Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Sustaining Seafood

sunsetwatch video

If you are a crazy foodie (like me) you have probably fallen for the romantic appeal of a seaside picnic.  A seaside picnic shared with good friends, consisting of marvelously prepared seafood magically presented at sunset.

I have recently begun to feel like I was in a rut. We have all been there. You know what I mean. So I have to admit that this particular foodie fantasy was beginning to take a front seat in my daily thoughts.

It started last summer when my good friend Liz suggested a crab cookout on the beach at the La Jolla cove, here in California.

Liz and I went to high school together.  And despite the passage of all these many months since graduation we still get together regularly. The idea of a cookout, involving crab, at the beach was an “A+” idea in my book. But, life being what it is the picnic never became a reality. I should say never became a reality until now.

steamed dungeness crabs are a sustainable choiceWhen a wintertime Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 challenge came to me I knew I was going to resurrect Liz’s crab cookout. It just seemed so perfect. I mean think of all those poor, cold climate online suckers (I don’t mean you of course—you were invited… didn’t you get your invitation?). They would see us lolling about the beach eating fabulous food in January! They would absolutely hate us! I love it when people absolutely hate me… I bet you do too.

Of course, once the party planning was set in motion I began to over-think it, as I have been known to do.

The world we live in is changing. We can no longer take for granted that the lifestyle we enjoy will be sustainable for future generations. We have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren.

I love seafood and believe eating it to be one of life’s great pleasures. But the path we are on makes it fairly certain that many of the seafood delicacies we enjoy today will be gone, some as early as 2050.

Do you love seafood as much as I do? I hope you do. I actually hope you love it enough to stop and think about the consequences of that love.

Love, indeed, has consequences and condoms are not always the answer!

Fishing is an ancient practice. Fishing has helped sustain the human race and was one of the first important steps human societies took towards developing a market-based food supply chain. There are deeply important cultural associations attached as well.

But in the last few decades, the way we get fish to market has begun to radically alter our marine ecosystems. Overfishing, environmental degradation and destructive harvest practices are becoming cataclysmic.  Many of the world’s fisheries are in danger of collapsing (a fishery is defined as the organized harvest of a certain species of fish or shellfish).

In 1992 one of the world’s most productive fisheries, the Canadian cod fishery did collapse. It was a resource that had seemed inexhaustible and had been fished without interruption for nearly 500 years. The Canadian government stepped in, hoping better regulation could solve the problem.

But it soon became obvious that the only way to assure the future production of this important food was to completely close the fishery indefinitely. 40,000 people were put out of work.

The same thing is happening right now to the salmon fisheries in the United States. Regulation has become necessary. The financial hardships to the fishing industry are devastating.  But there is no guarantee that these fisheries can be maintained. Stronger measures may have to be taken. But no one knows if any of these steps will work.

This is just part of what makes this problem abysmally complex. There are social implications, scientific implications, and financial, religious and political consequences. The causes, ramifications, side effects can all be disagreed upon, debated, and still hugely ignored.

But the time has come… something must be done.

There are 4 areas to understand when discussing sustainable seafood: Aquaculture, Bycatch, Overfishing, and Habitat Damage.

Aquaculture is the practice of farming seafood for human consumption. Similar practices have been in effect for thousands of years with other types of food. I leave it to another debate to decide the effectiveness of these practices in those contexts.

But in regards to seafood, there are some successes with Aquaculture that is for sure. Today, nearly half of our seafood comes from aqua-farms. There is no realistic way to avoid eating seafood produced in this manner.  I am not advocating that. Still, there are important distinctions to be made and education is an important tool. One I hope you will use.

Most of the oysters consumed in the United States, and many of our clams and mussels, are farm-raised. This practice has gone a long way in making these foods more widely available; therefore less expensive. These farms provide livelihoods to many people and are generally believed to be a boon to the long-term sustainability of these products. This is largely due to the fact that their production does not harm or destroy the very environment necessary for their further culture.

These bi-valves perform their duty to the eco-system as a farmed product the same as they do in the wild. They filter tiny plankton from the water as nourishment. Thereby sustaining themselves and filtering the water so that other creatures can thrive. There is no need for supplemental feeding, which pollutes the water and throws the ecological balance off kilter. Often with devastating results to their neighboring species.

Fish farming has not been nearly so successful. In this area of aquaculture, pens are constructed in the ocean. Thousands of fish are forced to cohabitate. They produce tons of fecal waste. They pass along bacterial and viral infections among themselves and their wild neighbors. This makes the use of antibiotics necessary. The feces and antibiotics migrate to the ocean around the farm and alter the natural ecosystem. Native species are put at risk or disappear from the area completely.

That amazingly cheap, color enhanced, salmon available at Costco and labeled Farm Raised Atlantic Salmon is a particularly egregious product farmed with these practices. While the U.S. has laws to protect the environment and the waters near our shores, we have less control in open international waters or the areas controlled by other nations. So it’s very much buyer beware.

Another huge factor contributing to the problem is that of Bycatch.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 25% of the animals caught by the commercial fishing industry die as unwanted or unintentional catch. From large mammals to tiny krill.

