Fish, seafood and shellfish are an excellent source of protein, and a common food choice for those on the border of vegetarianism. But making “good” seafood (fish and shellfish) choices is perhaps one of the most complicated tasks for us Conscientious Omnivores, with even more factors to consider than with the beef, poultry or egg industry. Most folks assume it’s as simple as Wild Caught = Good Choice, but we believe that is a dangerously simplistic view to take, and could prove detrimental to a variety of factors- the delicate marine ecosystem, the population of sea creatures, and your health, to name a few. So let’s explore some of the issues related to making seafood choices.
Our love for fish is, in fact, wiping them out. World consumption of fish products have more than tripled since the 1960′s; we eat more than 100 million tons of “seafood” a year.(1) According to a Food and Agriculture Organization estimate, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. A May 2010 Nature magazine issue reveals that we have only 10% of all large fish— including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skates and flounder—left in the sea. Most strikingly, the study shows that industrial fishing takes only ten to fifteen years to decimate any newly-discovered fish population to one tenth of what it was originally.
To put it another way, our grandparents probably ate a lot of Atlantic halibut, but we no longer see Atlantic halibut in our grocery stores, because they’ve been over-fished to the point of collapse (along with other Atlantic flatfish like flounder). And while you’ll still see Chilean sea bass (Patagonia toothfish) in every Whole Foods and restaurant menu, they are being over-fished at such an alarming rate that governments around the world are regulating their harvesting… to the point that criminal organizations are trading them on the black market like drugs.(2) What we choose to consume can greatly impact the marine ecosystem in this supply-and-demand market, and in the case of these exploited populations, wild-caught is certainly not a good choice.
The Marine Ecosystem
In the process of producing food, economic resources, employment, livelihood and recreation, fisheries have the potential to modify ecosystems. In the case of over-fishing, commercial fishing operations alter or affect the target resource population. However, all commercial fishing operations have the potential to affect species associated with or dependent on the fish in question, such as predators or prey. In addition, the ecosystem in which the fishery operates, and habitats in which fishing occurs, are all negatively impacted.(3)
Trawling (bottom-dragging) is the worst offender, and is often described as “fishing with bulldozers”. When fishing trawlers drag nets and gear across the ocean bottom of the ocean, they trap or kill most of the fish, mollusks and other creatures they contact. Greenpeace estimates that a single pass of a bottom trawl removes up to 20% of the sea floor flora and fauna. Trawls and dredges can destroy the delicate ecosystems that provide shelter, food and breeding grounds for fish and other species. In heavily trawled areas, it’s the equivalent of clear cutting a forest several times a year.
Fishing may also disrupt food chains by targeting specific, in-demand species. There might be too much fishing of prey species such as sardines and anchovies, thus reducing the food supply for the predators. It may also cause the increase of prey species when the target fish are predators like salmon and tuna. Fisheries can also reduce fish stocks that whales, dolphin and porpoise rely on for food.
Bycatch refers to sea creatures unintentionally caught while fishing for other species. Modern fishing involves massive technology with few (real) “fishermen”, which leads to massive catches… with massive amounts of bycatch. Worldwide, one out of every four fish caught is discarded, dead or dying, as bycatch. And bycatch doesn’t just include fish – sea turtles, seabirds, dolphin, seals, and other animals also suffer. The shrimping industry is the worst offender, as the average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80-90% of the sea animals it captures – many of which are endangered species – overboard as bycatch.(4) Bycatch is often caused by less selective fishing gear like bottom trawls, which drag nets across the seafloor (catching everything in their paths), or longlines. Longlines have hundreds of baited hooks that extend out like tentacles for up to 50 miles or more. When cast out and left to “soak,” longlines attract anything that swims by, from sharks to sea turtles.(5)
Bycatch is the most egregious and wasteful consequence of our ever-increasing demand for fish. As author Jonathan Safran Foer says, “We tend not to think about [bycatch] because we tend not to know about it. What if there were labeling on our food to let us know how many animals were killed to bring our desired animal to our plate? Your trawled shrimp from Indonesia would read, ’26 pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean for every 1 pound of this shrimp.’ ”
In an effort to preserve our natural populations and ecosystem, and to respond to concerns of increasing demand on wild fisheries by commercial fishing operations, many have turned to fish farming as an alternative solution. However, fish farming presents many of the same problems as factory farming, including compromises to consumers’ health, environmental pollution, unsanitary and inhumane conditions, and a serious threat to the natural balance of our marine ecosystem.
Your health is negatively impacted by the conditions to which farmed fish are subjected – most significantly, their unnatural diets. A 2008 study out of Norway show that the health benefits of eating fish – notably, their omega-3 fatty acid content – hinge on what the fish are consuming. Traditionally, farmed fish like salmon were fed pellets made from other fish, partly mimicking their natural diet in the wild. As feed ingredients of marine origin became both scarce and expensive, farmers began experimenting with wheat, soy, corn and other vegetable oil-based feed.(6) However, replacing the salmon’s fish-based diet (high in omega-3′s) with one heavy in omega-6-rich components simply creates a fish version of “factory farming” – food that promotes systemic inflammation and makes you less healthy. In addition, the living conditions under which farmed fish (especially salmon) are raised are inhumane and cruel. A 30″ farmed salmon spends its entire life in the equivalent of bathtub water, the parasitic infestations in their “pens” leads to a 10-30% death rate.(7) To counteract their atrocious living conditions, fish are also given antibiotics and growth hormones, and a chemical to make their (abnormal) gray flesh turn a “healthier” pink. These additives are not good for the fish, and subsequently, are not good for you.
