I just finished reading this. Andy Sharpless of Oceana explains how wild seafood can help us solve some of the world's biggest problems - from world hunger and environmental degradation to soaring healthcare costs and unemployment - and how the best way to utilize our ocean resources is through scientific fisheries management.
I really appreciate Sharpless' approach. He isn't just an environmentalist telling us to save the ocean for the ocean's sake, he wants us to do it so we can better utilize one of our greatest natural resources to humanity's benefit. Rather than adopting the common doomsday rhetoric that simply demands more restrictions on commercial fishing, Sharpless suggests we focus on three policy areas to improve the world's unsustainable fisheries: (1) establish scientific quotas, (2) protect habitat (especially nursery habitat), and (3) reduce or eliminate bycatch. His stories show that time and time again, smart fisheries management has resulted in more fish and more jobs in a relatively short period of time - often only a few years given the rapid reproduction and short life cycles of most fish.
It's really a no-brainer. The economic concept of "tragedy of the commons" applies to our fisheries. It means that without good policies, we will outstrip our shared resources due to self-interest. It's not the fault of the commercial fishermen, as many environmentalists would lead us to believe - it's a basic principle of economics that applies in a variety of industries. Without science-based regulations, the tragedy of the commons will lead us to take to the point that our fisheries collapse.
I'm not a marine biologist or a fisheries scientist, so I rely on the advice of experts like Sharpless (and the 100+ academic studies he cites) to inform my sustainable business choices. Below is a collection of quotes from the book that stuck with me.
On the relative health of American fisheries:
"I was always impressed by those [fishermen] who supported conservation limits, despite the short-term impact on their livelihood, because they believed strongly that we needed to protect the future of fishing to save the way of life they love so much. Their sacrifice paid off. Today, scientific reports show that America's fisheries, once headed toward decline, are now headed toward recovery... In fact, the 'caught in American waters' label is becoming an excellent indicator of the seafood one can eat sustainably... [M]ost of the world's fisheries are still in terrible shape, and too many countries, including some that control most of the fish caught, do not yet have the policies necessary to manage their fisheries sustainably." - Bill Clinton
With big fish, try to eat local. The United States has some of the best-regulated wild fisheries in the world, especially in Alaska, where stocks of wild salmon, halibut, and other fish are all generally well managed... [T]here is a better chance that if you are eating a wild American fish, it is being managed with science-based quotas and the fishermen catching it are not destroying habitats in pursuit of your fish.
On the health benefits of seafood:
Now, just about every authority from the American Heart Association to the World Health Organization recommends eating seafood at least twice a week... Seafood is the premium source for essential omega-3 long-chain fatty acids... By the late 1980s, the link between omega-3s and heart health was firmly established. Scientists now agree that consuming omega-3-rich seafood two times a week can cut your chance of dying from a heart attack by 30 percent or more.
[Seafood is] the protein that's healthiest for your body: low in cholesterol, brimming with brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients like riboflavin, iron, and calcium. It's one of the most ancient foods, and it's most likely the last wild creature that you'll eat, the last pure exchange between Earth and your dinner plate.
On the environmental benefits of sustainable seafood:
Wild seafood accounts for 14 percent of the animal protein eaten around the world every day, and it does so without chopping down a single tree, without flooding fields and waterways with pollution, without emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gas.
Fish are astonishingly fecund and resilient, so much so that as recently as the 1950s, people believed the sea to be inexhaustible.
On the problems with imported seafood:
The United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood.
The United Nations says that, worldwide, 87 percent of all wild fisheries are already depleted or maxed out under intense fishing pressure (happily, US fisheries are doing somewhat better)... As fish become scarcer, they will become more dear, too, leaving the neediest families in poor countries even more nutritionally disadvantaged, broadening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots... The wealthy nations are the ones that can pay the most for these 'limited-edition' fish, so the last fish in the world will be served on a plate in New York, Tokyo, London, or Dubai.
It's one of the marvels of modern American life that you can walk into virtually any grocery store and buy seafood from around the globe any day of the week... And it's a testament to how normal this has become that it's the local catch that's often presented as something notable. Today's special: seafood that would have been your only option before the advent of flash freezing and globalization. This familiar display of marine abundance is one of the fundamental drivers of ocean depletion because it disguises overfishing, allowing us to continue to purchase disappearing fish in blissful ignorance... [F]ish will be flown in from farther and farther away, and the seafood shelves will stay full. Prices will rise but slowly and without drama. People with money will spend it. Fish will quietly become a luxury item.
