The Seafood Watch program began as a list of sustainable seafood choices developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium between 1997-1999. This list was developed in order to answer visitor questions during the "Fishing for Solutions" exhibit. The Monterey Bay Aquarium now has staff members devoted to producing the Seafood Watch pocket guide for consumers. A grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation helps fund the production and distribution of the Seafood Watch cards across the United States and Canada. These Seafood Watch cards educate consumers about which types of seafood are harvested sustainably. Armed with this information consumers can purchase the seafood they love, without harming endangered species. The goal of the Seafood Watch program is to shift the buying habits of seafood consumers and purveyors to support sustainable fisheries and aquaculture operations. The Seafood Watch pocket guide is available at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and online at www.mbayaq.org. The pocket guide folds easily to fit in a wallet. This allows consumers to consult it whether they are in a restaurant or at grocery store. The Seafood Watch pocket guide is region specific; currently there is one available for the west coast. By referring to the pocket guide, consumers can tell which types of seafood come from sustainable sources. The Seafood Watch Program defines sustainable seafood as "seafood that comes from sources, whether fished or farmed, that can exist into the long-term without compromising species' survival or the integrity of the surrounding ecosystem." Seafood is placed in one of three categories: Best Choice, Caution, or Avoid. If something is listed under the 'green' column then it is a best choice for the consumer to purchase. This rating means that the fish are plentiful in the wild and when caught there is little bycatch (wasted catch). Additionally, these fish are not farmed or caught in ways that damage the environment. If seafood is listed under the 'yellow' column consumers should proceed with caution. These choices are better than the ones on the avoid list, but consumers should be aware that there are problems with how these fish are caught or farmed. Seafood listed under the 'red' column should be avoided. These fish rank poorly against the sustainability criteria set out by the researchers of the Seafood Watch program. The population may be endangered, a considerable amount of bycatch may be produced when this fish is caught, or the farming techniques employed damage the environment. These ratings help consumers easily identify which types of seafood to purchase. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 70% of the world's fisheries are fished at or beyond capacity. Over fishing is one of the most harmful practices affecting the seafood population. Over fishing means catching fish faster than they can reproduce. This practice is especially harmful to fish that take a long time to mature, like the Chilean seabass. This fish lives to be at least 40 years old and does not mate until late in life. Although a favorite in many restaurants, chefs are starting to remove Chilean seabass from their menus because it is endangered. One goal of the Seafood Watch program is to give endangered sea creatures time to replenish their numbers in the wild. Already this goal has been achieved with respect to Abalone. This fish is now listed as "green" on the new version of the Seafood Watch pocket guide. This proves that with time and cooperation, from consumers and fishermen alike, different sea creatures can replenish themselves. The popularity of seafood is continually growing. In an attempt to meet this demand people have created fish farms. Nearly 20% of the world's seafood comes from fish farms now. This practice can have negative effects on an ecosystem, depending on where it is, and how the seafood is raised. Farmed shellfish are a best choice because they only consume plankton as their food source. The coastal waters around these farms are also kept clean because the shellfish are raised solely for human consumption. Farmed shellfish do not damage the environment surrounding them and for this reason, they are a best choice. Unfortunately, not all fish farming techniques benefit the environment. Net-pen farming places a large number of fish in one area. Having so many fish in one small area produces tons of feces that pollute the water these fish live in. Diseases can spread easily within the pen, and can reach the wild fish population. The antibiotics used to control these diseases can also harm the environment and produce drug-resistant organisms. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization fisheries worldwide throw away 25% of their catch. These are animals that fishermen did not intend to catch, that have no market value, or there is simply no room on the fishing boat for them. Sea creatures such as dolphins, otters, sea turtles, and even albatrosses can become bycatch victims. Fortunately, consumer demand can have an impact on the amount of bycatch produced. An example of this is dolphin safe tuna; methods were developed that prevent dolphins from being caught in nets designed for tuna as a response to public outcry. Unfortunately, some other animals can still be caught in tuna nets, but employing dolphin safe fishing methods is a start. Catching shrimp in trawl nets can produce up to ten pounds of bycatch per pound of shrimp caught. Whereas catching shrimp in traps allows a fisherman to release 98% of unwanted sea animals. At the core of the seafood market is consumer demand. Many fish populations can recover from what ails them if consumers support seafood from sustainable sources. If people refuse to eat shrimp caught with methods that produce large amounts of bycatch, fishing industries will be forced to use 'green' methods. The Seafood Watch card is designed to educate people about sustainable seafood sources. Once people have the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, the Seafood Watch card reminds them to only purchase seafood from sustainable sources. Since the card fits in a wallet, it is easy for people to view at anytime. Knowledge alone is not enough for everyone. People occasionally need to be reminded of what to do; the Seafood Watch card acts as the reminder for consumers.
Since the program's inception in 2000, over 1,000,000 West coast Seafood Watch pocket guides have been distributed. The pocket guide is available at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and at 45 different institutions such as museums, conservation centers, restaurants, and schools across Canada and the United States. The Seafood Watch Program also conducted presentations to over 3000 people in 2002. The Seafood Watch website received 70,000 hits in 2002, which is a 34% increase from 2001. To date 136,146 people have also downloaded the pocket guide from the Seafood Watch website. Over 30 restaurants in the West coast and across the United States have participated in the Seafood Watch program and are changing their menus to promote sustainable seafood choices. More and more restaurants and food supply companies are requesting information from the Seafood Watch program. Over 150 chefs were educated about sustainable seafood sources in 2002 thanks to the outreach programs developed by the Seafood Watch program. Once consumers and chefs understand the importance of choosing seafood from sustainable sources, seafood menus across Canada and the United States can be changed to reflect that knowledge. For example, in 2001, Yosemite National Park stopped serving Chilean seabass after being informed of its endangered status by a couple of members of the Monterey Bay Aquarium who were visiting the park. As consumer demand for sustainable seafood grows, we can be hopeful that in the future there will be no need for an 'Avoid' list on the Seafood Watch pocket guide.