This article is part of a package on ethical seafood. For mouth-watering recipes, sustainable seafood news, and myriad resources to help readers stay informed and eat sustainably visit Sustainable Seafood.
The world’s oceans are being transformed, and not for the better.
Around the world, unappetizing creatures are proliferating in the absence of big fish. Carpets of primitive sea squirts now cover continental shelves. The filter-feeding fish that once cleaned the oceans are being caught and ground into fertilizer, causing giant abundances of toxic plankton. Flotillas of jellyfish, some 10 miles square, are stinging sea cages full of salmon to death.
Scientists now know that the eating habits of a single species, Homo sapiens, are driving these changes. By knocking out the chain’s upper levels (which include predatory fish like tuna, swordfish, and shark) through violent overfishing, and skimming off the middle and bottom for industrial use, we are changing, perhaps permanently, the structure of an environment that nourishes us. Unless we adjust our attitude toward seafood, ours might be among the last generations able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught wild fish.
The good news is that there is a way to eat that balances conservation and health—even when it comes to the complex, multispecies cuisine that is seafood. And it can be done without leaving the oceans, or our plates, empty.
Choosing fish ignorantly is no longer an option. In too many cases, following the line connecting the fish on the plate to the hook or net that caught it—or the aquaculture pond it was grown in—leads directly to a scene of devastation. Popcorn shrimp in the strip malls of America leads to poisoned drinking water in some of the world’s poorest countries. Steamed wrasse in Shanghai, to corals poisoned by cyanide and ripped apart by dynamite. Roasted monkfish in New York, to the Atlantic seafloor reduced to mud by bottom trawls.
Not much can stand in the way of supertrawler nets, whose mouths, held open by doors that can weigh 12,000 pounds each, are big enough to swallow whole houses. The steel rollers that keep the net off the sea bottom plow through corals, sea fans, sponge gardens, and other fragile, centuries-old structures, on the hunt for shrimp, cod, monkfish, and orange roughy. We are, in effect, clear-cutting the oceans. Off the coasts of Florida, bottom trawling has ground 90 percent of the state’s Oculina coral reefs into rubble.
“Imagine using a bulldozer to catch songbirds for food—that’s what it’s like,” says Sylvia Earle, an American biologist who has led more than 60 deep-sea expeditions, describing the devastation of bottom trawling.
Wallet cards and eco labels, though great tools, are only a beginning. One of the most effective measures for empowering consumers would also be the simplest to enact: Policy makers need to demand increased transparency from the dangerously opaque seafood industry. As long as consumers are kept in the dark about where their fish comes from, they will never be able to make sound purchasing decisions.
When is the last time you saw a can of tuna that told you how the fish inside was caught? Tuna canners, in Europe and North America, are not even required to tell consumers what species is in the can, not even what ocean it came from. For obvious reasons, seafood sellers don’t want to disclose any more information than they have to; an informed consumer might be inclined to avoid canned albacore tuna caught in the eastern Pacific, where purse seines scoop up sea turtles, or fish sticks made with cod that came from the pirate-infested Barents Sea.
At the very least, labeling standards need to meet those in Japan. Supermarkets need to inform their clients whether fish is wild-caught or farm-raised, whether it is being sold preserved, previously frozen, or fresh, and, most importantly, where it was caught (or, if it was farmed, where it was raised). A package should mention the method of capture—whether it was caught by hand-line, in a trap, or by a trawl.
Not knowing what species we’re eating, where it came from, and how it was caught or raised also endangers consumers’ health. The flesh of some common fish, we now know, can be toxic. Farmed salmon can contain dangerously high levels of carcinogenic dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls. Two meals of long-lived wild fish such as halibut or swordfish in less than 24 hours can more than double the amount of mercury in an adult’s blood.
In spite of these risks, fish and seafood are inspected much less rigorously than even the cheapest sides of beef. There is no Food and Drug Administration, British Food Standards Agency, or Canadian Food Inspection Agency seal of approval for seafood; in most jurisdictions, processing plants are inspected only once a year.
Retailers routinely pass off farmed salmon as wild-caught. The cheap shrimp found on fast-food menus is frequently treated with antibiotics. Scallops (as well as shrimp and even wild salmon) are soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate, a suspected neurotoxicant used in paint strippers, to keep them from drying out in transit. High-grade tuna is treated with carbon monoxide to prevent it from turning brown; you can leave it in a car trunk for a year, and it will still be lollipop red.
In the absence of strong laws demanding accurate labeling, what’s a seafood lover to do?
“Ask questions,” says marine ecologist Boris Worm, lead author of the much-publicized study published in Science that projected the collapse of the world’s fisheries. “Always ask questions—it’s the only way. We have to become conscious about the fish we’re eating. We do that with other products: We’ll look at the list of ingredients and make choices that help the environment and are good for our own health and the health of our children. We need to apply the same standard to seafood.”
When we do, we find that there is still a lot for an ethically inclined seafood lover to eat. Quite a lot, in fact, given all that is happening to the oceans. In spite of all the news about residues of banned antibiotics, about dementia-inducing mercury, about hunting of the last big predator fish to near extinction—in spite of all the bad news, I have not sworn off seafood. For every fish to cross off your list, there are several more to add.
I now get excited about sardines, especially if they are fresh-caught and barbequed. I have discovered a world of fantastically flavorful clams, quahogs, razorshells, and mussels. I don’t have to go through life without fish and chips: line-caught haddock is a sustainable choice, and one I actually prefer to cod. To my surprise, I am happy to eat fast-food sandwiches made with sustainably fished Alaskan pollock. I’ve learned the pleasures of oak-smoked kippers, herring in cream sauce, and sake-marinated sablefish. I now seek out oily fish like anchovies and mackerel: so high in omega-3s, so low in toxins.
What you choose to have for dinner matters. For your health, and for the oceans. When a hot chef chooses to put a deep-sea fish like orange roughy on the menu, it matters. When a food writer raves about another to-die-for toro dinner, without mentioning that bluefin is close to extinction, it matters. When a supermarket buyer sources flounder or halibut from an overfished stock, it matters. And when we buy fish without caring enough to find out where it came from—well, when you multiply that decision by a couple of billion mouths—it really, really matters.