Supporting Sustainable Seafood

Today I want to write about an issue that’s been near and dear to me for quite a few years now. Sustainable seafood is a significant conservation issue, and it’s also (surprise surprise) yet another controversial one. People do not like being told what to do. If you tell someone not to eat seafood, they will likely as not run out to the nearest seafood restaurant and gorge themselves on lobster and swordfish. I get that, so while supporting the conservation of all marine species (and so many of them are now critically endangered, whether due to habitat loss or pollution or fishing pressure), I realize that one must be realistic if one hopes to accomplish anything. This is where programs like Seafood Watch come in.

I first became aware of the Seafood Watch Program when I was in college. In my senior year I did a semester-long internship at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, where I essentially learned all about how to be an aquarist. I had a fantastic time working in the aquarium, taking care of the sharks, other fishes, and invertebrates, and learning all sorts of nifty behind-the-scenes zoo stuff. One of the things we did there was pass out Seafood Watch cards to zoo visitors, especially during educational presentations. These cards, about the size of a credit card when folded into three sections, fit in your wallet and contain some very handy information about what types of seafood are sustainable (i.e. have healthy population size and growth and are fished in an appropriate manner), which are good alternatives if the best choices are hard to find, and which types of seafood should be avoided (due to inappropriate or unregulated fishing practices, small or unstable populations, or high risk of contamination). I was so hooked on the idea of educating and encouraging people to be more ecologically responsible in such a simple way, soon I was ordering my own Seafood Watch materials and handing them out whenever I could. I even scheduled an informal lecture at my university so I could reach out to more people about this important issue (which, despite me offering free goldfish crackers, only about three people attended…I probably shouldn’t have scheduled it so close to finals week).

I could really go on at length about the horrors of various fishing methods, and the critical need for better protection for marine species and habitats NOW. I will try to give just a brief overview and a couple examples, but I encourage everyone to check out the Seafood Watch website. Try looking up your favorite type of seafood and see how it rates. Maybe even download their app! Of course they have an app now, as does the Blue Ocean Institute, which has a similar seafood program. The apps are free and contain even more information that the little cards ever could, delivered directly to your phone or tablet with zero effort. What’s not to love?!

So, salmon. I love salmon, but farm-raised or aquacultured salmon have so many problems, the industry as it stands right now shouldn’t even exist. Aquacultured salmon are kept in crowded net pens in coastal areas. The extreme crowding of the pens means that parasites and disease can spread very rapidly, not only between the farmed salmon but also to any nearby wild fishes. The high volume of fishes means a high volume of waste is being produced, and again because there is no containment, the waste just flushes out of the pens and into the surrounding environment, causing a significant amount of pollution and damage to the surrounding coastal ecosystems. As if that wasn’t enough, the pens are easily damaged and farmed salmon can escape. This is bad news for the local ecology, because farmed salmon are usually not of a species to the area where they are farmed (they are usually Atlantic salmon species). This means that they tend to either out-compete native fish species, or inter-breed with them to create non-native hybrids. All of these effects can cause major disturbances in the delicate trophic web (or food web) of the ecosystem. Bad news for everyone. Farmed salmon are also known to contain high levels of PCBs, and they are often injected with dyes and antibiotics. Additionally, because salmon are carnivores, they are fed a diet of fish pellets that are made of…other fish. Small bait fish that we don’t tend to eat ourselves. In fact, it actually takes about three pounds of bait fish to produce one pound of salmon meat! This means that salmon farming actually puts more pressure on wild fish stocks, not less. So, people–please please PLEASE do not buy farmed salmon!

Many wild salmon fisheries are unsustainable as well, but the good news is that some are. Atlantic salmon stocks are severely depleted and unable to handle high fishing pressures. The best salmon to buy is wild Alaskan salmon, because those salmon populations are the healthiest and best able to cope with fishing pressures. Also, those fisheries tend to be better managed. Also…wild Pacific/Alaskan salmon just taste better. If I am going to buy salmon, and I do sometimes because it is delicious, this is what I always choose.

Shrimp! Oh man, where do I start. Shrimp fisheries produce massive amounts of bycatch, which means non-target species that get hauled in along with the target species (in this case, shrimp). A shrimp trawler can produce up to 15 times as much bycatch as the shrimp they actually target, and all the animals that make up the bycatch die in the nets and the catching process, and are then shoveled back overboard. Dead, all for nothing. And most shrimp farms, especially in developing countries, have similar problems to what I described above in the case of salmon. Through the shrimp are farmed in ponds on dry land, they are often drained into nearby waterways, such as mangrove forests, which are not only important habitats for a myriad of species including juvenile fishes, they are often important to the local people’s livelihoods as well. The concentrated waste from the shrimp ponds pollutes these very important habitats. Some types of shrimp are farmed in carefully designed aquaculture systems that don’t pollute the surrounding environment, and these are the best types of shrimp to buy. Check out the Seafood Watch page on shrimp to see which ones are okay and which ones to avoid.

I could keep going, but those two examples are some of my “favorite” to tell people about. I just hope this message reaches people, because we the consumers are the ones who really drive the market. Vote with your dollars, people! You can make a difference. The more people who encourage sustainable seafood industries and say NO to the damaging ones, the longer we can preserve our beautiful and diverse blue oceans.

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About Caitlin

I’m a 27-year-old female Homo sapiens. Lifelong nature lover, world traveler, zoologist, foodie, scuba enthusiast and certified Divemaster, lover of books, and herder of cats.
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