Eating for the Planet: How to Think More Consciously About Our Seafood Consumption
Because what we eat, matters
This article is part of our monthly issue “Food for Future,” in which we invite you to join us in exploring the impact our daily eating habits have on the future of our personal lives, and the planet—because if everything we eat is a problem, what can we eat? We want to learn how far even small changes can go with informative and entertaining articles, specific tips for everyday life, and recipes that can guide the way and inspire us to take our first (and maybe even second) steps towards a more sustainable way to eat. Check out this link to find an overview of all our weekly topics, stories, recipes, and more.
With this article, we’re getting ready to wrap up our monthly issue, “Food for Future.” The topic we’re covering this week? Seafood. Together we’ll look at what the industry is really like, what fish we eat the most, what we should look out for when buying seafood, and what our seafood consumption means for the planet. I had some questions, or rather question marks, buzzing around in my head before I started researching for this story. The more I read, compared, and questioned, the more I realized I had to come to terms with my own seafood-eating behavior. Get ready for an exciting journey riddled with many answers and even small, very concrete steps that you can integrate into your everyday life for more sustainable, more personal seafood consumption.
We’re importing (and exporting) more seafood than ever before
According to an article published in the Journal of World Aquaculture Society, in the US, consumption of seafood has hovered around 15 pounds per capita since 1990. But this doesn’t mean we’re not consuming more seafood than ever before. In fact, the same study shows that we’ve jumped from importing just under 1.5 million metric tons of seafood in 1990 to over 2.5 millions metric tons in 2017. We’re also exporting more seafood than ever, about 1.5 million metric tons in 2017 compared to 1 million metric tons in 1990.
While that 33 pounds (15 kg) per capita doesn’t strike me as very much—especially in comparison to meat consumption, where the average American eats a whopping 140 lbs (63 kg) per year—it’s nevertheless worth diving into the environmental impacts of this consumption. Most people are on some level starting to become (or are already very) aware of the environmental impacts of beef, chicken, and pork, but when it comes to seafood (and dairy products), they tend to turn a blind eye.
Wild caught or aquaculture?
Those who eat seafood know, at best, just a very little bit about how industrial fishing and farming (aquaculture) works and, unfortunately, the question of which practice is “better” for the environment cannot be answered all that simply. Wild stocks are under constant threat because the global demand for seafood is constantly increasing. Since we want to eat more fish than can be sustainably fished, aquaculture comes into play quite often for many fish and seafood species. A few disadvantages of this are that aquaculture farms can disturb local, wild fish populations, and antibiotics or other genetic modification practices are sometimes used on the fish with little to no research on the long term effects.
There are various methods of catching wild fish. There are different nets for different fish and seafood, but not all are best suited to the ecological balance of the sea. Bottom trawl nets, for example, are typically very heavy and are pulled over long distances across the seabed, thus damaging them and potentially destroying delicate ecosystems that have a hard time bouncing back. This is one of the reasons why bottom trawled shrimp and salmon have a worse environmental impact than carp. In addition, there is often a high bycatch rate, where species other than the intended catch (including turtles and dolphins) also land in the net.
No matter the method, an ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) or MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification is better than nothing. These certifications are independently assessed and look at many variables in order to determine their impact on wild fish populations and ocean ecosystems.
Our love for salmon
Salmon is probably the best known, and loved, farmed fish. But did you know it’s actually a predator? It feeds mainly on other marine animals which, in the case of aquaculture, means that these marine animals must first be caught (the origin of which can’t always be traced) in order to then feed the salmon. For every 2.25 lbs (1 kg) salmon, 5 – 11.25 lbs (2 – 5 kg) of marine animals are consumed. What does this mean? Unfortunately for all the salmon-lovers out there, it means that it’s better to eat “vegetarian” fish, like carp or catfish.
So, when it comes to salmon, it would be more sustainable to consider how often you eat it, and try to cut back—making it a special treat to indulge in only every now and then. That way, you can spend more on it, more easily follow and stay up to date on the current recommendations for buying salmon, and of course buy by the seal and certifications we mentioned already.
Seafood guides, seals, and certifications
While there are guides and seals galore that, in theory, should help us shop more consciously and sustainably, not all hold the same standards or say the same things. During my research I repeatedly came across sources, including WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Greenpeace, that are several years old—however there are some easier to read recommendations from sources like Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise.
Having access to current, up to date assessments and guides is really important when it comes to seafood because the stock of wild caught fish, such as herring, changes naturally over the years. One reason for this is that people are consuming more seafood and some species are just more popular than others. On the other hand, the ever warmer climate is changing the living conditions and ranges of some species. To stay with my example: Herring has been fished sustainably in the Baltic Sea for a long time, but now, there are smaller populations due to the rise in temperature. As a result, a herring fishery lost the MSC seal because more herring would be taken out of the sea than can be caught. This development is also confirmed by the Rostock Thuenen Institute for Baltic Sea Fisheries—this 30-minute documentary (with auto-translated English subtitles) explains this development clearly.
All that being said, seals or certificates based on more or less the same standards offer us a more immediate solution when shopping for seafood. Here’s a bit more information about the best-known seals and certifications, and our infographic on the most-eaten fish in the US, and which labels to look out for when buying them.
– Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): You can find this seal in almost every supermarket. It certifies sustainable wild fishing but has been heavily criticized in the past.
– Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC): The sister label to MSC, but for aquaculture (farmed fish).
– Global G.A.P.: Certifies organic breeding.
– Friend of the Sea (FOTS): Certifies sustainable wild caught seafood and organic breeding.
– Dolphin Safe: Specially developed for tuna fishing in order to minimize the bycatch of dolphins. However, it says nothing about whether the fishing is sustainable.
What does this mean for our everyday life?
The world of fish and seafood seems confusing––at least at first glance. The different seals, guides, fishing areas, and methods can be overwhelming when shopping. However, we can take refuge in the fact that many frozen fish packages include plenty of relevant information you need to make a more conscious decision. Another tip for buying better? Get to know the fishmongers or specialty seafood shops in your area, ask questions, and look to them as a resource to help you navigate this sometimes complicated industry.
Personally, I find this questioning helps me keep awareness of not only what I eat every day, but also the impacts of what I really like to eat—and not just with seafood. If I really appreciate and enjoy an ingredient, I am automatically looking for the best, most sustainable version of it, while certain products become a sometimes-only treat.
Our goal with the "Food for Future" campaign is to give you an overview of certain food topics so we can learn and grow together. We hope that we can all learn how to be critical, well-informed consumers that try to understand, recognize, and question where our food comes from and what impact that might have. Perhaps this and the other stories on meat, soy, and dairy will help you walk through the supermarket with a curious eye and mind, realizing that you (and everyone else) has a lot of power: The products you choose to buy does influence the market and really makes a difference in the world.
5 seafood-free recipes to make this week
Japanese seaweed salad
Roasted cauliflower with yogurt dip
Smoky mushroom goulash with bread dumplings
5-ingredient chickpea pancakes with fennel and olives
Published on June 23, 2020