Sustainable Seafood

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Grocery shopping can be a chore. Sometimes, it’s a pleasure. A trip to a farmers’ market is a break in the routine, but weekly grocery shopping doesn’t have the same sense of adventure. Even so, you can still find specialty items at the grocery store if you prefer organic produce or free-range meat and poultry.

Then there’s the fish counter. Seafood may be labeled as fresh, frozen, previously frozen, wild caught or farmed. Although the USDA requires “country of origin labeling,” or COOL, it doesn’t apply to all seafood, and there may be little information about how it was caught or how much mercury it contains.

What does “sustainable seafood” really mean? The seafood industry generates more than $23 billion worldwide. Not all of the seafood we buy is legally caught; it’s estimated that 20 percent to 30 percent of the harvest is illegal. This illegal fishing generates drama on the high seas worthy of a movie: good guys versus bad guys using multi-million dollar ships, attempting to outsmart and outrun one another.

The bad guys use unsustainable methods that decimate ocean ecology. These large-scale operations have ships using gill nets and other equipment that harvest sea turtles and seabirds as well as fish. Some fish are caught using explosives and poison to stun them, allowing an easy harvest; these methods destroy coral reefs, which are important ocean habitats.

Good guys are more difficult to define. They include countries that work to set laws and policies that regulate ocean fishing. But unlike game preserves and national parks, the oceans cannot be protected with signage, fences or roadblocks. If regulations are ignored, who enforces them?

Interpol, for one. Yes, the International Criminal Police Organization has set sail to combat illegal fisherman–those with no licenses or with forged paperwork who harvest fish with gear that destroys habitat, or who process their catch in a way that “launders” their illegal work. Other support comes from NGOs (non-government organizations), including nonprofit organizations that support animal activists. One of these is Sea Shepherd, which describes itself as an “eco-vigilante activist group.”

A couple of the unlikely heroes of NGOs are celebrities. Both Bob Barker (who hosted the game show The Price is Right) and the late Sam Simon (best known for creating the cartoon series The Simpsons) have made an impact on the pursuit of illegal fishing. Both men funded Sea Shepherd with money used to purchase ships (remember, these vessels have million-dollar price tags). In each case, the ship was named in honor of their donor.

These two ships, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, both pursued a notorious black-listed illegal fishing vessel named Thunder for more than three months in 2013. The chase, chronicled by The New York Times, began in the Antarctic. Through dangerous icepack and storms, the ships kept Interpol informed and gathered evidence on the run, including miles of illegal gill nets. The Sam Simon assisted in helping Interpol detain a second illegal fishing vessel, then a third. The drama ended with the mysterious sinking of Thunder off the coast of Nigeria.

Because illegal and unregulated fishing is a large part of the industry, consumers need to know what they can do to make good choices that protect the environment. There are no easy answers. Some species that are not considered endangered may become overfished within a year. Others are overfished, but only in certain locations. Overfishing of species has led to development of the aquaculture industry, or “fish farms.” Some types of aquaculture are sustainable, but some farmed fish may not be suitable for the ecology where they are farmed. Others may actually disrupt the local ecosystems.

What can consumers do to navigate these treacherous waters? For one, you can surf–the Web, that is–to become informed. Search phrases such as Seafood Watch, FishBase and Mercury Calculator to get up-to-date news on what species to choose or avoid.

When you buy seafood, ask the same questions that you ask at farmers’ markets. Staff at a grocery store or restaurant may not have all the answers, but consumers need to keep asking until they have the answers they need.

How are fish caught? Sustainable methods (trolling and purse seines) target one kind of fish. Trawlers and bottom trawlers destroy the ocean floor and catch unwanted fish, which often end up being killed in the process.

What about farmed fish? Fish contained in pens may require high doses of antibiotics and create high levels of waste. Imported shrimp and fish may come from countries with ineffective regulation standards; they might have high levels of antibiotics and chemicals. But innovative new aquaculture techniques are being developed. One example is closed-loop farming that turns the waste generated by fish farms into fertilizer for use on agricultural crops.

Remember that consumer demand drives market demand. Keep asking questions so that food vendors turn to their suppliers for the answers. You can be part of a process that helps define the phrase “sustainable seafood.” HLM

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