Sunday, January 9, 2011

Endangered Fish?

I have a confession, my little seafood splurge this weekend made me feel just a wee bit guilty. Not for eating fish, but for allowing myself to pull the wool over my own eyes for so long. I decided if I was going to eat seafood I'd have to be just as informed about the sustainability and treatment of them as I was about the meat. I like to make good decisions about where I get my food but in all honesty, sometimes it's easier to pretend I don't know any better. I usually can't live with that decision too long though. It shouldn't be any different than how I try to buy sustainably raised meat for my hubby, right? Speaking of great meat, there's a small butcher shop in Woodinville called 'Bill the Butcher'

We stopped in this weekend to pick up ribs and were immediately greeted at the door and kindly helped. Sad day for Dane, they were out of spare ribs but he did end up with a bacon wrapped tenderloin and some salsa from Oregon. Their website states, "Bill the Butcher believes in supporting sustainable farming practices and working with local farmers and ranchers who raise beef, pork and poultry without hormones, steroids and genetically modified feed. We also feature open pastured organic and natural grass fed beef that has not been artificially and intentionally fattened on corn. This gentle and natural diet creates meat that is high in Omega 3 and 6 essential oils and is far healthier than traditional beef raised in a feedlot."  Did I mention grassfed tastes better too! Don't forget to check it out, there are additional locations in Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond, too.

Ok, back to fish! Why is any of this important? The oceans not only supply us with food but they also help regulate our climate and provide us with recreation. Scientists have estimated that we have removed as much as 90 percent of the larger predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and cod. This upsets the natural balance. An example from an article in Eating Well Magazine states that, "As the sharks off the East Coast have been fished down to low levels, the stingrays they used to eat have proliferated. So much so that the rays now demolish shellfish beds, putting some clammers out of business." In addition, Science magazine declares that the, "accelerating loss of populations and increasingly impairing the ocean's capacity to provide food, maintain water quality and recover." The same scientists have found that since 1950, about a third of all fished species worldwide have collapsed and with the current rates, the rest would collapse by 2050. However, they noted that "at this point, these trends are still reversible."  Seven years ago, the Pew Oceans Commission warned us that the world's oceans are in a state of "silent collapse," therefore threatening our food supply, marine economies, recreation and what we leave our children and grandchildren. We can turn this around and that's why I wanted to write about this today.

You would think since Dane and I  live in Seattle now, we'd have a lot of fresh seafood right? Sure, if you know where to look and what you're looking for. We have lots of restaurant chains and corporate chain grocery stores where finding local or even sustainable choices is not very easy. Some of the smaller, local shops are more expensive but I've decided if I'm going to eat seafood, then I'm going to have to be ok with spending a little extra money.  Many of the fish species we eat are experiencing alarming population declines. This is mostly due to overfishing and habitat destroying farming practices. By knowing where your fish comes from, you can help support sustainable fishing practices. Grocery stores in the US are required to label country of origin. Some like Whole Foods Market go out of their way and use a color coded ranking system developed by the Blue Ocean Institute to help consumers make better decisions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed a Seafood Watch Pocket Guide based on the region you live to help you make decisions when buying or eating at restaurants. I love that I now have a guide but what about these farmed fish? Are they really a better option?

Wild vs. Farmed

We've all heard the saying, "There are plenty of fish in the sea." However, past and current practices have lead to a decline in wild fish. There are multiple problems associated with wild seafood: overfishing, illegal fishing, habitat damage, bycatch, and management. Overfishing is when we are catching fish faster than they can reproduce. Large fish live a long time and are slow to reproduce making them the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, they make up some of our favorite seafood entrees. Did you know the west coast species, rockfish can live to be over 100 years old? When one kind of fish is no longer plentiful, fisherman move down the chain to a new species. This causes an imbalance in the ecosystem because these species are important prey for other fish as well as seabirds and marine mammals.