On the slippery definition of "sustainability" and the problem with sustainability certifications:
What is sustainable? ...There is no official government definition, and any fish supplier can slap it on labels. For our purposes, sustainable seafood is a wild fish or shellfish that is harvested at a scientifically determined rate that allows the population to rebuild itself each year. This means that the next year's catch can be just as large or larger than last year's and that this repeated annual catch is as high as possible without risking next year's spawn... The conventional definition is called maximum sustainable yield, or MSY.
[W]e've gotten a patchwork of measure seeking to help shoppers buy sustainable seafood. Probably the best known is that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies specific fisheries according to its own definition of sustainability.. Unfortunately, while the approval process is open and quite detailed, some conservation organizations have grown suspicious. The MSC tends to certify any fishery that has submitted an application. And the MSC's certified fisheries include bottom trawlers and longliners, which most marine scientists regard as inherently incompatible with sensible and sustainable ocean management.
On making sustainable seafood choices at restaurants and supermarkets:
Red lists or green lists for that matter, aren't static. Healthy fish populations vary geographically, and fisheries can be defined by gear, location, and time of the year... But if you really pressed us for it, this is what we might say: 'Eat wild seafood. Not too much of the big fish. Mostly local.' The United States has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world because we've put good laws on the books to stop overfishing, protect nurseries, and reduce bycatch. As a results, many of our fisheries are beginning to rebound.
[O]nly a small fraction of shoppers care or know to ask if their grouper fillet comes from a healthy population or whether it was pole-, net-, trawl-, or line-caught, and whether any other animals died in the pursuit of that fish. People are busy. As a practical matter, asking them to take the time to check on all their fish choices is probably asking a bit too much... The practical person will conclude that we need to eliminate the pressure on the consumer to make the sustainable choice.
Shellfish is generally a food bet for the responsible seafood eater... the farming of bivalve mollusks like oysters and mussels can actually improve the environment around them... There is virtually no downside in indulging your love of these bivalves.
If you want to be a responsible seafood eater, you are going to have to eat less shrimp... Even in the highly regulated United States, 76 percent of the marine life that shrimp trawlers haul up isn't shrimp at all but rather species like shark, red snapper, and almost 9,000 endangered sea turtles each year. Most of the shrimp you will likely buy or eat -- 9 out of 10 consumed in the United States -- is farmed and imported... at a heavy cost to the environment, with pristine tropical mangroves destroyed to make way for industrial farms that spread pollution and disease... If you are determined, you can find cold-water shrimp in the supermarket from the North Atlantic and the Pacific that are fished more sustainably.
It's an unfortunate fact that if you want to be a responsible fish eater, you have to be mindful and limited in your consumption of big fish. By big fish we mean tuna, swordfish, and the other large fish at the upper reaches of the ocean food web. After decades of plunder, there simply aren't that many big fish left in the ocean. Also, big fish are generally a less healthy choice: Mercury and other pollutants accumulate in large predators like tuna. So, as a responsible fish eater, you should treat big fish as an occasional treat.
[P]ole, troll, hook-and-line, and harpoon-caught are good terms to look for as a responsible eater (particularly for bigger fish). If possible, stay away from trawls, driftnets, gill-nets, and longlines, which are notorious for catching unwanted species and damaging habitat.
On why chefs choose to serve sustainable seafood:
For many chefs, sustainable seafood meshes with the common desire to serve fresh, local ingredients... There's no doubt that a growing number chefs have embraced sustainable seafood. It seems like a natural outgrowth of the slow-food and locavore movements that have been percolating for a decade or more.
"Once people realize they're doing something responsible that they weren't even aware of when they walk in the door of the restaurant, they start to realize that this guy is really trying to do the right thing, and they look up other chefs who are doing that... I think that response is wonderful... I'm constantly looking for the most ecoresponsible source... And usually when you find those people, their products, their fish, their vegetables, their honey, it's far superior to everything that's out there." - Chef Sam Talbot of Surf Lodge on Long Island
On the shockingly common problem of seafood fraud:
With shocking regularity, the fish you eat isn't the fish you think it is. No one is safe, even those shopping at upscale grocers like Whole Foods, which struggles with this issue just as much as mid level grocery chains... [S]eafood fraud -- labeling one fish as something else -- contributes to overfishing by both obfuscating the true state of a fishery and contributing to the belief that overfishing isn't happening -- how could it be when the desirable red snapper, for example, is on menus everywhere? Or you could think you're buying a sustainable fish when you're actually getting something off the red list. And when processors or distributors swap out the fish they're selling, well, they're not usually upgrading you.
The United States imports more than 90 percent of the seafood we eat, and that can involve a maze of distribution and packaging centers quite literally around the world... Only a tiny fraction of that seafood is actually inspected by anyone... just a sliver -- 0.05 percent -- is specifically investigated for fraud.
[E]scolar [is] an oily fish with such a nasty reputation for its gastrointestinal effects that it's been nicknamed the Ex-Lax fish... In a 2012 investigation, the Boston Globe found escolar was being sold as white tuna, super white tuna, and albacore in multiple sushi restaurants and Asian grocery stores throughout the city, despite the fact that you couldn't buy escolar back in Japan if you wanted to -- the fish is banned there.
In the course of a 5-month investigation, the Globe conducted DNA tests on 183 fish samples from 134 restaurants, grocery stores, and markets. Nearly half -- 48 percent -- were sold under a species name different from what they actually were, and almost all of those came from fish markets and restaurants, not grocery stores. The Globe's results track with the findings of an Oceana investigation in Los Angeles in 2012, in which 55 percent of the 119 seafood samples our scientists collected were mislabeled. Nine of 10 sushi samples collected weren't what they were claimed to be, and every single fish with the word snapper in the label was mislabeled according to federal guidelines.
[A]nother study conducted by Oceana in New York City found... 13 different types of fish that were sold as 'red snapper.'
The federal government needs to require seafood traceability that makes the process from bait to plate transparent and verifiable, provide consumers with more information about the seafood they purchase, and keep illegally caught fish out of the US market.
On California's troubled wild salmon, and why farming salmon is not the solution:
No one can pin the salmon's dire numbers on a single cause. Rather, it's probably a longtime mix of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, damming, and climate change. The collapse has cost California somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion in lost economic opportunity and 23,000 jobs.
[I]nstead of battling their way upstream, morphing the actual physiology of their muscles as they leap against the tide, farmed salmon swim sedately in a pen, jostling their neighbors and bingeing on a constant stream of pellet feed. Because wild salmon garner their pink flesh from the krill they eat, the pellets contain shades of pink and red dye the farms can select from a color palette to avoid ending up with salmon that have unappetizing, gray flesh. The differences are more than skin deep, however. Foodies often complain that farmed salmon lack the firm muscle tone and strong flavor of their wild brethren, which those fish earn not just from their diet but also through their Herculean life cycle of coursing from river to ocean to river again. And farmed salmon can have half as many omega-3 fatty acids in their flesh, despite containing up to twice as many grams of fat.
There's one major sustainability problem with farming salmon: The fish is a carnivore. It eats other wild fish in the form of processed pellets of fish meal... In the early years of salmon farming, it could take a staggering 10 pounds of wild fish to create 1 pound of salmon. The ratio has improved a little over the years; Stanford University scientist Rosamond Naylor pins it now at about 5 pounds.
On aquaculture more broadly:
Most of the fish meal is made up of small fish like sardine, anchovy (which is the largest fishery in the world by weight), and herring. While these are all perfectly edible and delicious fish... they're caught in huge quantities and ground into fish meal and fish oil. Eighty-one percent of the world's fish meal and fish oil is used for aquaculture... Aquaculture should add edible protein to the world, not produce it at a net loss...
Not all aquaculture is created equal. Not every farmed marine creature is a voracious predator gobbling up resources as it is prepared for market... [O]ne of the world's most sustainable forms of protein is also one of the healthiest foods: shellfish... The mere presence of shellfish, whether farmed or wild... improves the immediate habitat... When it provides a net increase in the amount of edible protein, and does it at little environmental cost, aquaculture can be a great thing.
"It's our patriotic duty to eat as many farm-raised shellfish as we can." - Chef Barton Seaver
On the under-utilization and under-appreciation of small fish:
"The best fish I ever had was sardines in Basque country in Spain right off the boat, grilled with some olive oil and slapped between two pieces of bread." - Oceana board member Ted Danson
"Fresh sardines spitting and popping over charcoal create one of the most appetite-provoking smells I know." - Chef Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall
It's simple economics: Given the lack of appetite in much of the developed world for anchovy-based meals, the fish is most valuable when it's converted into other forms of animal protein via the guts of pigs or cows or chickens. This means that basic market-driven dynamics of the world are reducing the available protein for the nations that need it the most.
Forage fish like anchoveta are usually small and reproduce quickly, which means they're potentially highly productive, highly sustainable fisheries.
Chef Alton Brown has aligned himself with the Sardinistas, a small cabal of culinary-minded artists, writers, and fishers in California who aim to bring sardines back to the American palate... Brown loves sardines so much that he takes a tin to eat with chopsticks for lunch each day when he's on the road filming "Good Eats."
[F]orage fish can be more than just tasty. They provide jobs. They reduce pollution. It seems counterintuitive to argue that eating fish can add to the world's available protein, but if you eat anchovies instead of farmed predator fish like salmon, that's exactly what you're doing.
Peruvian anchoveta is the world's largest fishery, bigger than the world's next three fisheries combined.
[I]t is difficult to beat eating whole forage fish like anchovies, herring, and sardines, both environmentally and nutritionally... A grilled fresh sardine or anchovy is many a chefs favorite seafood delight... [S]mall fish are largely free from the toxins that accumulate in larger fish and are generally caught without using destructive bottom trawling methods that can destroy centuries-old seafloor communities. Little fish could feed hundreds of millions of people sustainably and healthily if managed wisely.
By opting for small fish, you vote with your mouth. Every little fish you eat is one that is not ground up and inefficiently fed to livestock or to salmon and tuna farms that despoil surrounding waters... Let's make sure that seafood lovers in Europe and elsewhere aren't the only ones who get to regularly enjoy freshly grilled sardines.
On how science-based conservation will create more fish and more jobs:
We agree that short-term reductions in fishing are necessary to rebuild spawning populations. The ocean's bank account will generate more interest, but only if we rebuild its principal. Yet many oceanic natural systems are so fertile that these reductions can, in just 5 or 10 years, produce increases in abundance that will support higher sustainable catch levels.
Artisanal and subsistence fishers around the world catch 30 million tons of fish for human consumption, the same amount as the industrial fisheries. But artisanal fisheries employ approximately 12 million people, about 25 times the number working in the industrial fisheries, and use an eighth of the fuel. Feeding the world from the ocean's bounty has to account for these fishing families, who individually cannot compete with big industrial fishing ships.
Good coastal fisheries stewardship has been shown to alleviate poverty. And local success should beget national success: The creation of local MPAs helps provide the grassroots muscle for defeating the national policies that favor the industrial fleet and drive ocean depletion.
[A] fishing free-for-all, a phenomenon known more eloquently as "the tragedy of the commons"... because each country gets the immediate benefit of all the fish its fleet captures, but shares the long-term benefits that arise from all the countries cooperating under sensible catch restraints. This means the rewards for aggressive short-term exploitation are much larger than those for sensible management. In the absence of enforceable international coordination, every nation sees it the same way and competes for the same resources.
[T]hat's one of the greatest things about ocean conservation: The ocean is astonishingly fertile. Ocean fish are very resilient creatures. Some of them lay eggs by the millions. You enact and enforce smart fishery policies, and the fish come back. You can see results yourself, in your lifetime. It's simple and raw and beautiful.
When sustainability measures work, they often begin with short-term pain. Overexploited fisheries have too many boats catching too few fish. Some fishermen end up leaving the industry, whether it's via decommissioning boats, reducing the number of individual quotas handed out, or old-fashioned bankruptcy. But once you get fishing pressure down to a reasonable level, the fish usually return. The fishermen who are left catch more fish, make more money, and create more jobs.
Respect the fish. It's a simple proposition. Leave enough in the water to renew the next generation and the oceans will reward you.
On why worldwide fisheries conservation is an achievable goal:
The top 25 nations control 75 percent of the world's wild seafood by weight; the top 10, 53 percent. These top 10 nations are Peru, China, the United States, Russia, Indonesia, India, Chile, Japan, Norway, and Denmark. In order to save the oceans and provide the world with healthy, affordable, renewable protein, we don't need the cooperation of every nation. We need these key governments to implement the three basic tenets of ocean conservation [scientific quotas, nursery habitat protection, and bycatch reduction].
Fisheries conservation is bipartisan because, frankly, it just makes sense. There's an economic argument for it: The World Bank has said that overexploited and poorly managed seafood stocks cost the world $50 billion a year. There's a humanitarian angle: Fishing is a source of income and food for 200 million people, many of whom are in developing countries... Seafood is the most cost-effective animal protein in the world, making it affordable for most people.