The woman in the light blue shirt is raising her hand and I anticipate her question before the words leave her mouth. “All wild fish are unsustainable, right? So we should eat all farmed fish, yes?” I’m in Edmonds, Washington, teaching a cooking class on sustainable seafood. We’re only three minutes into the class and I’m already poised to clear up some major misconceptions.
I tell the class that I wish there were some hard and fast rules to navigate this new world; a world in which all-you-can-eat sushi bars and 365-day-a-year global fish availability mask issues of dwindling wild stocks and polluting offshore farming operations. The answer to her question is: It depends.
Many species of wild fish are doing quite well. Certain states, such as Alaska, prioritize sound fisheries management to preserve fish for future generations. West coast albacore, Pacific halibut, spot prawns and the five species of Alaskan wild salmon are examples of wild fish that are great choices. Still, other options exist. Squid, wild sardines, pink shrimp, crab and lobster don’t seem to be threatened. Other wild species, such as bluefin and yellowfin tuna, eel, aka unagi and grouper, for example, are, unfortunately, not doing so well. Demand is too high and our tools for catching fish too efficient. Wild fish don’t have a fighting chance, unless we can control our appetites and fisheries managers can prioritize conservation.
The most environmentally sound way of fishing is in smaller, focused quantities. Examples include trolling also known as “hook and line,” which is essentially the commercial version of dipping a fishing pole in the ocean, catching shrimp or crabs in a pot, and small scale purse seining (a net that encloses a school of fish), among other techniques.
Other methods are not as ocean- and fish-friendly: fish caught by trawling and certain kinds of longlining. Trawling harms the ocean floor by dragging heavy weighted nets across it. Trawling also produces a lot of bycatch, which is when species not intended to be caught are accidentally caught and killed, causing their populations to dwindle. Longlining drags a multitude of lines and hooks, often for miles on end. The worst way to longline is on the top of the ocean column. The lines sit on the surface of the ocean and unintended species get hooked (turtles, birds, etc.) in the process. After so much time on the line much of what’s caught can be dead when it’s finally hauled in. Alas, not all longlining is the same and major exceptions exist. Longlining along the bottom of the ocean, such as in Alaska’s sustainable halibut and black cod fishery, has a much better track record of catching intended species.
But what about farm-raised fish? Is this an option for environmentally conscious consumers? Some types of farmed seafood are extremely sustainable. Farmed shellfish doesn’t require wild fish feed to grow so there is no negative drawing of species (protein loss) from the oceans to convert to feed to run a shellfish farm. The same can’t be said for carnivorous fish farms. Farmed shellfish, just like wild shellfish, filter feed, contributing to better water quality. Few decisions are this simple: shellfish, like oysters, clams, and mussels, make the oceans cleaner.
Not all farmed fish are sustainable, however. Offshore farming operations, such as most Atlantic salmon farms, cause huge problems. Think of it this way: if there was an outbreak of disease among a group of people on an island where no ferries and no bridge existed, the disease would be self-limiting and contained. Compare this to a disease breaking out in the middle of New York City. Pretty limitless how far that disease could spread, yes? Mixing and mingling high-density fish farms right in the middle of wild fish ocean migration routes carries with it all sorts of environmental consequences including escapement, pollution and the spread of disease. The ocean is an extremely efficient distribution medium. Closed containment a.k.a. land-based farms are a lot less environmentally risky. Opt for rainbow trout and arctic char farms.
The important questions to ask when buying fish are: what is the species, where was it caught and how was it caught? Resources such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and sustainablesushi.net are invaluable. A good rule of thumb is to buy domestic as we have far stricter environmental laws when compared to most other countries (Thailand, China, the Philippines, etc.) that import fish into the United States.
Sustainable seafood is a hot topic and American consumers are looking for simple answers and guidance around an extremely complicated subject. Many supermarkets, fishmongers, fishermen, chefs and restaurants are making the future of our oceans a priority. Find them, support them.
Becky Selengut is a private chef and co-author of the Washington Local and Seasonal Cookbook (Lone Pine 2008). Selengut has another book coming out in 2011 called Good Fish on sustainable seafood. You can find more of her work at chefreinvented and on Twitter at: @chefreinvented