Meditations

Is Sustainable Seafood a Myth?


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Last spring, while in Tokyo, I made an early-morning trip to the famous Tsukiji fish market. It was meant to be a pilgrimage of sorts but ended up being an unsettling experience. I’ve thought a lot over the last year or so about the trip and the questions which that morning raised.

There is no doubt that Tsukiji is spectacular. The crack-of-dawn tuna auction was fascinating both in its chaos and its ritual. In the main market, stalls stretched into the distance, with box after box and crate after crate of edible sea creatures. Bright yellow motorized dollies paid little heed to the crowds of camera-carrying tourists as they carried shipments to the loading bay and ultimately to the city beyond. The market is hugely impressive due to it’s scale; but while I expected it to be an inspiring visit for a food-obsessed tourist like me, it was this scale that ended up being disturbing. Can consumption at this kind of scale be sustainable? More than that, with the human population at the size that it is, is there such a thing as sustainable seafood?

Tsukiji Market

In Vancouver, many upscale restaurants have come onboard in the last few years with Ocean Wise, a program designed to inform consumers about wise choices regarding seafood consumption. The strategy of the program is to rate available seafood catches according to their environmental impact – guiding eaters towards ‘safe’ species and away from ‘unsafe’ catches plagued by overfishing, habitat damage, or bycatch.

Ocean Wise recommends a species on four different criteria:

  1. Abundant and resilient to fishing pressures
  2. Well managed with a comprehensive management plan based on current research
  3. Harvested in a method that ensures limited bycatch on non-target and endangered species
  4. Harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats and negative interactions with other species.

It’s a well-intentioned idea, and seems on the outside to be a step in the right direction. But is it a big enough step? Is there such a thing as a big enough step?

At the same time consumers are moving slowly towards ‘sustainable’ choices, more and more data is being released suggesting that things might be worse than they seem. A 2006 study released in the journal Science projected that all of the world’s commercial seafood stocks will have collapsed by 2048, if current fishing trends continue. This seems to be direct conflict with the criteria set out by Ocean Wise. How can any species be ‘resiliant to fishing pressures’ if all of the world’s seafood stocks are heading for a crash?

Tsukiji Market

One of the most common Oceanwise seafood choices found on local menus is Pacific Halibut. The Pacific Halibut is a ground-fish, found throughout the northern Pacific Ocean, which has been fished commercially for more than a hundred years. The halibut catch is very carefully managed by Canadian and US fisheries departments, yet the population still seems to be in decline [1]. I couldn’t find any figures indicating that the population was either remaining stable, or increasing. Isn’t that what sustainable means?

The star of BC’s seafood menus, the wild Pacific salmon, has a managed fishery, but population estimates and predictions seem to fluctuate wildly from year-to-year. As with the halibut, indicators seem to show that the population of our local salmon species may be headed for collapse [2]. Indeed, as of 2006, 13.5% of BC & Yukon Salmon populations were extinct or at high risk of extinction [3]. Again, in my admittedly limited searching, I couldn’t find any data that showed a positive or even neutral rate of population change in Pacific Salmon. Most of us who have lived in BC have anecdotal evidence of this decline – any sport fisherman will tell you that salmon fishing ain’t what it used to be.

Of course, the decline in the population of salmon, halibut, and other food species can’t be only attributed to overfishing. Watershed destruction, sea lice, changing climate conditions – a lot of things are adding up to extremely tough times for fish stocks around the world. What seems difficult for me to imagine is how fishery of any scale for these and other species whose populations are in any measure of decline could be considered ‘sustainable’. I know this is a difficult question; one that has been discussed elsewhere [4], and one which could take up an entire blog of it’s own. But it has been a question that I’ve been asking myself again and again over the last year.

Before this post descends too much farther into environmental diatribe, let me say the reason why this all disturbs me so much: I love to eat fish. Before my Tsukiji trip, I ate fish & seafood as much as I could. Not only did I believe my choices to be environmentally responsible (I always ate Ocean Wise), it also seemed like the healthiest choice. I’d read article after article about the health benefits of fish. Omega 3! I cooked fish at home, ordered it in restaurants – I probably ate once or twice a week for the greater part of a decade. I salivate at the thought of a good ceviche, and nothing spells summer to me more than a cedar-planked salmon.

So, what to do?

As much as my taste buds regret it, I eat less fish. Far less. And, though I’ll admit to eating salmon & tuna once or twice a year, I’ve tried to cut my fish intake from the top of the food chain down. I’ve started to look for more abundant seafood species like squid[5], mackerel, and herring[6] and at the same time have made an effort to memorize the species to avoid at all cost (like shrimp[7] and, tragically, as I learned writing this article, unagi’s freshwater eel).

I’ve come to look at my trip to Tsukiji market as a wake-up call. I’d love to be able to enjoy an occasional fish meal in 2048 (I’ll be 73) but in order for that to happen, we’re all going to have to make some changes.

Tsukiji Market

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[1] In May, the NOAA’s Alaska Regional office announced a reduction in charter Halibut catch stating that “”Sport charter fishing has grown in southeast Alaska while halibut abundance has decreased.” http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/newsreleases/2009/charterhalibut050609.htm

[2] “Changing Ocean Currents Impacting Salmon” June 21, 2009 – http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2009/06/21/Changing-ocean-currents-impacting-salmon/UPI-52811245613243/,

[3] This figure comes from a BC Fisheries Report, in 2006 – http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/soe/bcce/04_fisheries/populations.html. A quick survey of available data shows more bad news. 47% of historical sockeye salmon populations have gone extinct (http://www.currentresults.com/Wildlife/Endangered-Species/Endangered-Fish/hundreds-801101.php). A good (albeit depressing) summary of the problems facing wild salmon populations can be found on the WIkipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon

[4] Mark Bittman’s excellent article “Loving Fish, This Time With The Fish In Mind” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/dining/10Seafood.html?_r=2&ref=dining) discusses these matters in great detail. Later, he brings some experts on board for multiple opinions – http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/the-seafood-eaters-latest-conundrum/

[5] One of my favourite summer recipes – http://www.pepperfool.com/recipes/salads/charred_squid.html

[6] Try the pickled herring (and smoked mackerel filets!) at Wheelhouse Seafood (2605 Hastings Street East)

[7] http://shrimpsuck.blogspot.com/

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