Oceans are serious business. I don’t say that lightly. I took this writing assignment with a touch of fear and trepidation, because, I rightly feared that the best thing I could tell you was eat seaweed and soy sushi if you love our seas being healthy and filled with it’s wonderful wildlife. The whole situation with sustainable seafood reminds me of the animated short film, “Balance” from way back in ‘89. 5 men on a floating platform, keeping things going, until someone pulls up a trunk. Human nature takes over and well, not to spoil it for you but eventually it’s just one guy and the trunk left. I just wasn’t sure how far gone we are down the doom path, so I decided to have a sit down with some real biologists, because I like to panic with a clear objective in mind.
Jay Stachowicz, Professor of Evolution and Biology, along with his fellow Professor of Evolution and Biology, Richard K. Grosberg were kind enough to chat with me about sustainability issues and seafood. I rather wish I had taped the discussion and could just point you to the audio file, because it was nice and technical, full of science and all the other good things in life. After all, this is a complicated topic to understand, so bear with me as I try to relate what I’ve learned. First off, giving up all seafood consumption is not something us fans of piscine comestibles have to do. There is overfishing, there are endangered fish populations-those things still exist and if you’re going to consume seafood, they have to be considered. One of the things you can do is eat a little lower on the food chain. For example, salmon, tuna, shark-these are pretty high level predators that we’ve all enjoyed on a plate. Science calls this the “Trophic Scale”. Instead of plant->plankton->small fry->fish->really big fish, we’re all used to, we eat from the wealth of smaller fish and sea creatures, usually reserved for bait. Smelt, herrings, sardines, whelks, sea cucumbers; I’m talking very nonstandard here. Essentially, this is expanding the concept of nose to tail butcheries to fishmongers. Smelt fricassee is the new kidney pie and who doesn’t love a good pie?
The other aspect of sustaining our oceans is knowing how and where your fish arrived at the grocer’s. The issue here is Catch Per Unit or CPU, which is measuring how much fish you get for the effort of catching them. It’s a way to track fisheries and manage the fish stock. The jist of this is, fishermen know they want to have a job for years to come. In fact, they’d like to have a job they can pass down to their children or their children’s children. Whether or not they believe in global warming, pollution or anything else, they can see the lack of quality, size and quantity in their catch. Raising an appeal to enlightened self interest, fishermen and scientists are creating a more co-operative, sustainable commercial fishing method through catch shares, a program where there’s limits on the total taken from fisheries, the waste fish (undesirable fish scooped up) or “bycatch” are reduced and fish get a chance to recover from our predations. Throw in our consumer demand savvy; avoiding long line fishing products and banning large drift nets and our shopping dollars are helping to change an industry. If science isn’t the best argument, finances often make the case. There’s also this tidbit; global warming is changing the spawning seasons of key seafood sources. Changing how we fish and what we fish is now no longer a case of belief, it has rapidly become an in your face undeniable fact that if we want to preserve an industry, we have to turn it towards sustainability. Of course, it’s not that simple. Underreporting of fish catches means we can’t always trust what some governments report. The fact that much of the underreporting is happening in developing nations means that people are shifting from traditional industry and food sources in less than a generation with unintended consequences for their countries and ours. Hey, less fish off the coast of Africa! Hunh, wonder where all those pirates came from? Oh well, let’s eat some blackspotted bream fry up!
Some might ask, well, what about aquaculture, we can farm our way to sustainable seafood! Well…maybe not. There are issues of expensive fishmeal feed depleting other fish stock, dealing with waste product run-off in the environment, farm stock fish escaping and cross-breeding with already threatened wild stock. What if we went vegetarian or vegan, aren’t those the true paths towards sustainable food sources, including seafood? Yes. Sort of. We process vegetables too. Last I checked, there were no veggie pattie trees. And we wind up with many of the same issues of sustainability-sourcing, monoculture, pesticides, overtaxed environs, shipping costs and Big Ag masquerading as little organic. Food is a business, the more profitable organic and vegetarian gets, the more complicated eating is going to be. Remember how I said this was a balance? We need to have a true omnivore’s approach. The true paleo diet. Mixed sources of proteins, whole grains, lots of variety on the fruit and vegetables. I may have joked about a ground locust burger, but what the hey, I’ve eaten a ton of soy and quinoa. If it means that we get to keep our oceans healthy, you could make it an earthworm burger. That’s just 3 generations down from a tuna steak anyway. We need a cultural change in our food and we need to do it now. Not to preserve things for us to eat, but preserve our fellow living creatures sharing this planet. They have a right to a sustainable life too.