If you live in Chile, Japan, Taiwan, or S. Korea, chances are pretty good that it once had fins and gills (or maybe still does).  Chileans and Japanese consume more than 150 pounds of seafood per person annually according to a study called Seafood Print supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and National Geographic.  Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia aren’t too far behind at 144, 124, and 118 pounds, respectively.  All of them pale in comparison to tiny Norway, which somehow comes in off the charts at a stomach-churning 657 pounds per person.

Unsustainable World Seafood Consumption

One of the main messages of the Seafood Print study is a warning that the world’s current fish consumption is unsustainable.  Project leaders Daniel Pauly and Enric Sala point out that all fish are not created equal when it comes to their environmental impact.  In other words, a tuna eaten in Japan is not the same as an anchovy eaten in Spain.

Pauly and Sala classify the ocean food chain into four levels: top predators, intermediate predators, first-order consumers, and primary producers.  Top predators like tuna and salmon feast on intermediate predators, such as pollock and herring.  Intermediate predators like pollock, herring, and Japanese flying squid keep lower-level fish populations in check.  The next step down the ladder, first-order consumers, includes anchovies, lobster, and zooplankton.  The bottom rung consists of primary producers such as algae and phytoplankton.

Many well-off countries tend to consume large quantities of top predators like tuna and salmon.  Japan alone accounts for more than 80 percent of global consumption of bluefin tuna.  In doing so, they take a much bigger bite out of the ocean food chain than other populations that eat a larger share of intermediate producers and first-order consumers, like herring and anchovies.  According to Seafood Print, eating one pound of a top predator equates to eating 10 pounds of intermediate predators, 100 pounds of first-order consumers, or 1000 pounds of primary producers.

International Development Challenges

Perhaps as noteworthy are the implications for rapid economic development and new-found prosperity on the already-strained global demand for the fruit of the sea.  People in China and India currently consume only 22.5 and 6.0 pounds of fish, respectively, per year.  If per capita consumption in China were to grow to anywhere close to that of Taiwan at 144 pounds per person, it’s hard to see how the ocean would keep up at this point.

It seems clear that cooperative action needs to be taken to help align the global demand for and supply of ocean foodstuffs.  For one, well-off nations that consume large shares of top-level predators might take the lead in conducting and funding research and education programs aimed at restoring fish populations and promoting consumption of lower-level species.

For more information, see the related posts Diabetes, Obesity Linked to Fish Diet, Development and 150 Year Old Japanese in Abundance.

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Greenberg, Paul.  Time for a Sea Change.  National Geographic.  October, 2010.