The Future of Seafood

Last year I paid a visit to Miya's Sushi, in New Haven, a restaurant that tries* to be sustainable

We are aware that the restaurant industry has a very harmful impact on the environment; in particular, the traditional cuisine of sushi is destroying our oceans. Therefore, we try to maintain a restaurant in as ecologically responsible manner as possible. We do our best to not use ingredients that are either overfished or that in their production have a negative impact on the environment. As a result, half of our vast menu is vegetable-centered; the other half does not utilize traditional sushi ingredients such as Toro, Bluefin Tuna, Big Eye Tuna, certain Yellowfin, Unagi, Red Snapper, Maine Sea Urchin, Octopus, and so on. Instead, we’ve created dishes that include unconventional sushi ingredients such as Catfish, which, unlike the farming of many farmed fish, are grown in confined ponds that make it virtually impossible to cross-contaminate other species or destroy the aquatic ecosystem around them.

I was reminded of it because on a popular Facebook group called International Paleo Movement Group, there was an argument between me and Lana, the admin of Ethical Omnivore Movement, a facebook page where she posts various articles and other information.

Lana thinks it is unacceptable to eat any seafood ever because we need to give our damaged oceans a rest. That there is no such thing as sustainable seafood. She was promoting a film called Sea the Truth, which is produced by the Dutch animal rights party.

They also produced Meat the Truth and I think here it's where we find parallels between many tactics that animal rights activists use to discourage omnivory. The main tactic is to highlight parts of the industry that is destructive and then also highlight incidences where corrupt governments and NGOs labeled meat or fish sustainable where it wasn't. The implication is that the entire industry is bad and it is impossible to buy sustainable versions of these products. With the growth of the local food movement, in meat at least, this position has become untenable since a growing number of people have personal relationships with the farms they buy from and see that not all meat is produced in the way portrayed by these documentaries. So they also increasingly ally themselves with other arguments that appeal to self-interest such as that meat or fish is all full of toxins or will clog your arteries and kill you slowly.

They also attack small producers, trying the best they can to find small producers that are poorly run in order to undermine consumer's confidence that they can find good products or to highlight the idea that even small producers can have a negative effect on the environment such as Meat the Truth's emphasis on methane that even grass-fed cows produce. 

They want you to firmly believe that there is never an acceptable meat or seafood to buy. 

When this kind of stuff gets incorporated by the paleo movement, it becomes even worse since so many people in this movement are rabidly anti-government and anti-agriculture. Fish farming? It has the word farming in it, so it must be always bad. Government monitoring and regulation of fish stocks? Nope, because a lot of governments are corrupt. I don't even know what solution they are proposing. Lana simply said people who eat fish are being selfish and small picture and we have to personally change in order to save the ocean. 

Given that the ocean is the commons and in general owned by no one (a more sophisticated libertarian argument would attack lack of ownership), and that we can't assume that rest of the world's population is willing to give up seafood because of animal rights films, unfortunately the main viable solutions will be on a global policy level. Which definitely is difficult considering the capture of governments by industry interests, but the consensus on individual action is that it is ineffective at even making a dent on global problems like ocean health or climate change. I think even the makers of these films understand that. Marianne Thieme, the Dutch politician that helms these films, is a big supporter of bans for things she doesn't like, not trying to guilt consumers into making different buying choices. The Dutch understand this more than most people with their multiculturalism struggles. Marianne, knowing that many of the things she opposes are deeply culturally embedded, has backed bans on Kosher and Halal slaughter for example. 

I'm not saying that small local solutions aren't important, but they will fail if they rely on the commons and the commons are not protected. A good example was efforts in the Gulf to develop sustainable fisheries that were stymied by the oil spill there.

The reality on fish and meat is that it's not all black and white, that the presence of bad apples shouldn't tarnish efforts to reform the industry, develop alternatives, and lobby for regulations or other methods that protect the commons for everyone. Some methods of harvest will need to be banned like trawling (some countries have already banned them) and some species will require harvest moratoriums. 

Sustainable solutions do mean we have to consume less of certain things and not consume others at all, which is why arguments about emissions from grass-fed cows and other similar arguments can be so deceptive. Methods like pastured cattle raising are less productive, which means higher prices for consumers. Even though I get my beef at a very good price, it is still more expensive than factory-farmed beef. Which means the average consumer will buy and eat less. There are costs, but they are worth it in order to support functioning ecosystems that can produce all kinds of foods for future generations. 

Of course when you are dealing with a wild animal things get harder. You have to have sophisticated monitoring in place in order to determine what can be taken sustainably. You have to accept that some years you might not be able to hand out any tags for animals or harvest quotas. It's possible that the best solution for some of these stocks is to treat them a bit like we started treating land hunting in the US after overhunting became an issue: we heavily regulated it, de-commercialized most of it. If you want a deer, you can go out and get it yourself with a tag given out by the government. This method has already been applied to abalone in California. You have to dive to get wild abalone. Given that this is kind of dangerous, sustainable abalone farms have been developed for the commercial market.

Back at Miya's, I thought most of our sushi tasted very good. The menu describes the production method, harvesting method, and a little bit about each fish. Well, maybe not a little bit. One of our complaints was that the menu was the length of a small novel, which made it difficult to actually decide what to order. I'm not going to pretend that my own choices or even your choices can save populations of fish. For every bluefin tuna I chose not to consume, there is a consumer in a developing economy who probably just got his or her first paycheck and is going to probably order fish without looking at their "seafood watch list" card. Solving ocean problems requires large scale policy solutions, not telling a relatively well-off educated person in New York City that they are selfish for eating grouper like Lana was doing on IPMG. 

But I do think those of us in the food industry, whether its writers, chefs, or grocers can make a small dent by promoting good products and leaving bad ones off the menu. Good products might not reach everyone, but they provide business models that can be used around the world and generate demand that might spur development of similar production/harvesting elsewhere. 

We hear a lot of endangered seafood, but what about marine species that are pests? That are invasive and negatively impact ecosystems? These are ideal to consume, we just need to make sure that we are purposefully overharvesting and not replenishing. And that we accept that if we are successful, these things won't be on the menu anymore. Jackson Lander's Eating Aliens highlights some of these species. Miya's has a tasting menu of invasives.

There are also conservation success stories that have been so successful that these species flood the market, which is the case with lobster right now.

I also think that we need to embrace some forms of aquaculture. This isn't black and white either. There are bad fish farms. Maybe right now most fish farms are bad, but there are good systems that are being developed right now. Development of fish feed for aquaculture that is not itself wild harvested and is not also species inappropriate grain pap is a major issue right now. We need to look at systems that farm seafood at every level of the ecosystem, from aquatic plants to brine shrimp. I visited an aquaponics operation here at the Plant in Chicago recently and there were farming herbivorous Tilapia there. Unfortunately, with most of their diet being grain, consuming them has almost none of the benefits of consuming wild fish. Innovations in the production of DHA-rich algae could be a possible solution. Closed salt-water fish production systems are already being developed. I have had an interest in aquaculture for some time and would very much like to produce freshwater prawns on my family's farm.

Also, I can't help but notice Lake Michigan in my backyard, which is full of fish. Maybe someday once the remediation is done, we can get pollution under control so we can consume fish out of their more often. I eat fish my father catches from there sometimes, but try not to consume it very often.

Either way, we can't let ourselves be derailed by sexy documentaries and books created by people who have other motivations, namely the end of omnivory, in mind. Even as a niche market, we can drive the development of better solutions.

I recommend the book Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe which takes a look at the current state of the fish industry. It's a short read and free of extremism. When buying seafood, I would recommend Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch website. You can even print out a card to take with you to restaurants and the grocery store. They use several criteria to determine which seafood are good choices. The ideal choices come from healthy populations which only what can be replenished is harvested, using methods that do not damage the ecosystem. The ideal fishery is managed in a way that preserves and maintains the marine habitat. You can read more here. You should also take toxin levels into account like mercury and PCBs. If you take fish oil, consider switching to algae-based DHA or source your oil carefully, as much fish oil production is currently unsustainable. I used to buy Marine Stewardship Council certified fish, but based on their approval of fisheries that use trawling, I do not believe they are a trustworthy source of information.

I treat buying seafood the way I treat buying anything. There is a wrong way to produce things. There is contamination everywhere. But if I ditched anything that was possibly bad, I'd have nothing to eat. Instead, I look for and support the best I can find. This requires me to ask questions and be knowledgeable. With sardines for example, there are two main fisheries. One is threatened (Atlantic), the other thrives (Pacific). 

Personally, I've never been crazy about fish oil. I think the benefits have been exaggerated and there might actually be some negative health effects to high consumption. 

I never ever ate fish until I was about 20, when I first started trying to use diet to treat my health problems. I hated fish and remember drenching it in spices to choke it down. But now I actually appreciate the taste of many fish and think it is a very important element in the flavors of my cooking. The main seafood items in my kitchen are:

  • fish condiments: a little of these goes a long way and they last me a very long time. Fish sauce is an essential ingredient in curries, anchovies in Caesar salad dressing, and bottarga is a nice treat- it's expensive but it lasts me a very long time and substitutes very well for parmesan if you are daily free. 
  • wild fish like salmon from highly regarded fisheries: expensive, but well worth it as a treat
  • low trophic small fish like Pacific sardines and smelts (invasive)
  • what I eat out I sometimes have things farmed oysters, Maine lobsters, or farmed clams. I should cook these more at home, but I haven't really mastered them yet.

I really would like to find a better source for shrimp. When I see wild caught Oregon shrimp at Whole Foods, I definitely buy them. Since fraud is an issue, I would suggest finding a reputable fish monger and buying whole easily-identifiable fish.

So no, I don't think the solution to our ocean's problems is to leave them alone. Good fisheries are stewards of the ocean and by relying on the ocean for food, our stake in the matter is much higher. Good community fisheries can even mount effective resistant about threats like undersea drilling. I also think it's important to preserve traditional healthy livelihoods and work with small local community fisheries to adapt their traditions to new global challenges as best as we can, a sentiment Lana does not share. To her it's black and white- there is no fish from the ocean that is acceptable to eat. I won't be liking "Ethical Omnivore Movement" any time soon on Facebook. It's time for a rational omnivore movement.

* they had no information at the time I dined there on the sustainability of the rest of the menu, such as the vegetables or the grains.