Food Debates: Loving our Seafood to Death?
Everyday food choices we make have an enormous impact on the future of fish. Whether buying fish for your own restaurant, ordering fish at your favorite café, purchasing from a local market or reeling it in yourself, the future of our seafood relies on all of us.
Many species of fish are in grave danger of extinction and unsafe farming methods. One solution to this ongoing problem is learning about and practicing sustainable seafood methods. Sustainable seafood refers to fish and shellfish caught or farmed with consideration for long-term viability of individual marine species and for the ocean’s ecological balance overall.
1 Monterey Bay Aquarium
2 Chefs Collaborative
3 European Cetacean Bycatch Campaign
4 Sustainable Fishery Organization
5 American Oceans Campaign
6 Aquaculture Canada
7 Go Wild Campaign
8 Byerely Lisa, Gary. "Big hogs, big problems".
Other Helpful Resources:
Have you ever stopped to ask your local fishmonger or favorite chef where your seafood came from or how it was fished? These seemingly minor questions and the everyday food choices we make have an enormous impact on the future of the fish swimming in our oceans, lakes, and seas covering over seventy-five percent of our globe. Whether buying fish for your own restaurant, ordering fish at your favorite café, purchasing from a local market or reeling it in yourself, the future of our seafood relies on all of us. There’s simply no avoiding the debate on sustainable seafood.
Licking our plates clean
Little more than a decade ago, the Patagonian tooth fish, more commonly known as the Chilean sea bass, was virtually unknown to the majority of the consumer public.
Currently it’s one of the most popular and best-selling seafood items on menus countrywide, but it’s also the biggest controversy facing the commercial seafood industry. Regrettably, this fish’s sudden rise to commercial success now threatens the species with extinction. Although international laws now exist to help maintain the species, scientists suggest that it may be commercially extinct within the next five years. Researchers are now just beginning extensive study of this species and their habitat. According to recent statistics by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in 1998 fisheries imported about 5,500 metric tons of Chilean sea bass, worth more than 30 million US dollars. Only five years later, the import amount doubled and the value of this precious fish tripled (NMSF).
Unfortunately, Chilean sea bass is not the only species of fish in danger of extinction. Off the New England coast, cod was once so abundant that boats had a difficult time navigating through the waters. Today, the supply of cod is dwindling rapidly. With the demand for seafood in the midst of a “boom” phase since the early 1990’s, other fish that dwell in remote and vast habitats are also in danger, including the Atlantic Swordfish, the Atlantic Bluefin tuna, and many kinds of Pacific coast rockfish, just to name a few.
On the other end of the spectrum, overproduction of fish in association with fish farming is also having a negative impact on our ecosystem. In particular, salmon, a fish widely enjoyed by the world’s population is being farmed at a rapid pace, but this allegedly eco-friendly practice now being called into question.
Money talks…a fishy situation for chefs
There are many chefs who advocate sustainable seafood as a solution to dangerous and diminishing fish supplies. Sustainable seafood refers to fish and shellfish caught or farmed with consideration for long-term viability of individual marine species and for the ocean’s ecological balance.  There are essentially four main issues relating to sustainable seafood:overfishing, bycatching, habitat damage, and aquaculture.
Overfishing refers to catching fish more rapidly than they can reproduce. As fishing gear and technology develop, humans have discovered new and efficient ways of fishing. Unfortunately, nature is still working the same old way it used to and fish can’t keep up with modern fishing methods. When popular fish grow scarce, fishermen still need to make a living, so they sail farther into un-fished waters seeking more unusual species of fish such as orange roughy and precious Chilean sea bass. 
One common result of overfishing is the “trash fish” effect. Shark and monkfish were once known as “trash fish,” that is, fish considered to have little or no value as food and therefore discarded when caught. In order to maintain the fish supplies, fisheries began selling these trash fish to local purveyors. Today, a number of species are considered valuable and in some cases, overfished themselves. The prices of many of these fish are now quite costly. In the New York area, the average price per pound of monkfish is $8.99. One Manhattan fish market sells this former “trash fish” for $12.99. And so it seems, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the sayinggoes.
Almost one third of the total world catch, which works out to approximately 27 million metric tons, is made up of untargeted fish or bycatch. This includes marine mammals, sea turtles, seals, whales and seabirds caught inadvertently because of unselected gear and irresponsible fishing methods.  The majority of bycatch is discarded or left for dead. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, one in every four creatures perishes when caught as bycatch. For example, the United States and Europe are the largest markets for canned tuna. But when hundreds of thousands of dolphins began to die as a result of bycatch, troubled consumers forced the tuna industry to change its fishing methods. Unfortunately some "dolphin-safe" fishing modes are not safe for sea turtles, sharks, wahoo, mahi-mahi and young tunas. These animals die at staggering rates on account of purse seiners that are working to avoid dolphins.  It seems that hardly any cold-blooded creatures go unaffected by modern-day fishing practices.
Habitat damage is another concern regarding our aquatic friends. What would we do if we no longer had a warm bed or a house to sleep in? We’d probably survive for a little while, but ultimately, we’d need a home to keep us safe and warm, not to mention alive. Our fish need the same. Whether living or working on the seacoast, near the wetlands, or close to the bay, we are consciously and unconsciously disturbing fish’s habitats. Surprisingly, sometimes habitat wreckage is not the fault of humans. In 2001, wild hogs posed a threat to North Carolina’s ecosystem. When hogs “bathe” in dirt and mud to keep parasites off their bodies and to keep cool, they wallow by rolling around in muddy areas until they’ve made hollow depressions in the land. The bacteria being “sweated” out of pigs was infesting and polluting the streams and rivers where fish dwell. Fish infested with pig bacteria doesn’t make for a very appetizing entrée, and native eastern species such as brook trout and other fresh water fish were deemed inedible. 
According to Chef’s Collaborative, in the next 20 years aquaculture will surpass capture fisheries in supplying the majority of the world’s seafood. Aquaculture, or fish farming, is becoming more commonplace as a solution to problematic fish depletion. Today over 20% of our seafood, and in particular, half our salmon is farmed.  Fish farming has an ecological impact all its own, depending on the type of fish being farmed, how they are raised and where the farms are located. Although fish farms produce salmon at a fast rate and employ thousands of people within the commercial fishing and tourism industry, fish farming has a dark side. Farmed fish such as salmon are raised in what’s known as a net-pen. Envision cattle in a crowded feedlot and replace the cattle with salmon and then throw in some water. This works out to thousands upon thousands of fish thrown into an area 30 meters square by 20 meters square. With congestion worse than Times Square on New Year's Eve, disease can spread quickly among the many fish, and the antibiotics sometimes used to control the disease may contaminate the environment. This not only affects our fish, but also our drinking water. Furthermore, if penned fish escape, which they frequently do, they may disturb the natural habitats of wild fish living nearby. In October of 1999, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement that linked antibiotic resistance in dangerous Salmonella bacteria to the use of antibiotics in fish farming.  Thus, aquaculture, a seemingly simple solution to sustainable seafood has had negative ramifications on our ecosystem.
Chefs who advocate sustainable seafood only use seafood whose fisheries practice prudent fishing methods. If unsure about specific practices, chefs may sacrifice a profitable night by refusing to serve fish that may not have been raised or caught in an eco-friendly manner. Michael Cimarusti, executive chef at the Water Grill, says he always considers the sustainability of the species when buying fish. He tries to source his product from responsible fishers who use gear like hooks and lines, rather than trawlers. "I try as hard as I can to buy from the small people - people that respect fishing the way it was done 50 or 60 years ago. 
Other chefs don’t see sustainable seafood in the same light. While it’s unanimously agreed that chefs need to respect environmental concerns, huge financial stakes and consumer demands must be taken into consideration. Andreas Nieto, executive chef for the Century Plaza Hotel and Spa, says many of his fellow colleagues find it difficult to take Chilean sea bass off their menus, as it is a consistent best seller. He adds, “I think it is a choice that we have to make individually…but we all want to protect our environment.”
Taking a pass on Chilean sea bass
In the more proactive arena, campaigns such as “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” headed by the National Environmental Trust has made a name for itself by lobbying against the consumption of endangered and overfished seafood. At the end of the day, however, we must wonder, does any of this even make a difference? Boycotts aren’t always effective, sometimes only focusing on one fish and tending to be unilateral. Some feel that boycotts can often be misleading and altogether confusing. While they can be very powerful and informative, they are still puzzling to consumers who, for example, don’t know the difference between a Chilean sea bass and striped bass.
Eco-friendly companies such as the Boston based Martin International Corporation are supporting healthy seafood with their two flagship farm-raised salmon lines: Black Pearl (Icelandic) and Black Pearl (Natural Choice). They are both gaining popularity because they have very low PCB levels similar to wild salmon and are raised without the use of chemicals, antibiotics or proteins in the feed. All of these proactive measures are reported to reduce toxicity levels well below the EPA and FDA recommended limits.
Chew on this…
After reading all the facts, hopefully you are considering weighing how important seafood sustainability is to you and what the consequences of your personal seafood selections are. Whether proactive or passive, what does the debate on sustainable seafood mean to you? Should you avoid certain seafood or ignore the crisis altogether? You could steer clear of eating in restaurants that serve Chilean sea bass or just rely on market forces to solve this problem.
If you decide that you are committed to sustainability, be on the lookout for sustainable fishing practices in your local supermarket or fish market. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is a defender of “consumers’ right to know,” and supports reader-friendly consumer labeling on packages, as well as general education for the consumer public. You can also help the environment by substituting endangered fish with similar tasting ones. For instance, instead of orange roughy or Chilean sea bass, order catfish or striped bass. And why not choose black cod in place of Atlantic cod? You’re not likely to taste the difference. You can also check out the sustainable seafood guide which tracks which fish are in the greatest danger of becoming extinct.
As a fisher, chef or consumer, the future of the world’s seafood supply rests on all of us. What are you willing to do about it? Let the debate begin.
1 Chefs Collaborative
2 Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org)
3 American Oceans Campaign (americanoceans.org)
4 Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org)
5 Byerley, Lisa Gary. Smoky Mountain Sightline 2001
6 Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org)
7 Chefs Collaborative (chefscollaborative.org)
8 European Cetacean Bycatch Campaign