It’s not just their diets that are cause for concern – it’s the polluted environments in which farmed fish are raised. Farmed salmon is the worst offender, and is listed as a “worst choice” on several seafood rating agency lists. The level of pollution (in part, from pesticides designed to kill algae and shellfish that cling to pen nets) in farmed salmon populations is so fierce as to make their eyes bleed.(7) A 2003 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that farmed salmon in the U.S. has the highest levels of PCBs (toxic man-made chemicals) – about 7 times higher than that of wild-caught fish(8) – and contained more than 100 other pollutants and pesticides.(9) PCBs were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s, but are highly persistent, and have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.(10) Farmed salmon are fed from a global supply of fishmeal and fish oil, which studies show are the source of PCBs in most farmed salmon. In three independent studies, scientists tested 37 fishmeal samples from six countries, and found PCB contamination in nearly every sample.(11)
Finally, commercial fish farming is hurting the marine environment, and compromising our natural fish populations. Fish waste and uneaten feed covers the ocean floor below the farming pens, often killing the marine life that originally existed there. A potentially more significant concern is the fact that many farmed fish escape from their pens and are free to reproduce among native fish, spreading those hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and higher levels of pollution into the wild. Because of reproductive issues caused by the synthetic supplementation fed to farmed fish, this could potentially endanger the natural population of salmon.(12) Another cause for concern is the spread of disease and infection to the wild fish that swim in the vicinity of fish farms. Farmed fish living in cramped pens can spread their unnatural parasites and diseases to wild fish swimming close to the pens.
The Conscientious Omnivore
The multiple, complex and often competing factors at play with choosing seafood for your evening meal extends far beyond the subject of just whether the fish was wild-caught. So what’s the Conscientious Omnivore to do? It would be impossible to gather the full C.V. of every fish you eat – whether it was farmed or raised in the wild, over-fished or stable, caught on a longline or bottom trawl, and quantity of bycatch. But there is another way to make “best choice” picks – an easier way, although not without some critical thinking on the omnivore’s part.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a comprehensive guide that takes almost all of the factors we’ve discussed into account. They rank a wide variety of fish (including sushi) and shellfish as “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative” or “Avoid” via both an on-line guide or a handy smartphone app. The only caveat is that Seafood Watch doesn’t consider the “fish food” issue – whether the fish is fed a natural diet, or an unhealthy diet of soy, corn, antibiotics and hormones. We believe that a fish’s diet plays a large role in your health, so we’re going to offer you a hybrid decision making list to make the best of your “best choice” scenarios.
By following these guidelines, you can be sure you are making responsible, ethical, healthy decisions around an extremely complicated issue.
If choosing FISH or SHRIMP…
- Avoid ALL farmed fish and shrimp varieties – period – even if Seafood Watch says they’re a “Best Choice”.
- Consult the Seafood Watch guide, choosing only wild-caught options from the “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” categories.
If choosing BIVALVES (clams, scallops, oysters or mussels)…
- No need for a blanket “avoid farmed” admonition here. Bivalves are filter feeders that live on tiny particles filtered out of seawater. Because they aren’t fed corn, soy, or fishmeal-based feeds, their diets aren’t a concern.
- Simply consult the Seafood Watch guide when eating bivalves, choosing options from the “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” categories.
Here are a few additional special considerations to help you navigate your way through fish and shellfish (including mollusks and crustaceans) choices. First, consider farmed salmon your worst choice in any setting. Avoid all farmed salmon, in any form (smoked, canned, raw or cooked). Many, including ethicist Peter Singer, also suggest avoiding all shrimp, because of the unprecedented devastation done to the marine ecosystem by the shrimping industry. There are a few “Best Choice” shrimp labels, but we get shrimp from so many different sources, and though so many different fishing mechanisms, that it’s going to be difficult to confirm what you’re eating fits the specific “Best Choice” criteria.
There are a few generally safe bets, however. All varieties of bivalves like scallops, clams, oysters and mussels are ranked as either “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative”, and are safe choices when you can’t consult your iPhone. And for vegetarians looking to incorporate some animal protein sources into their diets, the above might be the best place to start. Ethicist Peter Singer argues that it is unlikely that bivalves experience pain, and therefore there is no strong ethical reason against eating them.
One last note – don’t be afraid to ask your fishmonger, waiter or chef where your fish came from. Often, general descriptors like “Pacific wild-caught” are enough to help you make a healthy decision. And despite the fact that Whole Foods is now advertising their cooperation with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in fish labeling, you still have to do your homework. Just last week, we found Chilean Bea bass labeled misleadingly as “Sustainable”, when in fact all wild-caught varieties are a strict Seafood Watch “Avoid”.
Questions, references or additional points to consider when making an ethical, moral, environmental and health-conscious seafood decision? Leave them in comments.
1. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (Rodale, Inc. 2006), 111
4. Jonathan Safron-Foer, Eating Animals (Back Bay Books, 2009), 49
6. Sverre Ludvig Seierstad, The effect on fish and human health of replacing marine oils by vegetable oils in feeds of Atlantic salmon, Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, February 15, 2008.
7. Philip Lymbery, In Too Deep – Why Fish Farming Needs Urgent Welfare Reform, 2002
10. Environmental Working Group report, August 1, 2003. http://ewg.org
11. Jacobs 2002, Easton 2002, and CFIA 1999