish phone app from the Blue Ocean Institute.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL