Posted on June 14, 2011 - by

Choosing Sustainable Seafood: 4 to Avoid and 4 to Seek Out

Our guest post today comes from sustainable seafood expert Casson Trenor, Senior Markets Campaigner at GreenpeaceUSA, author of the book and blog Sustainable Sushi, and sustainable seafood consultant for the San Francisco restaurant Tataki. We look forward to continued collaboration with Casson in the future!

Our oceans are in a perilous state. Rampant abuse and rapacity has led us down a dangerous path; stories of overfishing, toxic contamination, and ocean acidification put consumers in a state of confusion and fear at the seafood counter. Luckily, all is not lost—by making informed choices, we can enjoy healthy, delicious seafood while supporting fishermen that are doing their utmost to work in harmony with the planet. Here are four examples of fish we just shouldn’t eat, followed by four sustainable, restorative seafood options that merit our support:

Bluefin Tuna

The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.

Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.

Orange Roughy

Orange roughy simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity — a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age — 90-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all). Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.

To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.

Shark (and Shark Fin)

Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms they prey upon, and so on. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.

While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those in the shark fin industry. Shark fins—used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities—can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth.

Chilean Sea Bass

The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable — geographically (ships are going further), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories — by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.

That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.

Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes.

Still, it’s not all doom-and-gloom in the seafood world. Here are four great options that merit our support – fish and fisheries that are hallmarks of a different kind of seafood industry: one that operates with the welfare of the oceans in mind.

1. Sardines

First of all, I’m not talking about the unidentifiable, semi-fossilized fish paste that you find covered in oil or mustard sauce when you open up a sardine tin — fresh sardines are a totally different animal. They are inexpensive, delectable indulgences that carry fabulous flavors, perform marvelously on a grill, and are used by top-level sushi chefs to make mouth-watering nigiri and sashimi dishes. Even better, these tiny delights are packed full of Omega-3 fatty acids while their short lifecycle keeps them relatively mercury-free. Unfortunately, we’re using them in the worst possible way.

The vast majority of our sardines are sold to foreign bluefin tuna ranches, where they are used to fatten up juveniles that have been purloined from wild stocks. This is a problem on many levels: bluefin tuna are severely endangered, have little Omega-3 content, can be extremely high in mercury, and are exorbitantly expensive. We’re using our sardines — healthy, delicious fish that most Americans can afford — to fuel a foreign industry that is harming the ocean in order to create a luxury good with dubious health benefits that is only available to the very wealthy.

Buying sardines from your local fish market helps to create a reward system for sardine fishermen. If the demand for these fish in the US marketplace continues to grow, our fishermen won’t need to sell their entire catch (at a ridiculously low price, I might add) to a foreign bluefin ranch.

2. Wild Salmon

There are four reasons to eat wild Alaskan salmon. One — it tastes fantastic. Two — it’s a high-Omega-3, low-mercury fish. Three — it’s a relatively sustainable industry that merits our support. And four — the alternative, conventional farmed salmon, sucks.

Farmed salmon tends to be raised in the open-net pens situated in sheltered bays and coves. There are no controls to mitigate the flow of ocean water in and out of these pens. As such, there are tremendous problems with the transmission of diseases, parasites, genetic material, and waste from these pens to the ecosystems around them. Links between salmon farms and the degradation of wild salmon populations in places like Canada and Norway are well-established. Also, the salmon farming industry has a real problem with antibiotic abuse.

Wild Alaskan salmon provides a delicious alternative to all this nonsense. Thanks to progressive fishery management, we have access to a domestic product that is comparatively sustainable and healthy. To make matters even better, recent marketing efforts for previously underappreciated species like keta (chum) and sockeye have helped to make wild Alaskan salmon available at price points that are competitive with farmed products.

3. Dungeness Crab

For shellfish lovers, it is difficult to find a better option than Dungeness crab. These fisheries are extremely well-managed and have been so for decades. The crabs are caught in non-lethal traps which keep bycatch at negligible levels and allow female and juvenile crabs to be returned unharmed to the seabed. This process, whereby only mature males are taken, helps to keep Dungeness crab populations resilient and robust. Additionally, the number of crabs that can be landed during a given season is carefully measured and kept to levels that will keep populations thriving.

With such precise targeting on top of strong science-based quotas, our Dungeness crab fisheries provide excellent examples of progressive resource management. And the kicker? Dungeness crab is among the best-tasting shellfish in the world. Grab a cracker and go to town.

4. Pole-caught Skipjack Tuna

Canned tuna is a hugely popular seafood item, and also a tremendous problem. The species that’s most often used for this purpose is a small, quickly growing tuna species called skipjack. Due to its physiology and life history, skipjack has the potential to be a strong sustainable seafood option; unfortunately, the tuna industry that feed our appetite for ersatz, steam-cooked tuna meat is wreaking havoc on our oceans. Skipjack boats generally fish with purse seine nets and fish aggregating devices (free-floating rafts that attract many different types of fish), also known as FADs. The use of FADs ensures that these boats take far more creatures than just mature skipjack — billfish, sharks, juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tunas, and even turtles are attracted by the FADs and subsequently ensnared by the seine nets.

Thankfully, a new industry is beginning to develop — skipjack tuna caught on a pole-and-line. It’s the same fish, but the use of a pole rather than a FAD and purse seine allows fishermen to be much more precise about what they do and do not catch. Next time you’re shopping for canned tuna, look for the words “pole caught” on the can to support companies that are trying to do right by our oceans.

Casson Trenor is Senior Markets Campaigner with Greenpeace USA, where he spearheads the organization’s efforts to hold restaurants and supermarkets accountable for their seafood sustainability practices and to help educate the public about the global fisheries crisis. He is the author of Sustainable Sushi and a founder ofTataki Sushi Bar, the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant. The material in this post originally appeared on Alternet.org.

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    June 16, 2011

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    Lauren said:

    Great information, I wish I liked sardines.



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    June 16, 2011

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    jackie said:

    i love sardines – i wish i could get them fresh. i get them in cans, but most cans are aluminum, aren’t they? or they have BPA. it’s such a hassle and probably near impossible to get food that’s not contaminated anymore! :-(



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    June 16, 2011

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    Debra cohen said:

    Thanks for the update…really appreciate it! Any info about Tilapia? I heard recently that its also not recommended and it has something to do with the fact that they use tilapia to clean out the farm raised salmon tanks instead of cleaning out and replacing the water…???



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    June 16, 2011

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    Phyllis Hockley said:

    I’ve heard that catfish that are farmed are ok. Is that true?



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    June 16, 2011

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    Jason said:

    Take a look at the Pacific Ocean current patterns especially from Japan to the U.S. west coast and into Alaska. I, for one, am eating nothing from Pacific waters because of the strong likelihood they’re contaminated from the Fukushima disaster. I don’t trust post-oil spill Gulf of Mexico waters either. Besides non-GMO labeling, fish products need to be labeled as to where they are harvested. For example, I buy “Atlantic Cod”. If it’s not labeled as such I assume it’s Pacific cod.
    Want protein? Eat organic rice&beans, organic quinoa, amaranth, etc. Want omega 3’s in your diet? Look for organic, excipient-free supplements. This whole ‘new’ paradigm of ‘buy local’ can provide you with healthier alternatives to Big Agra meats & fowl, ‘irradiated produce’, ‘pasteurized almonds’, ‘ultrapasteurized milk & apple juice’, etc- at least seasonally depending on where you live. In the winter, eat local root vegetables and excipient-free supplements! New global realities mean more thoughtful consumption. Take control of your own destiny!



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    June 17, 2011

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    diana moats said:

    Thanks for the info! I’ve steered away from wild Salmon recently due to the issues in Japan & was wondering if there was more info on how the Pacific Ocean is being affected by the radiation leaks in terms of the fish. Also, my 6 yr old just returned from North Carolina where she ate crab legs & loved them (she’s usually such a picky eater) & was wondering when she goes to her next trip to Baltimore if it’s best to avoid any kind of crab meat there due to all the pollution/run-off in the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks!



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    June 17, 2011

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    Pat said:

    Thanks for the refreshingly intelligent information-concise and very helpful.



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    June 18, 2011

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    Rachael Denny said:

    Any information on sable (AKA black cod, or butterfish)?



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    June 19, 2011

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    Jenny Holm said:

    For information on specific fish, check out one of the sustainable seafood guides we’ve compiled here:
    http://www.freshthemovie.com/2011/05/18/sustainable-seafood-tools-and-gadgets/



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    June 20, 2011

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    Jim Mauch said:

    I’m a shark. Yes, you got it right. I’m one of those big slick jet-fighter looking top predators that’s been scaring the bejesus out of humanity and every other sea creature for eons, and you, you’re comparing me to a common wrench! Thanks a lot. I hope to meet you on your surfboard one of these days. No, not to sharpen my teeth, but to say thanks for reminding everybody to lay off me and the few friends I still have out here.

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