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Tracing the Complex Journey of Where Your Seafood Comes From

Seafood purveyor in San Diego grading the quality of the fish with a tail cut. | Earth focus
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The first thing you think about when enjoying a spicy tuna roll or a Chilean sea bass filet probably isn’t the long route a fish travels from ocean to dinner plate. Still, many consumers are starting to become savvier about the sustainability of the food they eat; they want to know that they can enjoy their dinner without becoming anxious about contributing to global problems like climate change, overfishing, or pollution.

Diners and supermarket shoppers now have a variety of options to soothe their consciences, from free-range chicken eggs to organic fruits and vegetables. But when it comes to seafood, figuring out what’s ethical or sustainable can prove more difficult than you’d think. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure out what species the fish really is or where it was caught or farmed.

With headlines about the failing health of global ocean ecosystems, the overwhelming narrative being told about our world's fish stocks is that they're on the precipice of disaster. The truth, however, is more complicated.

This idea traces at least back to 2006. That year, a group of researchers led by Dalhousie University biologist Boris Worm warned in Science that the loss of biodiversity "appear[ed] to be accelerating on a global scale." Their statistical models predicted "the global collapse of all taxa currently fished" by the year 2048.

Sushi variety
Sushi variety

As might be expected from such an argument, the story was instantly a global headline, front-page news. But it turned out that the conclusions they reached, while based upon solid science, were reached perhaps in haste.

Three years later a group of researchers led by Worm walked all that doom and gloom back, publishing a new paper in Science that offered a more measured assessment of world fisheries. "Marine ecosystems are currently subjected to a range of exploitation rates," they wrote, "resulting in a mosaic of stable, declining, collapsed, and rebuilding fish stocks and ecosystems."

"'All fish gone by 2048' is front page news. 'Some fisheries doing well' is not front page news," says University of Washington fisheries biologist Ray Hilborn, who collaborated on the 2009 paper. (At the time, Worm bet him that the follow-up study would wind up on the front page of the New York Times, just as the 2006 paper had. At stake was a bottle of champagne, which Hilborn won.)

"In some sense, that's why there's so much disagreement about the oceans. One community of people looks at the oceans as a way to produce food. Another as a place to be protected."

"The idea that you can say that global fisheries are good, or global fisheries are bad, you just can't do that. It's highly variable from place to place, and it also depends on what you mean by good and bad," says Hilborn. If you're interested in reducing bycatch, then some fisheries may be preferable over others. But if you're concerned about carbon emissions, then a different set of fisheries may emerge as better options. "In some sense, that's why there's so much disagreement about the oceans. One community of people looks at the oceans as a way to produce food. Another as a place to be protected. And those are in conflict."

NOAA senior scientist for stock assessments Rick Methot agrees. "Things are mixed," he says, explaining that nations with good fisheries management systems, like the U.S., Norway, and Iceland, attempt to strike a balance between the two competing interests. The abundance of the fished species is lower than it might otherwise be if left alone, but the overall ecosystems remain intact and functional.

Many developed countries have standardized systems for this but other parts of the world, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, have a tougher time controlling fisheries. "That's where you see more of the declines," says Methot.

Hilborn agrees. "What really separates the places that are doing well from the places that aren't is whether or not they actually manage their systems. Do they collect data about the trends in the stocks? Do they have regulations that adjust fishing pressure and can they effectively enforce those?" (The Mediterranean stands out as a region with declining stocks. Despite a strong fisheries management regime in the North Atlantic, European nations have not yet applied the same tools to the Mediterranean Sea.)

Swimmers inside an open-ocean fish farm. | Earth Focus
Swimmers inside an open-ocean fish farm. | Earth Focus

This isn’t just a matter of ethics or ecology; fisheries are big business. Take the North Pacific hake, a rather unremarkable fish. Also known as Pacific whiting or jack salmon, these fish range from silver to grey and adorn themselves with black spots. Their fins are boring, their scales are boring, and their eyes are boring. Ask a 4 year old to draw a fish, and this is what you'd get. You probably won't see hake on the menu at an upscale sushi restaurant, or any restaurant at all. In the U.S., these fish are more likely to be ground and formed into fishmeal, ready to be served up to our livestock and to our pets.

