Garbage Fish: It's What's on the Menu as Extinctions Plague the Oceans

Oct 25, 2010· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity—15,000 delegates from 193 countries gathered in Ngoya, Japan—opened with a bang over the weekend by predicting that by 2050, marine ecosystems as we know them will have disappeared.

Opening remarks for the two-week conference confirmed a World Wildlife Fund forecast that within the next four decades, all of the fish we currently consume will be gone.

A man nets fish from a polluted canal in central Beijing. As edible stocks decline, consumers will be less and less selective about what goes on their plates. (Photo: David Gray/Reuters)

The factors for this warning are extremely—and sadly—predictable: Pollution, climate change and overfishing.

Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, predicted in Ngoya, “We are on the verge of a major extinction spasm.”

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report details the depressed future of marine ecosystems, and particularly fish. Based on studies of 18 regions around the world, the report predicts that as sea temperatures rise, along with nitrogen levels which trigger fish-killing algae blooms, both fishing and tourist industries will be endangered.

The inevitable might be staved off by creating more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and enforcing tougher laws on who can catch which fish, where and when.

Whenever I cite the WWF forecast—that all of the fish we currently know and eat will be gone by 2050—I like to point out that it doesn’t mean the last fish will be taken from the sea.

It does mean that 40 years from now we will be catching, selling and eating fish that currently live in waters that are too deep or remote and are considered too small, too bony or simply too … fishy.

Some seafood chefs around the U.S., with one eye on sustainability, are previewing fish species that may appear on menus in 2050. With some popular species already off-limits due to polluted or overworked fisheries—including redfish from the Gulf of Mexico and grouper—smart chefs are experimenting with recipes for species that have previously been judged dubious.

A recent Wall Street Journal story suggests some of the iffy species (often described on menus as having an “adventurous” taste) being tried out are undergoing name changes. Just as the Patagonia toothfish became the Chilean sea bass and the New Zealand slimehead was rebranded as orange roughy, chefs are looking for a more appetizing name for the “bearded brotula.”

Fish looks are important to typical shoppers at the local market. But in a restaurant, Tony Tocco of the Café Atchafalaya in New Orleans tells the WSJ, “Diners never see fish with their heads still on. You ever seen a monkfish? It’s really ugly, with a big, gaping mouth. Yet people love the so-called poor-man’s lobster. Flounder isn’t exactly sexy-looking either, but it’s low-cost and versatile.”

Some new fish on the horizon include the lesser-known sheepshead, tripletail, king mackerel, golden tilefish, cobia, Florida pompano, cuttlefish and—one definitely headed for a name change—the hogfish.