Seafood Choices: Wild or Farmed?

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I read a paper this week about the state of the world's seafood supplies. As a peer reviewer, I gave it closer attention than I otherwise might, but I was hooked because it was well-articulated and offered visually compelling charts to keep me reading way past my bedtime. Forty-odd pages of facts, figures, and stories later, though, I came to view the paper as very depressing.

Fish farms now provide more than 50 percent of the world's supply of seafood. Ultimately, this is depressing because it represents both a decline in seafood landings (i.e. the quantity of fish brought into port) and also the rise of industrial-scale production instead of the regional-scale fishing that has sustained coastal communities for 1,000 years. Policy analysts who measure protein available per person--a key indicator in regions of the world where there are chronic shortages--will see some positive news in this report. It will also offer good news for consumers who eat fish for the primary purpose of ingesting fish as a source of omega 3s or lean protein.

But the oceans are in serious trouble, lakes aren't in great shape either, and those of us who like seafood because we enjoy the taste are losing out. I like my fish to taste like, well, fish, whether it's pan-fried, smoked in a wok, crisped on a grill, or pickled with onions and spices. If I want tofu, I'll eat tofu, but my fish should taste like it comes from a natural waterway, not...nowhere.

Awareness of sustainable seafood issues has grown enormously among consumers. Their purchasing behavior, however, hasn't yet matched their concern.

Because my job involves purchasing strategy, I often get to taste foods before we encourage our chefs to buy them--one of the great reasons to work in food, as opposed to, say, insurance. I've tasted two aquaculture species lately: one that is on the "Best Choice" list for Seafood Watch, the gold standard for seafood sustainability, and one whose production system is being evaluated by a science panel next week. The first, a flash-frozen Arctic char, was delicious. I can't say it matched the flavor of wild char, because it's been too many years since I had a wild version. But the farmed salmon was simply awful.

Nearly all farmed salmon is grown in a manner analogous to cattle: their open-ocean net pens are enormous (the size of airline hangars); they are fed four to five times the fish protein over the course of their maturation process that they produce (much like the inefficient grain-to-meat conversion of beef); and they generally wreck the habitats of native species with their waste droppings--abundant, untreated, and unregulated. Some salmon farmers are trying to do better. The salmon I tasted is grown under much more positive environmental circumstances. But is growing bland seafood a good thing?

As the report notes, awareness of sustainable seafood issues has grown enormously among consumers. Their purchasing behavior, however, hasn't yet matched their concern. Misinformation abounds about whether "farmed" or "wild" species are better--as if the choice were so simple. I've heard many people say they eat farmed salmon because wild stocks are in decline and they want to help "keep the pressure off." But the pressure isn't on wild Pacific salmon, because the fishery is well managed by public agencies who control the amount of salmon that is caught. That's what makes it a sustainable resource. (Wild Atlantic salmon, by contrast, is commercially extinct, so by definition all Atlantic salmon on any menu is farmed.)

Despite a few examples of fishery rebuilding--like the Atlantic swordfish, which regulators have protected from extinction by limiting how much could be caught--many wild stocks are in a sorry state. Overfishing, by-catch rates, and seafloor dredging remain concerns in more than 70 percent of the world's fisheries. Ocean acidification is taking its toll on crustaceans--the bellwether species for changes in the water's pH balance. The condition of the oceans makes responsible aquaculture necessary.

I eat seafood from highly rated aquaculture systems. Oysters and mussels are on top of the list, because they taste great and make a positive environmental contribution to the seaways in which they are raised. Professionally, I also work to make these species available nationally for chefs at our cafes across the country. But there are many people, especially 20-year-olds at college, who aren't yet fans of the "fishy" stuff. Many are relatively new to eating fish, and they prefer tilapia--or, as one of my chef colleagues calls it, "tofu of the sea."

Tofu (sorry, I mean tilapia) has in 15 years gone from being unknown in the U.S. to hitting Number 7 on the seafood popularity list. We eat 500 million pounds of it every year. Its very blandness is considered a virtue. As a species that eats anything, tilapia can be raised in a manner that does "take the pressure off," because--unlike salmon--tilapia can be raised on plant-based feeds rather than other fish.

But industrial-scale production has several drawbacks, and one of them is taste. That shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with land-based food production. If foods are grown in a mono-cropped manner, with all their inputs carefully monitored, and scaled up to enormous size, the goal will be sameness, not specialness. It will be a very depressing day indeed if the only environmentally sustainable seafood species are farmed.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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