I start my day at the grocery store, staring at a display of fish filets in various shades of pink and white. There’s the coral flesh of fresh Alaskan salmon next to chalk-white wedges of sea bass. Delicate filets of sole, halibut and rockfish rest alongside piles of Gulf shrimp in varying sizes. A giant poster behind the brightly lit counter assures me that these items come from “sustainable sources” which meet the store’s “quality standards.” However, a simple poster cannot assuage my skeptical side. I need more information to come to an informed decision. I’m left with a pressing question on the tip of my tongue: Where did this seafood come from and how was it caught?
But let’s start at the source. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the authority on ocean health and the driving force behind the Seafood Watch program — a widely-respected consumer guide to sustainable seafood — two-thirds of the ocean’s wild fish population is in steep decline, compared to levels 30 years ago. Concurrently, farmed fish is increasingly becoming the main source of seafood in our diet. While aquaculture (the farming of fish and seafood) is, theoretically, an ideal alternative to wild seafood, its applications vary around the globe, resulting in a range of environmental impacts. Farmed carnivorous fish — like salmon, for instance — need to be fed over three pounds of wild fish for each pound gained, exacerbating the problem of overfishing. Additionally, fish farms located in open waters leach fish waste, antibiotics and disease into the open sea, further destroying the ocean ecosystem.
Against this backdrop, the aspiring sustainable seafood customer not only needs to understand the different varieties and sub-varieties of fish available, but also its provenance and how it was caught. For example, it’s fine to consume Atlantic Cod from Iceland or the Northeast Arctic, where populations are well-managed and caught with a hook. However, it’s not advisable to indulge in Atlantic Cod harvested in the US and Canada because they’re harvested with trawlers, an unselective method that traps and kills other marine life like dolphins and sea turtles (collectively known as “bycatch“). You’d be best to apprise yourself of the difference between hook-and-line and longline fishing, and trust that your fishmonger has reliable suppliers who really sell him Atlantic Cod from Iceland caught with a hook and not a trawler.
Driven by a desire to mitigate the environmental impact of seafood consumption, Bay Area native Martin Reed started i love blue sea, which is currently the only retail distributor of sustainable seafood in the US. ”There are lots of fisheries that are responsibly harvesting seafood and I felt that we could add value by helping bring their products to market,” he said.
Recognizing the complexities facing the consumer looking to make an informed choice about their seafood, i love blue sea supplies a mix of farmed and wild seafood to retail customers and restaurants that fall under Seafood Watch’s “Green” (recommended) list through their online store. Said Martin, “It’s a common misnomer that [buying] all wild or all farmed [fish] is a good way to support sustainable seafood. In reality, it’s much more nuanced than that. There are good and bad choices, in terms of sustainability, with both wild and farmed seafood, so I’m more interested in whether the method of harvest is done responsibly.”
As a business looking to add transparency and consistency to the opaque process of sourcing seafood, guides like Seafood Watch are an invaluable resource. “We’re not scientists. We’re a business so we look to the experts for guidance,” said Martin. “It becomes a slippery slope when businesses start setting ‘standards’ for their products.”
In an industry that operates predominantly on trust between each step of a complex supply chain, qualifying that trust is the most time-consuming part of the job. According to Martin, “We spend most of our time finding the most sustainable options to offer. Our first step is to source seafood items from fisheries where fraud (mislabeling) is not present, such as shellfish. Most oysters, mussels and clams are farmed in the ocean and are filter-feeders so they actually clean the surrounding waters.”
“It gets trickier with larger fish,” he continued. “We didn’t sell Yellowfin or Ahi Tuna in the first seven months because there’s a high risk of mislabeling, intentionally or otherwise. We finally introduced it for sale when we were certain that we had a trustworthy buyer getting us tuna caught with a hook and line out of General Santos in the Philippines. We then check the documentation that arrives with each shipment to ensure that this is where the fish actually originates and determine its fishing method.”
Given the tediousness of the whole process, what keeps Martin and his team doing what they’re doing?
“It’s easy to be horrified and intimidated by the mass of information out there and just be put off and say, ‘I’m going to stop eating seafood for good.’ But that’s not helping the situation,” he began.
“Consumers need to vote with their pocketbooks, seek out sustainable seafood companies and not be afraid to ask difficult questions and support those who are working to preserve and enhance our oceans. That will hopefully show the fishermen (who use unsustainable methods) that there is a demand and there are rewards for sustainable fishing practices, ultimately convincing them to make the switch.”
From initiatives like Seafood Watch and Greenpeace’s International Seafood Red List to in-depth articles about fishing and cookbooks that entertain and inform, the wealth of information available can be daunting to the novice pescatarian looking to analyze and improve their seafood choices. But, as is often the case with any body of knowledge, it’s up to us as consumers to embrace the arsenal of information at our fingertips and get informed about how that sumptuous lobster roll came to be.
What’s in your arsenal of sustainable seafood resources?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.