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The life aquatic

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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Seafood. The very word conjures up warm breezes and beachfront restaurants. And — thanks to our increasingly industrialized food system — seemingly endless supply.
“In the past 20 years, a lot of seafood has gone from luxury items to commodities,” says Sheila Bowman, the outreach coordinator for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which publishes a comprehensive pocket guide to seafood sustainability. “We can’t all expect to have all-you-can-eat shrimp for $9.99. We couldn’t have all-you-can-eat grizzly bear either. There are just some things that aren’t generating that way.” 

Bowman isn’t alone in her worry about the way we eat seafood. She’s part of a larger chorus of environmentalists, wildlife advocates, and seafood-industry insiders who are calling for a drastic shift in the way people consume what the ocean provides. 

Seafood’s health benefits have been well publicized, and our per-capita consumption of fish has increased accordingly; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average American ate more than 16 pounds of fish and shellfish in 2006, a pound more than in 2000. But fish stocks have collapsed in one-third of the sea’s fisheries, and the rate of decline is accelerating. If current consumption rates continue, the planet’s wild seafood will be gone by 2048. Meanwhile, nearly half of the seafood consumed worldwide is farmed, and many of these aquaculture systems are not regulated nor environmentally sustainable. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=425 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/luoman" caption="What kind of fish are you eating?"]

h3. Shifting the scale

It’s not too late to shift our behavior and attitude toward seafood; if we can return to sustainable practices in the wild as well as on fish farms, there might just be a little something left over for future generations. That’s certainly what Paul Johnson believes. A fishmonger in California’s Bay Area and the author of Fish Forever (subtitled “The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood”), Johnson is cautiously hopeful about our capacity to think differently about seafood. 

Johnson worked for several years as a chef before he began supplying Bay Area restaurants (including Chez Panisse) with seafood. He soon opened his own seafood store, only to spend years watching the local wild-seafood population — along with the livelihoods of hook-and-line fishermen — decline. 

“I specifically remember this guy who’d fished for me for 18 years coming to me with a box of halibut telling me it was his last box of fish, because he’d been offered a job as a janitor,” recalls Johnson. “In today’s society, if a skilled fisherman has to go be a janitor to make a living, there’s something wrong.”

When Johnson began buying fish from the local “hook-and-line guys,” no one was using the term “sustainable.” Since then, however, he’s watched industrialized fishing (which commonly involves trawling, or actively pulling a fishing net through the water behind one or more boats) essentially take over. Today, Johnson advocates a return to eating wild local seafood, caught one fish at a time.

A push toward eating local seafood dovetails nicely with the larger local-food movement that has caught on in the past few years with foodies and environmentalists around the country. But it’s not quite the same, because in the case of wild seafood, there are legitimate questions about just how much there is to go around.
Johnson says he used to believe there simply weren’t enough fish in the sea. But recently he’s begun to advocate eating what he calls “underutilized” species. “We have to move down the food chain, closer to the bottom,” he says. If enough of us begin to eat, say, anchovies, squid, clams, and mussels — all of which reproduce quickly — he believes we can slow or possibly stop the collapse of the planet’s fisheries.

Eating lower on the food chain also addresses the problem of pollution. Industrial toxins in the ocean, such as mercury and PCBs, accumulate in fish; as smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, those toxins build up in the bodies of the bigger fish. Pregnant women are frequently advised, for example, not to eat fish high on the ocean’s food chain, such as shark, swordfish, and tuna. Dining lower on the fish scale means not just eating overfished species, but eating fewer pollutants. 

h3. Casting a mixed net

In healthy oceans, carnivores such as salmon, tuna, halibut, and shrimp do just fine. But as the wild populations of these creatures began to shrink, their fisheries became subject to stricter environmental management. Modern aquaculture, focused on growing large quantities of single seafood species, was invented as a way to meet rising demand in the face of dwindling supply. 

“A more traditional aquaculture model, used in Asia for hundreds of years, was more like polyculture,” says Johnson, “where they would grow shellfish and filter-feeding fish all in the same ponds. The detritus from the filter-feeding fish would feed the shellfish. But that whole model has disappeared.” 

The shift toward farming fish in mass quantities and concentrations has had devastating environmental consequences. Salmon, for example — a fish whose popularity has skyrocketed in the last 25 years — is highly problematic when farmed. But because the few remaining healthy wild-salmon stocks are confined to Alaska, around 60 percent of the world’s salmon comes from farms that keep the fish in pens or cages in protected coastal areas.

Carnivorous fish like salmon require fish meal and fish oil to grow — pounds and pounds of it for every pound of farmed fish. According to the World Wildlife Fund, which publishes extensive information on salmon farming, “Fish caught to make fish meal and oil represent one-third of the global fish harvest. This has contributed to the depletion of fish populations that wild-caught fish and other species rely on as a food source.” 