The fewer fish there are, the more desperate fisherman become. Overfishing also affects their jobs and inevitably can lead to illegal fishing. Whether it be taking undersized fish, fishing in closed areas, fishing during seasonal closures, or using illegal gear, it hurts our oceans. The fishing method can also destroy fish and their habitats. Trawls and dredges are the top offenders while traps and pots cause less seafloor damage and catch fewer unintended species. In Alaskan waters alone, bottom trawls remove over one million pounds of deep water corals and sponges from the sea floor each year. Yikes!

Who doesn't love shrimp? I remember sitting on the couch in my pj's, devouring shrimp cocktail with my dad. They are one of my favorite indulgences. However, shrimp trawl nets accidentally catch and kill more than 1.8 million tons of marine life each year. Shrimp farming overseas has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of mangroves so we're advised to try US shrimp instead. Have you ever looked for US shrimp?? They're hard little creatures to find, but I'm willing to take the challenge. Oh man, scallops are another favorite and they're also dredged. In addition, scallop fishing in the mid-Atlantic accidentally catches sea turtles and other species. I adore sea turtles so in the future when looking for scallops, try farmed or New England scallops instead. This leads to the next problem, bycatch. Worldwide, one out of every four fish caught is discarded, dead or dying, as "bycatch." This isn't just fish, bycatch kills hundreds and thousands of sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Sea turtle picture from
Aquaculture, or fish farming, can be part of the solution to the strains on our oceans. However, this depends on the species being farmed, the methods used, and where the farm is located. When things are done right, fish farming can decrease habitat damage, disease, escapes of non-native fish, and the use of wild fish as feed but unfortunately all of these issues are serious problems in the world of fish farming. Think about it, thousands of fish contained in open net pens produce tons of feces. Add in their uneaten food pellets and this can create quite an amount of pollution, smothering plants and animals on the seafloor nearby. This also raises concern for spreading disease and parasites, which are common problems in crowded pens, to wild fish. The antibiotics and pesticides used to help control these diseases and parasites could potentially leak into the environment as well, further impacting local species. That is why onshore or "closed" farms might be a better option. Their wastes are contained and away from the vulnerable habitats where wild fish feed and breed. There is also experimentation happening with systems that filter wastewater and compost solid wastes. I like where that is going and hope new policies will be put into  place to support a more sustainable fish farming practice. Check out the aquaponics going on below from an article at Social Earth.

For now, stay away from the fish farmed oversees as they do not have the same regulations and policies in place. In tropical nations such as Thailand and Ecuador, coastal mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with farms that supply shrimp to Europe, Japan and America. However, after a few years the waste and chemical pollution force the farmers to move on. They tear down more forests and rebuild, impacting the locals and the surrounding wildlife. Just as it is with the meat industry, smaller is better. Large aquaculture operations are likely to have a greater impact on sensitive habitats and produce more waste and chemical pollution. There is so much more information out there and things are constantly changing. For now, I try to keep up on the topics that affect my health and the environment and share what I find interesting.

Mangrove destruction for shrimp farming in Thailand. Wildlife and ecosystems in the tropics are under pressure, WWF report shows. Photograph: Hartmut Jungius/WWF International

What Can YOU Do?

Please try to use some of these tools the next time you're looking for seafood. Instead of always choosing the most popular catches, try a new type of seafood from the "Best Choices" list. You might just find a tasty, healthy, new favorite.

In general, the following are safe, sustainable options:
  • Anchovies
  • Atlantic mackerel
  • Farmed rainbow trout
  • Farmed oysters
  • Alaskan or Canadian Sablefish
  • Wild Alaskan Salmon
  • Sardines
  • US farmed shrimp
If your on the go and forgot your pocket guide, try information from the Blue Ocean Institute. Text 30644 with the message FISH followed by a space and the name of the fish in question. In about 10 seconds, they'll text you back with their assessment and better alternatives to fish with significant environmental concerns. I tried it by texting "FISH salmon" and received the reply, "Salmon, farmed (RED) significant environmental concerns, Env Defense Fund Advisory: high PCB's; Wild, US West Coast (YELLOW) low abundance; Wild Alaska(GREEN) abundant, MSC certified." OK, now that's cool! You may have noticed the 'MSC certified.' The independent, nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council certifies wild fisheries that are well-managed and sustainable with their blue stamp of approval shown below. At present, it does not look at farmed fish.

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