Going Green: Is Your Seafood Sustainable?

Summertime is nearly here; we can sense its approach in the lengthening daylight hours, warming temperatures, longer spells of dry weather, and in the mouthwatering scent of barbeque wafting through the neighborhood. In addition to the typical burgers and hot dogs, many a backyard barbeque will feature seafood... salmon, halibut, shrimp... you name it. Those of us in the Pacific Northwest especially love our seafood. But beware before loading up on supplies for your next grilling event - if you plan to consume seafood, make sure you're doing so sustainably.

A lovely, sustainably caught Columbia River King Salmon, which is currently filling up my freezer, courtesy of my husband.

Why the concern? 

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, 85 percent of the world's fisheries have been fully exploited, over-exploited, or have collapsed.  What does this mean?  In many cases, fish are being harvested faster than they can reproduce, and their populations are declining rapidly.  Not only does this lead to fewer fish available for human consumption and those ubiquitous summertime barbeques, but more importantly, declining fish stocks also threaten the stability of the marine ecosystems and food webs of which they are a part.

In addition to overfishing, here are a few other issues at stake with the harvesting of wild fish:

Habitat damage: fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dredging cause often irreparable damage to seafloor habitats. Seafood Watch states that in waters off Alaska, more than one million pounds of corals, sponges, and other deep water species are removed from the seafloor every year using these fishing methods. Corals can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to grow, so it's easy to see that those which are dredged won't be replaced anytime soon, and the other marine species which called that community home will need to pack up and search for new territory.

Bycatch: as fishermen drag their nets or lines along, they often catch species such as turtles, whales dolphins, sharks, and even sea birds in addition to the fish species they were actually targeting.  These "unwanted" species that are inadvertently caught up in the nets or lines are known as bycatch, and they do not survive the experience. Seafood Watch notes that shrimp fisheries are the worst offenders: for every pound of shrimp caught, another 6 pounds of bycatch is discarded. This adds up to a tremendous amount of marine life unnecessarily killed and discarded every year, and further diminishes populations of marine species.

Clearly, there are concerns with harvesting wild species.  But what about farmed fish? Well, there are some issues there, too...

Threats to wild populations: oftentimes, fish are farmed in pens that consist of little more than a net to separate them from the rest of the ocean.  These net pens unfortunately allow viruses, parasites, infections--and the resulting antibiotics and pesticides administered--to enter the environment and be transferred to any wild populations nearby. Some fish farms have "closed" pens that isolate the farmed fish from the environment, thereby eliminating this concern.

Pollution: again, when raised in open net pens, farmed fish can significantly pollute the surrounding environment with their waste and uneaten food. If the fish have been treated with antibiotics or pesticides for various infections, those compounds will pollute the ecosystem as well.

Habitat destruction: open net pens can pollute the local environment, as described above, and may even make it inhabitable for some wild species that live there.  The largest concern is with shrimp farming, which has destroyed 70% of the world's mangrove forests in the past 40 years, according to this Grist article. Mangroves provide crucial habitat for many species, act as "nurseries" for juvenile fish, and also provide important protection against storm surges and coastal erosion.  Tearing out these forests to install shrimp ponds is a devastating ecological blow.

Okay, so now we're thoroughly depressed.  Are we allowed to eat seafood? What can we do?


The number-one thing you can do is to be conscious of what you're eating and to make sustainable choices.  The Seafood Watch program offers super-helpful guides in both printable and app versions, tailored to the specific region of the U.S. in which you live. You can simply look up the type of seafood you're planning to eat, and the guide will let you know if it's a good choice (green), if it's an okay choice (yellow), or if it's something from which you should run away screaming as if your hair was on fire (red). Note that these ratings refer to the sustainability of the different fish types, not how safe/nutritious/etc. they are to eat.

If you take a look at the guides, you'll notice that some species are listed in all three categories, with the only difference being where they were caught.  Not only do you need to know what kind of fish you're eating, but also where and how it was caught.  When purchasing fish in a store or ordering it from a restaurant, the grocer/waiter should be able to provide you with this information.  If they don't know where the fish came from, your best bet is to skip it and go with something else. Do you really want to eat it anyway, if even the establishment that is selling it can't tell you where it came from?

Whew.  This sounds like a lot of work.  Lots of questions to ask.  A lot to be aware of.  Unfortunately, our global society has created a situation where all of this effort is necessary in order to protect many of our marine species from disappearing altogether in the coming decades.  Just as everyone in the sixties was alarmed at the thought of Rachel Carson's "silent spring" with no bird songs, so too should we be alarmed today at the prospect of polluted and degraded ocean ecosystems devoid of familiar and once-common fish species... or a future filled with summer barbeques wherein that cedar-plank grilled salmon is only a distant memory.

The Pacific Ocean... seemingly empty on the surface, but teeming with life below.  Let's keep it that way! Lainey Piland photo


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