Salmon, on the other hand, is both a supermarket staple and a common dish on the menu at everything from a sushi bar to a seafood restaurant or even a fancy steakhouse. While hake and salmon couldn't be more different – at least when it comes to how we use their meat – they have at least one thing in common: they both yield large profits for major commercial fisheries.

In 2011, the North Pacific hake represented a $52 million dollar resource, and commercial salmon fisheries netted a whopping $244 million in the state of California alone in 2013. (Recreational salmon fisheries are worth almost half as much to the California economy.) The global fish trade is worth some $135 billion, and represents an important source of protein across the globe.

It might seem as if all a responsible consumer has to do is know the species and location the fish was caught in order to make good choices. The trouble is that ascertaining both of those pieces of information is harder than it might seem. Assuming that the fish you're about to dunk in soy sauce is truly the species you think it is, it's almost impossible to know where the fish actually came from in the first place.

Consider this: you could go into your neighborhood grocer and find wild Alaskan salmon from China, says Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Labeling laws mandate that food products indicate the location they were last processed, so fish that were caught near Alaska could quite accurately be labeled as Chinese.

"They catch it, freeze it, send it to China, thaw it, process it, refreeze it, send it back, and then thaw it at the point of sale," he says, because Americans pay more for fish that appear to be fresh rather than frozen. That salmon could even be sent somewhere else to be breaded, for example, or packed into a TV dinner, which can further muddy the waters. "It can be very complicated, [and] that's one of the reasons it’s so difficult to say exactly what's on your plate," says Bigelow.

And then there's the question of farming. Though Americans typically look down on farmed fish, the truth is that aquaculture is an inevitable reality. We simply can't rely on the oceans to provide all the fish protein that our global society requires, so at least some proportion of our seafood will have to be farmed. But because there are both more and less sustainable methods for farming – just as there are for fishing in the wild – simply opting for one or the other won't guarantee a sustainable choice.

For example, there is no sustainable bluefin tuna, whether wild caught or farmed, so therefore it should simply be avoided, per Seafood Watch. But amberjack – also known as yellowtail – can be sustainably farmed in an indoor recirculating tank. In fact, those farmed fish are considered a better option by Seafood Watch than their wild counterparts caught with traditional poles and lines in the U.S. Southeastern Atlantic. Meanwhile, pole-and-line caught wild amberjack from California or Mexico are perfectly sustainable.

Another reason that consumers can have a tough time identifying the best choices is because there are just so many, when it comes to seafood. The Seafood Watch app provides more than 1,300 recommendations for over 300 kinds of fish and shellfish. By contrast, most people (in developed countries) rely on fewer than ten kinds of terrestrial critters for meat: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs, sheep, and perhaps the odd duck or two. (Meanwhile, there are at least nine kinds of tuna alone — albacore, bigeye, blackfin, longtail, bluefin, Pacific bluefin, Southern bluefin, skipjack, and yellowfin — and these critters can variously show up on the menu as maguro, tombo, ahi, bonito, toro, or, of course, simply as “tuna.”)

Because there are so many kinds of seafood and so many methods for catching or farming it, in so many places, it's virtually impossible for even the most responsible consumer to know the right thing to do every time.

Smartphone apps like the one produced by Seafood Watch can help, but if you ask Bigelow, the onus for sustainability is more on the restaurants and supermarkets than on consumers. "Businesses have access to much more detailed information than average people ever will," he says. To take the guesswork out of it, "the first thing a consumer should do is look towards an organization they trust, look for a list of restaurants that have already made a sustainable seafood commitment."

Fishermen cleaning fresh tuna. | Earth Focus
Fishermen cleaning fresh tuna. | Earth Focus

For Seafood Watch, that list includes supermarkets like Whole Foods. In Los Angeles, restaurants like Border Grill and Café Del Rey have signed on as well.

Still, in order to urge more businesses to make public commitments to sustainability, consumers have to be willing to ask uncomfortable questions of their waiters and chefs. "You're going to have to ask where it was caught or farmed, how it was caught or farmed, and what [species] it is," says Bigelow.

Unfortunately, most American restaurant-goers simply aren't at a place yet where they expect that sort of information. But they could be, with practice. "You wouldn't think twice to ask where your wine was from, or whether your beef was grass fed," he adds.

Top image: Seafood purveyor in San Diego grading the quality of his supply with a tail cut. | Earth focus

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