If there is one matter that nutrition experts can agree on, it has to be that eating fish is good for us. Except for strict vegetarians and vegans, most diet types and culturally specific foods include fish as part of a healthy diet. Many people are beginning to grasp the importance of choosing ethically raised meat, but it seems like sustainable seafood has been left behind in the conversation. It is just as important to realize that industrialized fishing has massively destroyed the world’s marine ecosystem to a point where we may never recuperate our losses. It’s noteworthy to mention that, like meat and poultry, seafood provides vital protein for the world’s population. For this reason, it is important to find and support viable options to continue harvesting seafood that also allows for the preservation of marine life.
Sustainability in the aquatic world starts with recognizing that seafood plays a crucial role in nature and that interfering with this process can have detrimental effects on our whole ecosystem. It also means that we have to understand that how often we consume seafood, as well as the physical act of catching these animals can have serious impacts on other marine life. So how do we eat seafood sustainably? We can start by committing to eat seafood that is caught with minimal damage to the surrounding animals and their habitats, as well as not overfishing so that we have enough stock to maintain species for generations to come. Fortunately in Canada, particularly in BC, we have two organizations that offer easy-to-use guides on how to pick sustainable seafood: SeaChoice and Ocean Wise. However, before we can get into the recommendations, we first have to understand the issues that surround eating seafood.
Aquaculture Issues: Aquaculture or “fish farming” is an artificial environment used to raise seafood. Inherently there is nothing wrong with farming fish and shellfish, and if done properly, is can actually help to take the burden off of our natural resources. However, it all depends on several key factors. Firstly, the location of the farm is crucial in order to have a low negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Farms can be located on land (closed-net farms) or in water (open-net farms). High-risk farms are typically open-net farms and shrimp ponds because they allow free exchange of waste, chemicals, parasites, and diseases with the surrounding environment. Chemicals are also more likely to be used in open-net farms, which further exacerbates the problem. Because open-net farms and shrimp ponds are located in natural aquatic habitats, they can attract predators that can easily get caught in the nets. Equally, the escape of species from the farms is a concern in open-net systems. Although farmed species should be the same as their wild counterparts, there is a risk that the farmed animals can establish themselves as an invasive species in the wild.
Other important considerations are the type of species that is being farmed and the feed that is being used to raise them. Farmed species that are raised on vegetarian-based diets help add to the global seafood supply. If you think of a species that is higher up on the food chain, they must consume fish feed-based diets that use up the supply of fish that has already been caught. In these cases, the net gain of seafood is actually negative.
Fishing Issues: Wild caught seafood is a great source of protein for many people around the world. Unfortunately, numerous fisheries cause tremendous damage to the aquatic ecosystem. Not only does fishing reduce the population of the specific species that is caught, but fishing can also result in massive amounts of bycatch, destroy habitats and indirectly affect other marine populations by removing predators and prey from the complex food chain. Bycatch is when fisheries catch species other than the targeted species, which are then sold or discarded. Most fishing gear produces some level of bycatch, however some systems are better than others. Most notably, surface longline fishing that is commonly used to catch tuna, also traps endangered species such as turtles and sharks, as well as seabirds.
Traceability and Labeling: The introduction of industrialized fisheries has allowed for the global trade of seafood. Unfortunately, most seafood travels large distances and trades hands multiple times before arriving at your local fish counter. For these reasons, it is very difficult to know for certain where your seafood is coming from and how it has been caught. Additionally, Canada does not enforce proper labelling of seafood, so what you see is not always what you get.
Contaminants: People are becoming more and more concerned about contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones being present in their seafood. These chemicals are being found in higher quantities in seafood because they are produced by industrialized practices that eventually make their way into the surrounding water and air. These chemicals are easily absorbed by marine life and can build up in high concentrations, particularly in fish that are higher up on the food chain.
The solution? If you are buying farmed seafood, choose those that were raised in closed containment farms. This system is physically removed from the natural environment, which stops chemicals and species from escaping into the surrounding ecosystem, as well as reduces the threat of transferring diseases between wild and farmed species. To be a low-risk system, the water should be treated before being re-circulated or released into the environment. Additionally, consider purchasing vegetarian fish that don’t consume feed that had to be caught in order to raise your fish, as well as avoid large and deep dwelling fish that naturally take longer to mature and reproduce.
The fishing method is equally important when considering your seafood choices. There is equipment available to help reduce the amount of bycatch, as well as good techniques such as avoiding known migration paths and using species-specific bait.
When it comes to contaminants, Health Canada issues warnings about mercury contamination in seafood; these notices can be found on their website. Alternatively, SeaChoice uses a precautionary approach to choosing seafood that limits exposure to dangerous chemicals and specifically suggests limiting seafood that has mercury concerns to once or twice a month.
How do we get started? Seachoice suggests asking your local retailer these three simple questions: What type of fish is this? Where was it fished or farmed? How was it caught or farmed? If they are unable to answer your questions, there are actions you can take. First, keep asking! Retailers want to keep their customers happy, so eventually they will find the answers for you. If they don’t, suggest phoning their suppliers or ask for the number to call yourself. Otherwise, leave your reluctant retailer behind and purchase from a vendor that is transparent with their seafood information.
I understand that this is an overwhelming task to tackle. Fortunately, there are two organizations that have done the hard work for us. SeaChoice and Ocean Wise are two groups from Canada that provide direction for environmentally conscious consumers. They both consider the impact that fishing has on the species themselves, as well as their surrounding habitats. They also provide choices based on contaminants found in different species, and provide good alternatives to similar unsustainable products. The Ocean Wise icon is common in the Vancouver area and works directly with retailers, food services, and restaurants to offer ocean-friendly choices to their customers. However, I personally use SeaChoice as my guide to seafood as I find their guidelines user friendly. For quick and easy access to this information, check out their website, print off the guide below, or download their app!
Seventy-five percent of our planet is covered by oceans – a place that still remains mostly a mystery to scientists. Historically, it seemed like there was an unlimited supply of food beneath its waves. However, we are now learning that industrial fishing has disturbed this complex ecosystem and destroyed much of the marine world. Humans are largely turning a blind eye to this devastation because industrial fishing is so profitable, but the reality is that we are now left with a mess that is going to be difficult to clean up. Consequently, it is crucial that we create and encourage fisheries that aim to conserve this precious environment by supporting thriving marine life and reducing damage to the surrounding habitats. Whether you are shopping for one or feeding a family of five, your decisions count.