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I won't take the cod, thank you

Stop by the seafood section of a typical supermarket these days, and you'll see a vivid testimony to the bounty of the oceans: piles of snowy white North Atlantic cod, glistening red snapper, and thick swordfish, halibut, and sea bass. But beneath this display of abundance lurks the reality that many popular fish will soon be missing from fish markets because large numbers of them are already missing from the oceans.

Last month the National Marine Fisheries Service and ocean conservation group Oceana listed species that have declined as much as 90 percent from their estimated original populations. And earlier in the fall, the US Commission on Ocean Policy, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by President Bush, released a study warning that too many marine species are being extracted from the oceans faster than they can reproduce.

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While there is growing consensus about an impending underwater crisis, there is less agreement regarding what to do about it - particularly as it concerns the behavior of consumers, whose appetite for seafood seems to be growing with each passing year.

Americans ate a record 16.3 pounds of fish and shellfish per person in 2003, up from 15.6 pounds in 2002, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now, say ocean activists, these seafood lovers will also have to learn to be stewards of the seas' bounty - or risk seeing their favorite fish disappear forever.

But consumers often aren't sure what they should be doing.

The key to making smart seafood choices is having the right information, says George Leonard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Mr. Leonard is the science manager for the Seafood Watch project, which produces a popular line of wallet-size cards (www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp) that rank fish species according to whether consumers should purchase them or not.

While the group's assessment of individual fish stocks is based on a complex formula - five different variables are considered, including the species' history, its genetic vulnerability, and the fishing gear used to catch it - the ratings are a snap to follow.

A green light for plentiful fish

Consumers who arrive at a restaurant or supermarket, cards in hand, can see at a glance that red snapper, Atlantic cod, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass are on the "red list" of fish to avoid. Recommended choices get a green light, while fish that are threatened but not on the verge of commercial extinction get a yellow light for caution.

But surveys conducted at the aquarium indicate that consumers are hungry for still more information. While encouraged by that demand, Leonard also worries that by providing too much information Seafood Watch could end up overwhelming the vast majority of consumers, who, he notes, are largely uneducated on seafood issues.

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Dan Dupont, an Arlington, Va., resident and frequent seafood shopper, says he doesn't need a wealth of information, just a bit of guidance about what to buy and what to avoid. He's concerned about purchasing fish that are endangered, or that contain unhealthy levels of mercury.

"I worry, but sadly, I do very little research on it. Who thinks of it when they're not at the store?" Mr. Dupont says. So, for him, the most useful information would be available at the same place the fish is: at the supermarket seafood counter.

If navigating a wealth of complex data is too much for many consumers, some environmentalists are hoping that another group of seafood experts could help lead them through the murky depths: chefs.

"Chefs set trends in the food world," says Carrie Brownstein, research and outreach coordinator for the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. "An informed chef who cares about sustainability can subtly or explicitly guide consumer choices."

But an informal survey of restaurants in the Boston area reveals that while eager to set trends, chefs aren't always comfortable taking a stand on seafood issues. And many are just as confused as consumers are.

"There is so much conflicting information out there," says Eric Brennan, executive chef at Excelsior.

Georges Bank cod may have made environmentalists' list of the top 10 "missing" fish, but it's not hard to find on menus. In fact, even as North Atlantic cod stocks have dwindled, the fish long regarded as "working man's fare" has steadily worked its way up the culinary food chain and now fetches upward of $25 at Boston's top restaurants.

To their credit, many area chefs acknowledge the cod's troubled status by serving fish that's caught not with nets that are dragged across the ocean floor but with hooks and lines (so too-small fish may be tossed back). But no matter what environmentalists say, few seem ready to take cod off the menu..

Mr. Brennan bases his choice of fish on what he likes - he's a fan of cod's thick translucent flakes - and what his seafood purveyor tells him is available: "I rely on him to tell me what's out there."

When Paul Catania was trying to decide what kind of fish to serve at the Hearth and Kettle, a chain of seven Cape Cod restaurants he co-owns, he went to local fishermen to get their opinion. "We talked to the guys who catch the fish," he says, referring to members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.

Which species for fish and chips?

Last year, some of the fishermen approached Mr. Catania, asking him to consider rethinking one of his most popular dishes: fish and chips. They told him that while cod stocks were dangerously overfished, the supply of haddock was on the rebound.

"When they told me that this was the future, I put haddock on the menu," says Catania.

This summer, Hearth and Kettle began serving fish and chips made from haddock rather than cod.

Did the customers notice? "I'm finding that most people perceive haddock to be the better fish," he says. And if they want more information about how the Hearth and Kettle made its decision of what seafood to serve, they need look no farther than the table at which they're sitting. A small display explains the difference between cod and haddock and provides an explanation of the state of each.

It's a simple idea, but one that seems to be making at least a small difference.