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Sustainable Seafood: Eat More Sardines!

Jim Carrier writes a long piece on the shrimping industry:

The industry acknowledges that 5 percent of the world’s mangroves, hundreds of thousands of acres, have been destroyed creating shrimp ponds. In some estuaries 80 percent of the mangroves are gone. A commons was privatized, ruining artisanal fishing and driving indigenous fishermen to work raising shrimp. By removing the thick coastal barrier of trees, shrimp farms have undoubtedly aggravated damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. And salt intrusion has sterilized once-fertile estuaries.

Even in the best-run farms, two to four pounds of sea life is caught and ground up as feed for every pound of shrimp raised. Mortality rates of 30 percent are common. The dead shrimp, shrimp excrement, and chemical additives are often flushed into coastal waters.

More about efforts to improve the system:

The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for imported food safety, samples less than 1 percent of the 1 billion pounds, a “sorry” record, according to U.S. Representative John Dingell, who in 2007 chaired food safety hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mindful of consumer fears fanned by poisoned seafood arriving from China, the Global Aquaculture Alliance—an industry group underwritten by Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, and multinational seafood importers—has written standards that, if enforced, could produce clean, safe shrimp without damaging people or the environment. But that will take years, admitted GAA president George Chamberlain. Only 45 shrimp farms are certified by the alliance—out of more than 100,000 worldwide.

This came from a NYT discussion about sustainable seafood development .

Here’s a downloadable pocket guide about which seafood to try and avoid. Summary: avoid imported fish and seafood, avoid most tuna, sardines and lobster are ok (in general, US raised fish is more sustainable), Here’s a set of sustainable alternatives to popular seafood. Here’s a table summarizing the findingsMaritime Stewardship Council has another database.

As a general observation, I am beginning to conclude that consumers have a hard time processing all this information. It is far easier just to go to a supermarket with minimum standards. Whole Foods is basically the flagship store for these kinds of standards. My attitude has always been, “gosh, if only I could afford their pricey products!” (especially at a time when I am out of work). We are receiving lots of conflicting messages. Medical articles say, “eat more fish” and “sustainable seafood” is at least 2x the cost of imported seafood. So instead of compromising on our dietary choices, we compromise on our ethnical values with regard to production. I’m not justifying, merely trying to explain.

A few years ago I learned that there were massive US tariffs on imported shrimp. I was outraged. Why shouldn’t we have the right to eat cheap and large  Indonesian shrimp? Nowadays, though, the current account deficit is a sign our economy is tanking. I never thought I would be so buy-American, but I admit that I spend a lot of time searching for an American (or Irish) alternative rather than a foreign brand.  (Remember: I have dual Irish citizenship). The competitive advantage our domestic agri-industry seems to have is better harvesting/growing methods. I realize that this statement is outrageous. Chicken and beef, for instance, are notoriously bad examples of industries which are dangerous and unsustainable. But if we wanted to, American beef/chicken growers could improve their standards in no time at all..provided they could be sure that Americans would buy American.

I doubt that consumers can keep all this information in their heads about particular brands and types of food. Who really can remember all the certifications (and how to distinguish them from the meaningless  certification labels corporations affix to their products ). Even farmer’s markets –considered the holy grail  of local food enthusiasts  –is inconvenient for many and requires a certain level of consumer sophistication. The answer is not educating consumers but having retail outlets that  set better minimum standards. For example, Whole Foods sets a certain standard, and Walmart sets a certain standard. I go to HEB, but I really don’t know what that “means” in terms of food quality.

I don’t buy too much gourmet food – I can’t afford it – but I try to avoid processed foods and things which are more natural (whatever that means). But supermarkets don’t market themselves in terms of food quality; they market themselves in terms of price and customer service. Hell, I’d sit through Walmart’s crappy lines if I knew their organic food was cheap and high quality.

I talked with a man yesterday who was writing a book about a Houston nonprofit education group he works on dedicated to educating children about food and nutrition. It’s a great organization (and this man was a real foodie). He was compiling a set of photos about all the food he has been eating for the last year. It’s a fascinating project until I realize that I eat the same food day after day after day! For a while, I was a foodie and liked preparing foods I am not really complaining. After all, this strict boring diet has helped me to lose 20 pounds. Maybe when you cook for a family you can splurge or think about food as an event. For me, food is something that provides energy and messes up my kitchen.  If I become a RAW food enthusiast, it is not because of deeply held beliefs but laziness.  (Don’t get me wrong; I love trying new foods; I just don’t love preparing them).

Here’s a tip about eating canned fish. Always buy canned fish packed in water –not packed in oil. A Whole Foods page explains:

Choose water-packed tuna rather than oil-packed. The added oil used in canning mixes with some of the tuna’s natural fat. When you drain oil-packed tuna, some of its omega 3 fatty acids also go down the drain. Since oil and water don’t mix, water-packed tuna won’t leach any of its precious omega-3s.

(I originally found this tip from Anne M. Fletcher’s Eat Fish Live Better).

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Humberto Kam 6/11/2009, 11:27 am

    Thanks for keeping up the good fight. Finding sustainable seafood can be daunting but we hope the tools we provide consumers can help drive demand (or even just questions) that will in turn help our work with restaurants, food retailers, and food service companies.

    Humberto Kam
    Monterey Bay Aquarium

  • Martin 4/27/2010, 1:34 pm

    Great post! I agree – consumers do have a hard time processing all this information. I just launched a site selling only sustainable seafood – http://ilovebluesea.com – to take the burden of responsibility on ourselves and allow customers to shop with peace of mind. And IMHO, at a very affordable cost. Thanks for helping spread the word about the state of our oceans!

    Martin Reed

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