The ocean is amazingly complex. Every organism has a role to play in the overall health of the entire ecosystem. Small baitfish may not be appetizing to humans, but they do sustain the larger fish we (and other predators of the sea) do eat.  What will happen to our beloved entrees if they are deprived of a robust, healthy diet?

Also, bycatch often kills the young fry necessary in rebuilding the depleted populations of our favorite fish. If they are disproportionately killed off the future balance of that species is affected.

Again. I do not advocate ending the practice of aquaculture, even for the fish varieties whose farming practices are harming our oceans. And fishing is an ancient and honorable profession. But awareness is necessary. As consumers, we must demand responsible practices. These demands will lead to innovation. It’s already begun to happen.

Here in the United States shrimp farmers are experimenting with systems that can be located inland, far from the coast. In the future, this may be the best way to raise fish. It’s been done in the past with catfish and trout. Perhaps the day when salmon farming can be moved inland is not so far away. This, of course, may lead to another host of issues. But if we harvest these species into extinction today, they will not be available for the innovators of tomorrow.

But the truth for today is that farmed fish and shellfish can only supplement our seafood supply.  They cannot replace the variety and abundance of seafood from the wild. To enjoy this tremendous resource we must turn to more traditional fishing practices.

Which leads to a discussion about what is perhaps the most important factor in the depletion of the oceans fish resources. Overfishing. But this problem is far more complex than merely saying people fish too much and they should fish less. This is not feasible. The population is growing– people must eat.

The definition of overfishing is simply catching fish at a rate that is faster than they can reproduce. There is no single formula. Fish biology varies from species to species. So the key is to adopt practices that give each species a fighting chance of maintaining their numbers. In some species, we merely need to give the population a break, a chance for their numbers to bounce back. For others, it is a matter of understanding their biology.

Pacific Rockfish, Chilean Seabass and Orange Roughy all live very long lives. They are “designed” to live long lives. So timely and multiple offspring have not been biologically vital for the continuation of these species. Unless of course a super-predator like mankind gets involved.

A Pacific Rockfish was caught in 2001 that was believed to have been 205 years old.  It’s easy to see how fishing too much and too often can quickly deplete these fisheries.

But Cod reproduce quickly and profusely. Yet this species is declining in the Atlantic and is threatened by overfishing. Why? It seems the prolific Cod should be able to keep up with the pace of human consumption. They have for over 500 years.

The Cod’s inability to reproduce at high enough rates to keep up with demand is not because they cannot reproduce themselves quickly enough. Biologically speaking, they should be able to. But the problem lies with the method they are fished. In recent times the advent of bottom trawlers has so destroyed the ocean floor where the Cod live, breed and incubate, that there is no way for the environment to protect enough Cod fry to ensure they grow to be of a size for human consumption.

Which brings us to the last issue adding to the difficulties attached to maintaining a sustainable supply of seafood. Habitat damage.

Man in so many ways is punishing the ocean. Pollution is one type of damage we inflict upon our seas and the creatures that live there. But our modern fishing practices are often deplorable. The bottom trawler I mentioned literally bounces along the ocean floor often dragging destructive equipment designed to muck up the rocks and reefs. It can take hundreds of years to repair this damage.

Dredging is (arguably) even worse. In this case, heavy chain mesh nets are dragged through the silt and sand pulling up everything in its path. The valuable scallops or sea urchins are harvested, the rest of the bycatch simply tossed back into the sea. Often in deep water; or miles away from the natural habitat of any of the creatures “lucky enough” to survive the dredging.

I do not pretend to have answers to these problems. And though I try, I cannot even tell you that I am truly a good consumer of the seafood I so enjoy.

So I have to ask…will more regulation force the industry to change its ways? Or is it better to let the market prevail? Will consumers demand alternative practices, which in turn will make room for innovation to the industry.

I don’t know. I can only educate myself, pass along the best information I have and hope the debate opens and answers are developed.

The Seafood Watch has developed a series of pocket guides. Download one. Educate yourself about best practices. There is no reason to avoid seafood.

It’s important because these problems reach further than merely keeping this food-obsessed “yacker” sourced up with tasty tidbits from the sea. Because these practices, you see, not only damage marine eco-systems and send species into extinction. They actually threaten the economic stability of tens of millions of people in the developing world and exacerbate the ongoing crisis of world hunger, now and into the future.

But I admit I was not exactly thinking about all this on the beautiful evening my friends and I enjoyed the sunset over the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla. We were too busy, eating, laughing and loving life…

steamed dungeness crabs are a sustainable choiceBut I can promise you; I made the best choices I could. I planned the menu with an eye towards sustainability. These choices included: Anchovies, Dungeness Crab (U.S.A. trap-caught), Yellowfin Tuna (U.S.A line-caught) all considered Eco-Best by the Environmental Defense Fund. And Sea Scallops (U.S.A. wild-caught) considered a “good alternative” by Seafood Watch and “fine to be enjoyed in moderation”.

So you see, I hope my interest and my love for foods that are gifts from the ocean can in some small way impact others enough to think about their choices. I mean, honestly, what kind of foodie future do we want to pass down to those who will come after us? Because they are coming, and they will be hungry. GREG

California Crabbin’ by cookshow-intl


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Greg Henry