Want to Help the Environment? Eat Weird, Delicious Fish

To improve biodiversity in the world’s oceans, experts want to help people acquire a taste for species that usually get thrown back.
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Reuters

The mandate at an Atlantic working summit on Wednesday was intense: figure out how the world’s resources can be used more thoughtfully. Unexpectedly, in two hours of discussion about saving the environment, supporting the poor, and reducing waste, one of the most engaging topics was fish.

“Everything in the ocean depends on them,” explained Ellen Pikitch, the executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. Specifically, underwater ecosystems rely heavily on “forage fish,” which include sardines, anchovies, herring, and more. But according to a report released by Pikitch’s solemnly named Forage Fish Task Force, many of these species are dying out. This is because they’re sensitive to changes in the environment and over-pursued by fishermen, who can easily scoop up densely packed schools.

A diver surrounded by a school of sardines (Reuters)

Why should anyone care about forage fish? Because they’re the ocean’s energy source – and thus the world’s energy source. Salmon, penguins, whales, and many kinds of birds depend on these species as prey, and when the tiny creatures die out, so do their predators. Especially in poorer coastal areas like Peru and Africa, many people rely on fish as a source of protein, and fishermen rely on their catch as a source of income.

But the task force found that these little fish are much more useful swimming than served: In terms of commercial worth, they have about twice as much value when they’re food for other fish than when they're of sold themselves. Most of them aren’t even eaten by humans, anyways; 90 percent get ground up into livestock feed or tiny specks in nutritional supplements like fish oil capsules.

So what can the world do about its forage fish issue? Pikitch’s task force recommended reducing the number caught each year by about half, relying on educational initiatives and regionally imposed limits to achieve these levels. She also mentioned that businesses are starting to be more creative about how they use these species. Some supplement companies have started relying directly on plankton farms to create their products, for example.

Picky human palates are also part of the problem. Fishermen’s overreliance on popular species like salmon, for instance, makes it harder for ecosystems to maintain biodiversity, which is problematic for all creatures. But Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, offered a free market solution to overfishing: Show people that non-traditional fish can be tasty, too.

“Fisheries want a delicious product – they care less about species,” Foley said. Species like dogfish are getting an unexpected boost in cutting-edge cafeterias and restaurants where chefs are trying to make eco-conscious culinary choices. A representative from the University of Massachusetts dining service confirmed that this kind of non-traditional species can fool even picky students. “The texture is flakey – in terms of taste, it’s just as good,” he said.

One species of dogfish shark, Centrophorus zeehaani, which is native to Australia (Reuters)

As environmental challenges like global warming shift the planet's ecosystems, this kind of effort will become more important. There’s a business opportunity in diversifying, Foley said: At some point in the future, it may be financially unsustainable for companies to rely solely on the species they have traditionally caught and sold.

But although creative cooking is a catchy way to work toward environmental sustainability, it’s important to keep scale in mind. “You’re not going to save the world through wilted radicchio,” Foley said.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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