Maybe you have heard that eating beef is one of the biggest contributors to your carbon footprint, much more so than driving. However, if you are like many of us, you may not have thought about how eating seafood affects the environment.
Whether you live by the coast or thousands of miles from the nearest shoreline, the biggest impact you have on the oceans is through your diet. Beyond its health benefits and its cultural significance, there is no denying how delicious lobster with freshly-squeezed lemon tastes on a hot summer day. With a seemingly (and deceptively) abundant supply of inexpensive seafood, it can be hard to say no to that double order of fish tacos. But can the seas really provide an endless bounty of food? Read this easy-to-follow guide to enjoy seafood sustainably.
The State of Our Oceans
Americans now eat four times as much seafood as we did 50 years ago, but fish populations have not been able to keep up with our increasing appetites. By conservative estimates, about 32% of world fish stocks are estimated to be overexploited, depleted, or desperately in need of respite and recovery, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Large, open-ocean fish such as tuna have declined by an estimated 90% since 1952, according to World Watch.
Too Many Fish in the Sea?
So how did our ocean’s coveted resources get to this state? Once an artisanal and local pursuit, fishing has now become an industrial production process. Our technological capacity to fish out the oceans combined with ineffective policy, regulation, and enforcement of the open waters make overfishing almost inevitable.
Harmful fishing practices also contribute to this state of fish underpopulation. The way most fishers catch seafood produces high amounts of bycatch—marine life caught on accident and then dumped back into the sea either dead or dying.
For example, when trawlers run nets along the bottom of the ocean to catch shrimp, they inevitably snag large amounts of crab and fish that they were not targeting, including young fish who have not matured and reproduced yet. According to a study by Lorayne Meltzer, bycatch can account for as much as 84% of the total catch of shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States.
Could fish farming be the answer? About half of the the seafood consumed globally comes from aquaculture now.
Actually, fish farming has its own set of negative environmental impacts. In fact, fish farming is a net drain on global fish stocks. On average, it takes three pounds of fish meal to raise one pound of farmed salmon. Most fish farms marginalize local communities and leech invasive species and pollutants into the surrounding areas. Fish farms also are the leading cause of mangrove deforestation.
What Can We Do?
Seafood is now one of the most important internationally traded goods in the world. For developing countries, net exports of fish products are often higher than any other agricultural commodity. What drives global market forces underlying overfishing? We do! We as consumers are in an opportune position of power to shape the fishing sector.
You can harness your purchasing power by following these simple steps to avoid eating particular fish that contribute to overfishing. Eating seafood that is responsibly harvested, local, and low on the food chain, in addition to not eating seafood too frequently are important ways we can have a positive impact on the ocean. We have already begun to witness seafood retailers responding and offering sustainable seafood options for their customers. Here is how you can plug into the process.
Seafood to Eat, Seafood to Avoid
It can be easy to get caught up in confusion over which species from which locations have a low impact on our oceans. Luckily, certifications, ecolabels, and seafood guides are becoming more accessible to the everyday seafood eater. When you are at your grocery store, look for products that have been certified sustainable from programs such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The Sierra Club came out with a sustainable sushi smartphone app and print-out guide.
Why Should I Care?
Overfishing would lead to more than a culinary catastrophe. The oceans provide us with oxygen, carbon sequestration, and a shipping route for 90% of internationally-traded goods, not to mention that one in every six American jobs are marine-related. The ocean also holds enormous historic, artistic, cultural, and spiritual significance. Share with Millennial Magazine why the ocean matters to you!
Simple Sustainable Seafood Tips for your diet:
- Eat species low on the food chain. Avoid top predator species like tuna and salmon in favor of herbivore species like tilapia and catfish.
- Buy local, buy American. The United States has more stringent fishing and farming standards than our foreign counterparts.
- Short life and fast maturity:
- Best Choices: Species that reproduce early in life and have short life spans, such as anchovies or mackerel.
- Avoid: Long-living fish that reproduce late in life, such as orange roughy, shark, sea bass, and grouper.
- Wild-caught vs. farm-raised. In regards to fin-fish, wild-caught are generally a better choice than farm-raised.
- Wild-caught: choose pole and line or troll.
- Best Choices: The pole and line method produces little-to-no bycatch. Troll-caught is also preferable. The use of bycatch reduction devices such as TEDs/BRDs can help alleviate bycatch. Albacore tuna (Canada and US Pacific, troll/pole) is a low-impact choice.
- Avoid: Bottom trawling is one of the worst, accounting for up to 50% of global bycatch. Long-lining and gill netting are other environmentally devastating methods, often causing sea turtle deaths. Avoid imported wild-caught shrimp, as most comes from bottom trawling.
- Avoid imported farmed seafood. Most imported farmed seafood comes from open system fish farms, often grown in dredged ponds within estuaries.
- Choose closed system U.S. fish farms. These are a better choice for farmed fish as they are usually operated in recirculating large tanks, minimizing pollution and water waste.
- Spiny lobster (from FL, CA, or Baja, Mexico);
- U.S. farmed oysters, mussels, and scallops;
- Pacific U.S. sardines and halibut; and
- U.S. trap-caught Dungeness crab and stone crab.
Species to Avoid:
- Imported Shrimp (both farmed and wild caught);
- Tuna, unless it is troll or pole-and-line caught;
- Farmed salmon;
- Chilean sea bass (also called Patagonian Toothfish); and
- Grouper (from U.S. Atlantic or U.S. Gulf of Mexico).
- Download Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch Guide for your area.
- Find a local retailer of MSC certified seafood.
- Where does your favorite restaurant rank in terms of seafood sustainability? Find out on Fish2Fork.
- Get involved at Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies, a nonprofit working on community based initiatives towards a sustainable seafood future.