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The Question You Should Be Asking About Your Seafood

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 91% of all seafood consumed in the US is imported. In a time when many of our favorite restaurants name-check where their meat and produce comes from, and farmers sell their harvests at markets across the country to expectant buyers, this stat puts the seafood industry behind where the local food movement has progressed in the past few years. But it doesn’t keep the local food movement from eating fish.

Sustainable seafood is a term that's thrown around a lot these days: The practice of sustainable fishing, as National Geographic puts it, is to "target plentiful species, including those smaller and lower on the food chain, because they can reproduce quickly to sustain their populations." A 2012 poll by NPR and Truven Health Analytics, a company that analyzes healthcare data, found that almost 80 percent of the people who eat seafood regularly said it is "important" or "very important" that their seafood is sustainably caught. However, when it comes to the actual practice of eating sustainable seafood, Kenny Belov, restaurateur and owner of Bay Area sustainable seafood wholesaler TwoXSea, says something different: “The fish is the least important to the chef. They don’t have to source or ask questions or do homework.” In other words, while many may say they prefer their seafood to be sustainably caught, he sees the sourcing and research needed to do so as a low priority when it comes to actually buying fish.

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The Underrated, Sustainable Fish We Should Be Raving About

A big part of this disconnect is due to nomenclature. When conscious consumers hear terms like 'wild', 'local', or 'line-caught', it’s easy to reflexively feel good about those purchases. But these terms, upon closer inspection, reveal very little: A word like 'wild' does not always imply more sustainable, the definition of what constitutes 'local' fish is subjective, and 'line-caught' is too broad a term to be meaningful.

But, additionally, there's murkiness involving what fish—even what some consider consciously-caught fish—are fed, and where the feed comes from. In light of increasing demand for more seafood, I believe we should be asking (better) questions not just about 'wild', 'local', and 'line-caught', but also what food the fish we're eating is being raised on.

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Aquaculture—the science of raising fish (and crustaceans and mollusks)—is considered a very old practice, there has been an upswing in the US's use of it in the last several decades. It seems, on the surface, to be a logical way to satisfy the nutritional demands and appetites of all the people consuming fish on our planet. Commercial aquaculture projects, also known as commercial fisheries, are essentially oceanic tenants: They place tracks into the ocean floor to raise their fish, manipulating the ocean’s environment for production.

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Predictably, there are many environmental concerns with this arrangement. According to Food and Water Watch, oceanic habitats can be severely impacted by dredging, drilling, dropping large anchors, the introduction of new predators, and sediment disturbances. These types of fisheries also use antibiotics to manage disease. This affects not only salmon (along with carp and tilapia, the most commonly farm-raised fish), but is every bit as hazardous for the surrounding wild populations.

While these are perfectly legitimate reasons to avoid farmed fish, the greatest opportunity to broaden the conversation beyond what's already being discussed is one step further. In addition to questions around provenance, chefs and consumers should also be asking, “What’s in the feed?” You can be sure that just about no one will be able to answer it, but the opportunity to shift the industry lies within that pause.

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Farmed fish are fed pellets that are densely packed from the oil, innards, and bones of forage fish, like anchovies, sardines, and menhaden. The motivation for commercial fisheries is rather obvious: Get the fish as large as possible as quickly as possible to go to market. The feed conversion ratios are often so distorted that one piece of salmon may very well have consumed three times its mass in bait fish. That means when you’re eating farm-raised salmon, what you’re not seeing on the plate are the other fish killed to produce the feed. Commercial feed may also contain byproducts that are difficult for fish to process, most often because of their lean digestive tracks. Except for a well-timed tide, there’s nothing preventing this excess waste from passing directly into the ocean.

At a recent event about sustainable seafood in San Francisco, Belov told me that he and his team are “the only ones to get a green list [from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list] on both our feed and our fish.” Along with Dr. Rick Barros (a retired USDA researcher who's been doing work on alternative feeds for years) and Bill Foss, Belov's team at TwoXSea has developed a vegetarian diet made mostly of algae and pistachios that were not pretty enough to be sold to grocers. The result of that diet, though, is a delicious and luminous trout, served at the kind of restaurants that would list the name of the farm on the menu. According to Belov, for every pound they raise, five to seven pounds of bait fish are spared.

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Paul Greenberg on the State of American Seafood

It’s a pretty sure bet that the feed your fish ate while being raised is not local, either. For example, much of the wild feed for farmed salmon is taken from the Southern Hemisphere. To put it another way, what’s happening is the depletion of fish in international waters in the name of rearing a luxury item. Consuming seafood can be expensive, a privilege for chefs and market shoppers who can afford it. If we go out of our way to eat a peach that has not been sprayed with pesticides, or was grown locally, we should consider more thoroughly our role in upsetting ocean ecology and take responsibility to preserve it. From apex predators at the top all the way down the line to the anchovy, the health of our waters depends on the protection of this natural ecological order. If you've never paused to think about what's fed the seafood you're eating, just think about it the same way you would grass-fed beef or free-range eggs—that is, what's in them is now in you, and it's better if what they're eating is sustainable.

While it may be difficult to find out if a fish was caught, let alone fed, sustainably, there are several ways to get a better understanding of what you are buying.

  • It doesn't hurt to just be direct and ask: What’s in the feed? A grocer or seller may not know, but there's a chance they might.

  • If someone can't answer that, ask other questions. Who caught the fish? What’s the name of the boat? These are simple, yet powerful inquiries that, if answered, are a strong indication if you’re buying from a sustainable source.

  • If possible, take a tour of where you are buying from. Organizations like Sea Forager in the Bay Area, which gives coastal fishing tours, can help to foster a better sense of appreciation about what’s required to feed the demands of the marketplace.

  • Buy fish at a local farmers market. Like produce and other livestock, buying at a farmers market is usually the best way to ensure that the person you’re buying from is as close as possible to the production process.

  • If you can't go local, consider buying from somewhere traceable. Transparency remains the biggest challenge in the procurement of sustainable seafood. Buy directly from Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) which, like land-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, help consumers foster an immediate connection to the person responsible for procuring their food. Real Good Fish is just one example.

  • At the very least, eat more pelagic fish in general. Creating a market for pelagic fish—fish like mackerel, herring, and anchovies that do not live near the coast, the ocean floor, or coral reefs—is an excellent way to be more sustainable when it comes to fish.

Stephen Satterfield is our newest Writer in Residence. He is a chef, sommelier, urban farmer, and recent Culinary Trust Writing Fellow at Civil Eats. Stay tuned for more from him on the site.