Because they live in close confinement, farmed fish are more susceptible to viruses and parasites; the chemicals and antibiotics given to keep the fish healthy, along with the hygiene problems of thousands of fish living in crammed quarters, results in extensive pollution of the surrounding waters. Farmed fish can also escape their pens and compete with wild fish, interbreeding and sharing the diseases picked up in the pens.

Despite aquaculture’s many problems, not everyone is against it. In fact, the Seafood Watch program includes several farmed species on its green, or recommended, list of seafood options. “I think most conservation organizations are of the mind that wild populations are not going to be able to sustain the demand,” says Bowman, “so farming is going to have to step up and be a solution.” 

Many consumers read about farmed salmon and tend to generalize, assuming that all farmed fish are a bad choice. “The bigger question is, how do you farm?” says Bowman. “Is it like with the majority of cattle farming, where there are feedlots of corn-fed cows that are inhumanely kept and mass-produced? Or do you do something a little more artisanal? Do you keep the density down and keep the stress down and try to go for something a little more in keeping with the fish’s natural cycle?”


h1. Sustainable tips

Eat lower on the food chain: less tuna and salmon, more shellfish and freshwater fish

Eat smaller portions

Support ecologically sound fish farms

Pay attention to how your fish is caught: line or trawl?

Eat fish at home instead of in restaurants

Try omega-3 alternatives to fish


Bowman also echoes Johnson about the importance of eating lower on the food chain. “Think about it,” she says. “What other carnivore do you and I eat, besides salmon and tuna? We don’t eat any carnivorous land-based wildlife.” 

In the case of freshwater fish — such as catfish, trout, sturgeon, and tilapia — closed ecosystems in inland tanks, channels, or ponds can be a better choice environmentally, as these systems help minimize both disease and escape. They can also help pull consumer demand for protein away from the ocean. Some closed systems are also producing fish with considerably lower mercury levels. 

Ken Beer grows catfish and sturgeon in a closed ecosystem in California’s Central Valley, a rich agricultural area that happens to be the world’s current capital of sturgeon farming. "There is nothing inherently bad about farming fish,” Beer, whose aquaculture company is called The Fishery, told Edible San Francisco in 2006. “There are just some folks with bad practices. One of the advantages of a closed system is the ability to be able to monitor for clean, healthy fish. There is no reason a bad-tasting or unhealthy fish should ever come out of a well-run aquaculture operation.”

h3. Sustainability at home

Most Americans eat the majority of their seafood in restaurants. It makes sense, then, that chefs and restaurant owners are a major target of today’s sustainable-seafood movement. But there’s nothing preventing us from preparing more of our seafood at home. 

And that, says Johnson, is where those underutilized species can make for a real culinary adventure. The key, he believes, is learning a few simple techniques and a few good sauces. “Sardines might be overpowering,” he says, “but if you put a nice salsa verde with lots of vinegar on it, that cuts through the oiliness of the fish, and you might be surprised at how tasty they can be.”

Another sustainable choice is smaller portions. “The typical American diet is a 32-ounce porterhouse or a 12-ounce chunk of salmon,” says Johnson. Such portion sizes, he says, need to shrink. “We shouldn’t be focusing on protein as the biggest part of the meal; we have to supplement with grains and vegetables and just eat three or four ounces of protein at a time.”

What about those health guidelines that recommend getting regular doses of essential fatty acids from fish? “Obviously eating fish is a great way to get it,” says Bowman, “but the big message from the dieticians at the aquarium is, ‘Mix it up.’ Maybe have some wild salmon one day and maybe a meal of tuna next week, but try to spread around what you’re eating in order to get these good oils.”

Another option is supplements. “Supplemental fish-oil tablets are a good choice,” says Bowman. “They’re often made from the extra pieces of fish — the tails, heads, etc. — and those are a better source that going the farmed-salmon route.” Supplements are also popular with those concerned about mercury, as most brands are reputed to remove all but trace amounts of most pollution.
There are also many non-seafood sources of essential fatty acids, which have been shown to benefit the heart, skin, and even people’s moods. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in nuts, eggs, flaxseeds, and some fruits and vegetables. Some scientists are working on making micro-algae (the original source of essential fatty acids, eaten by fish) available to consumers interested in bypassing the rest of the ocean food chain altogether.

In truth, the no-fish diet may begin to appeal to more and more informed eaters as time passes. But like meat-eating and other highly complex decisions regarding food, it’s good to know there are sustainable options on both sides of the decision-making fence. 

“When they see our seafood program, a lot of people say, ‘That’s it, I’m giving up fish,’” says Sheila Bowman. “But we want people to support the guys who are doing the right thing, the fishers who are in there making positive changes.”

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway is a writer and editor based in Berkeley, California, with a newfound love for squid.

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