When thrown together in a sentence, the words sustainability and fish often elicit dubious looks.
Listening to On Point with Tom Ashbrook, I recently heard about a new cookbook focused entirely on seafood titled For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking. Written by Barton Seaver, a prominent Washington D.C. chef and National Geographic Fellow, the book optimistically melds sustainability and seafood.
To most people who care about sustainable food, fish come from two places:
- An overfished wild-caught fishery
- An environmentally damaging fish farm that offers subpar taste and nutrition.
To people not aware of the problem of sustainability, there is a third option. Fish exists frozen in grocery stores, and its origin usually isn’t of much concern.
Of course, the situation is more nuanced than these opinions leave room for.
Barton Seaver offers a more constructive approach to acquring and eating sustainable seafood, one that invites creativity and connection. In the interview Seaver made two points that especially rang true.
First, eat your vegetables. The best way to keep fish stocks intact is to eat lower on the food chain, i.e. plants (vegetables). The sun offers abundant free energy, and when you eat an organism energized by the sun it means you’ve minimized the amount of non-renewable resources used in order to feed you.
In the cookbook Seaver doesn’t always treat the fish as the main part of the meal. Instead, he sometimes uses fish as accessories to other types of food. If people think more creatively about how fish can accent meals, then portion sizes and therefore consumption could be reduced.
Seaver’s second good point is that – to be able to acquire and eat sustainable seafood – you need to support good players in an industry. Fisheries are complex systems, and fishing will always leave a mark on an ecosystem. However, all agriculture systems alter ecosystems, and so it is important to look at the relative impacts of the food we eat and to try to consume food that minimizes environmental degradation. To this end, consumers should find the individuals and companies who are fishing or farming fish responsibly, and support their work.
But how to do that? One method would be, as Seaver says, to embrace the seasonality of seafood. Before the era of industrial fishing, different seasons brought different fish near to shore making them an easy catch. People understood that different fish were available at different times of year. Today, industrial fisherman can track fish throughout the oceans, catching them in places previously inaccessible to simpler technologies.
In earlier posts, we’ve questioned the ability of large seafood guides – such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Food Watch – to capture the complicated facets of global fishing. However, if individuals eat seafood seasonally and, hopefully by default, procured by local fishermen, the scale of the system shrinks drastically.
However, if you eat seafood seasonally which was procured by local fishermen, the scale of the system delivering food to your plate shrinks drastically. Limiting yourself to fish in season makes it easier to pinpoint where the fish are being harvested. With a smaller system, it will be possible for you to contact local fishermen, restaurants, and markets to learn more about how fish are harvested and also about the state of the fish stocks.
Eating fish seasonally will also steer people away from supporting the large industrial fishing fleets that seafood guides generally recommend avoiding anyway. If more people concern themselves with where their fish comes from and accept the seasonal nature of fishing, then connections with local fishermen and best practices would begin to emerge and more fisheries could be sustained.
A cookbook may be a strange subject for a science blog. However, I believe it is well within the bounds of ecology and fisheries. Scientists often remove humans from the systems they study. But ecologists and especially fisheries scientists must imbed humans within their systems, because humans are the top predator. Culture shapes human behavior, and a cookbook is a cultural artifact with the power to alter consumption patterns, which will then ripple through food webs and out into the oceans.
How can you learn to eat seafood seasonally? How do you find out things like – “If you live on the East Coast, summer is the time to eat wild caught Alaskan salmon or bluefish”? Try searching online – include the words “seafood seasonality” or “seafood availability” and the name of your region or state as search terms. Be sure to look into the seasonality of species for your local area.
We also hope some of the following links will be helpful:
James S. Diana is Director of the Michigan Sea Grant College Program and Professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) at University of Michigan. He and his students, including Keith Hayse-Gregson, are studying ecology of fishes as well as aquaculture. They have developed interests in aquaculture’s potential contribution to the global food supply through the understanding of ecologically sensitive aquaculture practices, particularly in developing countries. They also study a variety of natural ecosystems, focusing mainly on native species, particularly pike and muskellunge. Dr. Diana has studied the behavior and ecology of temperate fishes for three decades, working extensively on the behavior and ecology of many temperate fishes, including pike, muskellunge, brown trout, lake sturgeon, yellow perch, largemouth bass, and alewives. Keith Hayse-Gregson is a second-year MS student at SNRE, who recently conducted a study of the environmental impacts of a new freshwater aquaculture cage design in China.