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10 Fish You're Eating That Are Endangered Species

Human beings: acting like jerks since we killed off the pupfish.
Human beings: acting like jerks since we killed off the pupfish.

Yesterday, we touched briefly on the plight of the idiot fish, a small red fish with giant, round marbles for eyes. It's delicious, despite its odd appearance. And it's also endangered. Yet it's still sold and served across the world.

The idiot fish is only "endangered," however, not "critically endangered." There are degrees of being endangered, after all. And a critically endangered species is one that is in real, immediate danger of having its numbers decimated by 80 percent within three generations.

So these critically endangered species must be under some sort of protection, right? We don't eat California condors or mountain gorillas after all.

Nope. Endangered fish, no matter what their popularity, don't get the kind of attention and therefore protection that their mammalian counterparts do. For every Iberian lynx that is saved, there are a dozen critically endangered fish that will continue to be fished, sold and consumed.

This is our list of the 10 fish you can buy and eat right now that are endangered. Some are merely endangered, while the ones toward the top are critically endangered. Either way, these fish should be avoided where and whenever possible.

Cod in its coffin: Folk art from the Smithsonian, depicting the decline of the Atlantic cod industry.
Cod in its coffin: Folk art from the Smithsonian, depicting the decline of the Atlantic cod industry.
Photo by Mr. T in DC

10. Orange roughy

Because the orange roughy has such a long lifespan (forget parrots; these fish can live to be 100 years old) and a slow rate of maturation, it takes literally dozens of years to replenish decimated orange roughy populations. And decimated they are; the fish became popular in the late 1970s, peaking in 1990, when overfishing led to government-imposed quotas for the fish. Although they're no longer technically critically endangered, many organizations recommend that orange roughy be avoided at all costs to keep it this way.

9. Eel

More specifically, the European freshwater eel. Even farm-raised eel, however, are poor stand-ins for wild-caught eel. A farm-raised eel must be fed three times its own body weight in wild-caught fish, a process that makes eel farming as unsustainable as over-fishing wild eel.

8. Haddock

Recently, the ICUN Red List reclassified haddock as merely "vulnerable," albeit still endangered. It's because of this that the Greenpeace International Seafood Red List has listed haddock as one of the 20 species of fish to avoid at all costs. It also notes that while haddock is no longer overfished in U.S. waters, Scottish haddock fisheries should be closed to prevent the same thing from happening across the pond.

7. Halibut

Although there's been some question as to whether or not Atlantic halibut should still be listed as endangered, there's no question that the fishery itself is still in terrible shape after years of overfishing. Although there have been conservation measures put in place since the fishery threatened to collapse, the fish are still in danger: Bottom trawlers catch the sea floor-dwelling halibut in their nets, destroying the young stock that are supposed to be replenishing the Atlantic halibut population.

6. Atlantic cod

The bad news is that the Atlantic cod has been fished nearly to extinction. The good news is that cod from Iceland and and the Barents Sea has not. According to the Seafood Watch app, "For centuries, north Atlantic cod was one of the world's largest and most reliable fisheries. However, decades of overfishing have resulted in dramatic population declines." Pacific cod from Japan and Russia is said to be just as bad, but opinions on that are currently divided.  

For a fun experiment, ask your local restaurant why they're serving bluefin tuna when it's a critically endangered species.
For a fun experiment, ask your local restaurant why they're serving bluefin tuna when it's a critically endangered species.
Photo by Dennis Tang

5. Skate

The common skate is the largest skate in the world, and this giant fish was once abundant in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Like the orange roughy, skate mature slowly and have a very long lifespan, which means it takes a considerable amount of time for its numbers to recover from being overfished. In 2006, it was estimated that skate could be "the first marine fish driven to extinction by commercial fishing." It is currently on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered.

4. Atlantic salmon

Atlantic salmon has been considered highly endangered since 2000, and commercial fishing for wild salmon in the United States is expressly prohibited. But it's not just overfishing that's contributed to its demise: dams built on rivers, excessive logging in the Northwest, and continued development along the shoreline have reduced the wild salmon population to a mere 1 percent of its historic population.

3. Sea bass

Several species of sea bass are in imminent danger of extinction, including our own giant sea bass off the California coast and its more famous cousin, Chilean sea bass (a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish, but sea bass is more marketable, right?). There is absolutely no reason why you should be ordering Chilean sea bass -- which is not only often harvested illegally, but also very high in mercury -- when alternatives like sustainably raised barramundi are available. Due to illegal harvesting of the fish, experts have been predicting the imminent collapse of the fishery for many years.

2. Sturgeon

Most people don't eat the sturgeon itself; it's the tasty roe they're after. As a result, demand for sturgeon roe -- also known as black caviar -- has caused the sturgeon population to plummet. Last year, the IUCN remarked that sturgeon are "the most threatened group of animals on the IUCN Red List." But as caviar from fish like the Beluga sturgeon can fetch nearly $7,000 a pound on the black market, the sturgeon continue to be poached and their numbers continue to decline drastically.

1. Bluefin tuna

Greenpeace puts it best (emphasis ours): "All stocks of all species of tuna are fished at full capacity, and many are declining or depleted. Southern bluefin tuna is listed by the World Conservation Union as being critically endangered, bigeye tuna as vulnerable and northern bluefin tuna as endangered in the East Atlantic and critically endangered in the West Atlantic." Every agency in the world agrees that bluefin tuna is on the verge of total collapse. So why are we still eating it? Because it tastes fantastic, and we are hopelessly greedy and thoughtless creatures who are swayed from our morals by nothing more than a spicy tuna roll.



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