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Followup: Did Cecil exaggerate the decline of the world fish supply?



I am writing to bring to your attention several errors contained in the recent edition of the Straight Dope titled "Farm-Raised vs. Wild Fish: The Facts" [December 25].

You begin your column by reminding readers of the collapse of Atlantic cod, claiming "the number of cod today is something like one percent of what it was in the 1960s." While that is a great rhetorical hook for readers, it is also a dated snapshot of those fisheries. The fact is that the cod stocks (there are two) in Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine are currently rebuilding spawning stock biomass to target levels. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, "In the Gulf of Maine, spawning stock biomass increased from 10,974 metric tons in 2005 to 33,877 metric tons in 2007. Although the stock remains low relative to the target level, the current spawning stock biomass is over half of the target level and is therefore no longer considered overfished."

What's more, you blame the status of the cod stocks completely on "rapacious factory fishing" while the very latest science on the issue published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science suggests "a relationship between climate change and the decline of bottom species like cod."

This is not to say that overfishing and mismanagement have not had an impact on certain stocks, but efforts to rebuild stocks and head off future collapses are a robust part of modern fisheries management. Ignoring those efforts means only telling half the story -- the shocking, sensational half.

The reference to Boris Worm's 2006 paper, found in paragraph 8, is quite simply out of date -- because Worm himself has disavowed the conclusions of his own paper. A minimal amount of research would have found that Worm published a new study in July in the journal Science that finds the marine ecologist saying he plans to be "hosting a seafood party" in 2048 instead of mourning the loss of all marine ecosystems.

In paragraph 9 you suggest that a rash of mislabeling is the result of "dwindling supplies." Here you show a lack of understanding about the species substitution issue. The cases of seafood being mislabeled cited by the FDA revolve around economic integrity, not sustainability. Misidentifying fish for sale is about fraud, plain and simple, not about suppliers' inability to obtain certain fish to offer on the open market. Again, a minimal amount of research like a phone call to someone at the FDA or the Better Seafood Board would have made that readily apparent.

In the very next paragraph you suggest "less desirable fish" are finding their way onto restaurant menus because "increasingly that's all there is left." What evidence do you have to support this comment? It would appear this is merely uninformed opinion stated as fact. The top 10 most popular seafood species in the U.S. make up more than 90 percent of all fish eaten in this country. Those fish are far from the exotic "less desirable fish" he suggests are so often now featured. A quick review of the list would reveal there are plenty of them "left." The top ten are shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, Alaska pollock, tilapia, catfish, crab, cod, flatfish, and clams.

Your foray into an explanation of issues associated with farmed salmon is another opinion-littered section. Your focus on higher levels of PCBs found in farmed salmon as opposed to wild exposes a complete ignorance and lack of perspective often associated with unqualified armchair nutritionists. The fact is, Harvard University researchers have calculated that 34 percent of PCBs found in the average American diet come from beef, chicken and pork, 30 percent come from dairy products, 20 percent come from vegetables, 9 percent come from seafood (all seafood not just farmed salmon) and 5 percent from eggs. The researchers concluded that heart disease benefits outweigh theoretical cancer risks by 100- to 370-fold for farmed salmon.

Furthermore I must ask that you please provide a source for your suggestion in paragraph 13 that aquaculture run off is responsible for increased mercury levels in wild fish. I am unaware of a single reputable study or even plausible scientific scenario that would support this statement.

Your poor research and insistence on hyperbole rather than perspective does a terrible disservice to your readers. In many cases, your "facts" are in grave error, not to mention commercially disparaging. -- Gavin Gibbons, National Fisheries Institute

First let's get something straight. You represent the seafood industry. It's in your organization's interest to paint a rosy picture of the fisheries. To an extent your complaint is simply that I put a darker spin on things than you'd like. Accusing me of poor research and grave errors is another matter. I've reviewed some of the key scientific papers and consulted with Boris Worm, the fisheries expert at Canada's Dalhousie University whose views you think I've misrepresented. As we'll see, I disagree with your assertion that I was in error:

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