More than 3 billion people on earth rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. Fish alone provide 16.6 percent of the total worldwide consumption of animal protein. The average American consumed approximately 14.4 pounds of seafood last year. There are many mouths to feed, but are there really plenty of fish in the sea? For the next two weeks we will take a look at sustainable seafood to understand how to enjoy marine life and eat it too.
What is sustainable seafood? There are multiple agencies that rate the “sustainability” of seafood. Generally, sustainability means that the ocean ecosystem will be healthy and diverse far into the future—for the health of the environment and to continue to provide valuable resources to humans. There are many criteria that help us know that seafood will be able to continue to thrive, and agencies define them differently. Generally considerations include:
The health of the stock population, the method of harvesting or farming the food, and the management strategy.
Another way of putting it: SEX, SEASON, STRATEGY
Sex—is the animal male or female? More specifically, what is its life history? It is important to understand the life of the animal to allow it to reproduce and replenish the population. Slow growing animals, that do not reproduce for many years, are particularly vulnerable.
Season—when was it caught? Also related to life history, it is important to know the breeding season before taking an animal. Seasons may also affect how safe it is to eat certain seafood.
Strategy—Farmed or wild-caught? What type of farm? What type of fishing gear? All of these questions are important, and different strategies are more appropriate for different regions of the world and for different types of fish.
What is happening in the oceans now? The ocean was once thought of as a bountiful, endless provider. Now, as we see extinctions and fish population crashes worldwide, we must realize that the ocean’s resources are not bottomless. We are beginning to understand that management should not only focus on individual fish stocks, but also the complex web of interactions within an ecosystem. Some regions are now trying to protect their resources and are slowly and sometimes painfully restricting fishing with protected areas, catch limits, method limits and attention to whole ecosystem health. These protected areas and areas of management are showing that the ocean can recover—if we give it a chance.
How do I know if my food is sustainable? There are many resources that can guide you as a consumer. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is one of the most rigorous and well-known. On that site you can find news, articles, activities and of course, recommendations for what to buy—there are even wallet-sized guides and mobile apps that can guide you. The most important step is to know what you are looking at—from there you can find out what you need to know.
Unfortunately, seafood fraud has risen with the demand for seafood and scarcity of certain resources. Seafood fraud occurs mostly at the restaurant and grocer level—most vendors dealing with whole fish can identify what they are purchasing, but at the level where fish are being sold in cuts it is much more difficult to know what they are. Low quality, or undesirable fish are often mislabeled as more desirable and expensive fish. In most cases this is simply a matter of paying more than you should, but in other cases this mislabeling can affect your health. For example, escolar is a type of fish that is not advised for human consumption due to its potential health risks. But in multiple DNA studies, a majority of “white tuna” served at sushi restaurants was actually this undesirable fish—in fact, “white tuna” isn’t even on the FDA’s list of approved fish labels.
Generally it is best to avoid un-labeled or poorly labeled seafood. At a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask—they should know where their fish is coming from. If you’d rather not ask, here is a list compiled by the Aquarium of the Bay of Bay Area restaurants that serve sustainable seafood. By making yourself aware of what is on your plate, you can make choices that are good for the ocean and good for your health.