How are my choices in buying certain types of seafood affecting the environment? How can I support sustainable fisheries and traditional fishing practices at my local market or grocery store?
Last week we talked water, now it's time to touch briefly on one of the most bountiful resources we pull from water; food.
People have been eating fish since pretty much the beginning of time. Today, thanks to advanced science and nutritional studies, we know that fish and seafood are deeply important to a well-rounded diet. Fish is full of healthy fats and vitamins that can help to prevent heart disease and promote healthy brain function. Additionally, according to a study by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, "seafood may help lower risk and alleviate symptoms of other chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, some types of cancer, asthma, psoriasis, and macular degeneration". All these benefits come in addition to the fact that seafood is fantastically delicious!
With all those amazing benefits, you must be asking yourself why you don't eat seafood for every meal? If you've been buying your food for long the answer probably will come to you pretty quickly. Seafood is expensive! It's definetly not something that you'll be eating on the daily if you have any sort of hopes to create a sustainable financial situation. Thankfully, it's easy enough to shop around and find good deals at local markets where they've established relationships with small-scale fishermen.
However, the cost to your wallet isn't the only cost you're paying when you buy seafood. I want to introduce to you the idea of "externalities". An externality is a concept that is widely addressed in the field of environmental economics and is the idea that the products we buy don't always have a dollar-cost that reflects their "true" cost. Take for example a snickers bar. The going rate for a Snickers bar is probably anywhere from a dollar fifty to two dollars. Mars Incorporated, the company that owns the Snickers bar, can charge so little because they cut corners. I would wager that neither the peanuts, the cocoa or the sugar used in the bars are organic. The corn grown to create the corn syrup is likely treated with pesticides and the large majority of the ingredients are chemicals; not naturally sourced, which requires additional processing. The wrapping is what we call "mixed- material" which means that it is not recyclable and this leads to millions and millions of Snickers wrappers building up in landfills. It takes processing, energy, and water to make the labels, print them, make the bars and ship them. There is a lot of waste, pollution, and corner-cutting that goes into every Snickers bar so that it can be cheap for the consumer. The concept of externalities states that really, what we pay for a product should account for all of the other "non-monetary" costs to the environment and people that the company is not being held accountable for. If a Snickers bar can create so much waste and pollution imagine how much waste a clothing item, a piece of furniture or an electronic device would generate!
Seafood is the same way. Besides the already high dollar price, most seafood you buy in stores or at restaurants is not sustainably caught. Overfishing the ocean has caused many issues both for fish and the fishing industry. Fish are disappearing at a startlingly rapid rate, and when they do disappear, many commercial fishing industries then fish down the food chain. This means that they begin to catch the prey of the fish they formerly caught, not only depleting this population but also affecting all the other larger sea creatures that feed off of the new species they are catching. We've all heard about Dolphins being caught up in tuna nets, but that's only a slice of the pie. "By-catch" (animals that are caught unintentionally) often includes sea turtles, sharks, larger fish and sometimes even mammals. Naturally, many industries are making a shift in how they fish and attempting to create lines and nets from which these animals can escape. However, according to a documentary published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 45 million pounds of by-catch are wasted daily. Even if this isn't lovable sea creatures like dolphins and turtles, it's highly likely that it is their prey. Food that these sea creatures otherwise would have used to survive is being hauled up in commercial fishing vessels and eventually wasted.
The alternative to open water fishing is farm-raised fish, which presents other problems of its own. The farmed fish often escape and can compete with wild fish for resources, eventually altering the genetic makeup of some wild fish species. Many of the farmed fish are carnivores that require large amounts of food, usually gathered from the open ocean. This creates a similar effect to fishing down the food chain as the population of the primary prey of several species is then being depleted. Also, the waste generated by these large fish farms is seeping into open waters, changing the nutrient levels and, to put it simply, making the water dirtier.
Thankfully, there are great solutions to these problems! In many places, hook and line fishermen are beginning to make a comeback! Although they don't always catch as many fish as the commercial fisherman, they catch quality fish at a sustainable rate. You can think of these guys like you might think of a master woodcarver. The product might be more expensive than a chair at Walmart but it will definetly be worth it in the end!
A simple way you can help to support sustainable farm-raised fishing is to buy fish that are herbivores. I learned from the Monetary Bay Aquarium documentary that Tilapia is a herbivore and many farm-raised catfish are being raised as herbivores as well! This means it takes fewer resources out of the ocean to raise these types of fish. Shellfish is another great way to get those seafood nutritional benefits! The best thing about shellfish is that they are essentially the most sustainable food source on the planet. They require very little food and resources and stay exactly where you put them, so there is no competition with native species or loss of biodiversity. Of course, shellfish prices are rising lately due to the recent jump in ocean acidification, but that's a conversation for another day.
All this being said, if you just really can't bear the thought of giving up your salmon, there are always the eco-labels! When at the store or local market look for a blue label that has the letters MSC (which stands for Marine Stewardship Council). This label certifies that the seafood you are buying has been sustainably caught. When eating out, ask your waiter if the seafood is sustainably caught, if they don't know, likely, it's not.
If this has you wanting to learn a little more about aquaculture (fishing) or what's going on in our world's oceans check out the report and the documentary I mentioned: