Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Fish as Food

Shopping and eating responsibly means eating with a small footprint, and not eating so much that your footprint gets too deep. It means supporting local growers who don’t use chemicals, prophylactic antibiotics or hormones. Thanks to farmers markets and consumer demand for information about how our carrots and pork shoulder were cultivated, it has become easy to stock our shelves with sustainable produce and meat. But being a responsible consumer of fish is not as easy. A 2005 ruling forced fish to be labeled by their country of origin but those labels tell us nothing about the methods used to raise or procure the harvest. Even the distinction of Wild when purchasing salmon doesn’t tell the whole story. How was it caught? How many other fish were caught (and killed) inadvertently at the same time? How far did it travel to reach your plate?

We turned our back on the ocean. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Yet I’m hopeful tides are shifting. All the reports from the Gulf of Mexico, depressing as they may be, are raising awareness about the health of our oceans. Writers like Paul Greenberg, organizations like Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, retailers like CleanFish, I Love Blue Sea, and SweetSpring Salmon are beginning to reach consumers. Even Target gets good marks from Greenpeace for selling sustainable fish. We’ve become a more educated, respectful and resourceful population with regards to what we harvest on land. It’s high time we take to the sea, and become good stewards of all our resources.

Consumer awareness may be improving but there remain mixed messages about purchasing and eating fish. The AHA tells us to eat fish twice a week, that the benefits (improved heart health, lower incidence of certain diseases) outweigh the risks (contaminants like mercury, PCBs, and dioxins). The good folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium advise we eat wild, not farmed fish, because of poor aquaculture practices harm native fish populations. Farmed fish frequently escape and spread disease among and compete for food with wild fish. The pens themselves pollute surrounding water with waste and excess feed. Further, a farmed fish raised in poor conditions, with poor feed and the use of antibiotics and hormones is just as bad as eating meat from a feedlot. And farmed fish require a lot of smaller fish to grow, resulting in a net loss in the ocean. Farmed Atlantic salmon, for example, requires three pounds of fish food (smaller fish) to yield one pound of harvested salmon, so a farmed Atlantic salmon consumes more fish than it provides.

So the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) advises we purchase only wild Alaskan salmon. But if we’ve already overfished the waters off California and most of Oregon, and the demand isn't going away, aren’t we just on borrowed time if we continue to eat wild salmon from Alaska and Canada? And air travel from Alaska greatly increases our footprint. Indeed, it would seem if we’re meant to eat locally then we’re going to need to build some environmentally friendly fish farms in our inland cities. The MBA also fails to take into account that not all fish farms employ the same practices. Some farms are making a concerted effort to produce a sustainable, low-impact product.

A quick sidebar – the local argument is such an interesting one to me. Growing up in a household that appreciated both food and travel, we sought out the local catch wherever we found ourselves. Due to overfishing, this is becoming nearly impossible to do. In San Francisco, the birthplace of the locavore movement, Dungeness crab is practically the only wild creature left to harvest. Read about fish imports in the land of locavorism here.


In 2006 Science published findings from a four-year study and predicted the world will run out of seafood by 2048 if marine species continue to decline. Other scientists concur: consumption of wild fish is unsustainable; supply does not meet global demand. Farmed fish are the future.

So how do we become responsible consumers of farmed fish? The answer lies in knowing your fish farmer, or knowing the right questions to ask at your local fish counter or restaurant. Greenpeace has been quietly compiling a Supermarket Scorecard for the past four years. I was surprised by the results:

Best
1. Target
2. Wegmans
3. Whole Foods
4. Safeway
5. Ahold
6. Harris Teeter
7. A&P
8. Delhaize
9. Wal-Mart
10. Trader Joe's

The worst, from bad to worse:
11. PriceChopper
12. ALDI
13. Kroger
14. Costco
15. SUPERVALU
16. Giant Eagle
17. Publix
18. Winn-Dixie
19. Meijer
20. H.E. B.

An interesting side note to the Greenpeace report: when they started rating supermarkets, not a single one passed. In four years, grocers have shown willingness to improve, a very positive shift.

The Greenpeace scorecard is based on policy (on things like catch method, or low by-catch numbers), inventory (selling endangered/overfished species), support of conservation measures, and transparency (labeling). Taste and product quality, which are critically important to discriminating cooks and eaters, were not factors. Whole Foods, where I buy delicious fish, pledges they know where their fish swam, what they were fed, and what they weren’t fed. Read Whole Foods' fish/shellfish standards here.

In the end, the best a consumer can do is to make informed food choices and purchase foods that that are healthy for our bodies, the land on which we dwell and the seas we are still discovering.

What you can do:
1. Buy fish from responsible retailers. I didn't even know Target sold fish, but I'll take a look.

2. Know what species to choose and which to avoid (see #3, below) or ask your fish guy. My personal faves are: Farmed tilapia (tilapia are herbivores so they don’t have the net fish loss associated with carnivorous farmed fish), Rainbow trout (environmentally friendly to farm because they are efficient at converting feed into body mass, and because they are mostly farmed in Idaho and the US has done a good job keeping escape and pollution levels low), farmed Atlantic Salmon (my fish guy at Whole Foods promises me it’s sustainable. I hope he’s right.) I have yet to try US-farmed freshwater Coho Salmon. The MBA reports this variety eats less than farmed Atlantic salmon, and has lower risk of escape/contamination issues.

3. Download and consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium's mobile or pocket guides.

4. Read and learn. Several compelling articles were a part of this research effort, including:

Farmed Fish, Food Fish; Wild Fish, Few Fish
Melissa Block, NPR

Tuna's End
Paul Greenburg, The New York Times Magazine

Farmed or wild fish: Which is healthier?
Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Is Fish Farming Safe?
Terry McCarthy/Campbell River, Time

Benefits of Fish Exceed Risks, Studies Find
Sally Squires, Washington Post

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