For the Love of Fish

Explore seafood management and conservation options and issues.

Seafood Introduction

Whether you salivate over scallops, crave crab, or pass on being a piscivore altogether, a marine scientist has no choice but to indulge in the issues surrounding the seafood industry. It seemed at one time that the bounty of the oceans was limitless; that the seas would always provide sustenance. With increased world population and improved efficiencies of fishing gear, it has become apparent that even the vast depths that comprise the majority of this planet are not an infinite source of food for humans. We should nurture the spirit that has led us to venture out to sea, taste its offerings, and live surrounded by its richness. However, we should remain humbled by the ecological complexity of our oceans and not risk disrupting their natural balance.

Rapid changes and technological advancements in today's society have not bypassed the fishing industry. What was once exclusively a hook-and-line industry now also encompasses fleets of enormous vessels with state-of-the-art fish finding equipment and fishing gear. They are capable of staying at sea longer and bringing home tons of fish at a time. The fishing industry directly or indirectly provides many jobs, not just for those who go out fishing, but also for processing crews, boat builders, gear manufacturers, fish markets, restaurants, and others. For some, it is not just a way of earning a livelihood; it is a way of life.

Although fishers recognize the importance of treating this resource wisely, large numbers of fisheries are classified as overfished or depleted. Managing ocean stocks is an extremely difficult task, and when the science is mixed with political pressure and personal stories, it becomes even more complicated. It is hard to keep everyone happy. The resources can't be seen and counted, and this ambiguity leaves strategies open for debate. Yet resource managers aim to strike a balance - to do what is necessary to sustain the stocks so that fishers and others can maintain their lifestyles. That way, everyone benefits, including seafood consumers!

Data Activity

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has taken some steps that they hope will promote healthy stocks. When they buy seafood for their restaurant, they want to support sustainable fisheries - those managed so that there will be plenty of fish for the future, so that marine habitats stay healthy, and so there's little "bycatch" (wasted catch of animals other than the target species). The Aquarium has compiled a Seafood Watch Chart based on information gathered on the health of various fisheries. Their recommendations are divided into three categories: Best Choices, Proceed With Caution, and Avoid. (Similar lists are produced by the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund.)

Before looking at the chart, make a list of your favorite seafoods. In which category do you think you will find them (if listed)? Are you correct, or are you surprised?

When a fishery appears to be in trouble and in need of new regulations, the decision-making is complicated. To illustrate this point, conduct a role-play scenario.
Divide your students into three groups: fishery managers, fishers, and concerned activists. Here's the real-life situation in the North Atlantic swordfish fishery:

In the 1960s, most swordfish caught in the North Atlantic weighed more than 250 pounds. Due primarily to overfishing, the average-sized swordfish caught in the North Atlantic today weighs 90 pounds. Nearly two-thirds of the swordfish caught today are too young to breed. And in 1996 US fishermen discarded 40,000 North Atlantic swordfish principally because they were too small to legally bring to market.

People who fish for swordfish cannot easily switch to fishing for another species. Their vessels are equipped especially for that fishery, and they have acquired years of knowledge about the fish that enable them to fish successfully. If you read the book or saw the movie The Perfect Storm, you will remember that those people were known as swordfish fishers in a swordfish fleet. It was what they chose and what they learned, it was their livelihoods, and it was a way of life not easily given up.

Challenge the fishery managers to devise new regulations that will keep both the fishers and the concerned activists happy.
What kinds of management measures are available? Which measures might work best to address the specific issues in the swordfish industry?

Conclude the role-play by discussing with your students what actually happened:

What activists did: In January 1998, SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) launched a campaign called Give Swordfish a Break in New York City to help replenish depleted North Atlantic swordfish populations. It was targeted at wholesalers, restaurants, and consumers with the hope that people would stop purchasing swordfish temporarily.

What fishery managers did: In November 1999, an international recovery plan was adopted (there are at least 37 different nations around the Atlantic Ocean that harvest swordfish). Specific measures adopted included a gradual quota reduction over the next 3 years, with new quotas to be set at the end of the three-year period. It was also decided that the dead discarded swordfish would be counted against the allowable catch. In August 2000, a decision was made to close swordfish nursery areas starting in the fall of 2000 to allow for rebuilding of the stocks. The rule closes, on a seasonal basis, 132,670 square miles of ocean to Atlantic pelagic longline fishermen. It is expected to result in a reduction of juvenile swordfish discards of between 31% and 42%.

The results: SeaWeb and NRDC declared their efforts successful and ended their campaign.

In the future, your choices for sustainable seafood should be more clear at the supermarket. The Marine Stewardship Council, established in 1996, is an international non-profit organization dedicated to creating sustainable fisheries around the world by using market-based incentives. Seafood certified by the Council earns a distinctive label in the grocery store. The Alaskan salmon fishery is the third fishery and the first in the United States so certified; the others are the River Thames herring and the Australian rock lobster fisheries.

Ask your students to estimate how much seafood is eaten per capita in your state.
Contact your state's Seafood Council to research the answer. Which state do you think eats the most? (Answer: California.)

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Read Me

Laura Rose, Virginia Sea Grant, Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Grade Level



Lesson Time

1.5 - 2 hrs.



  • Recognize different kinds of fishing gear and associated resource management issues.
  • Categorize seafood species on a sustainable scale.
  • Dramatize management issues through role-playing scenarios as fishers, managers, and activists.
  • Estimate seafood consumption rates.


Piscivore, Overfished, Depleted


Materials Required


Natl. Science Standards

IK-1 IK-2 L5-4 L9-4 PS5-2 PS5-5-5 PS9-3 PS9-6



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