Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sophie's Choice in seafood

by Mark Powell

(Originally appeared in the Snail, the Slow Food publication)

You’ve been there…the seafood counter or the restaurant where your choice is the lovely but unsustainable Chilean seabass vs. bland but sustainable whitefish. What do you choose? If you’re like me, sometimes you choose flavor over sustainability. And that’s a problem.

What’s a seafood lover to do? As a marine biologist turned conservation advocate, I say it’s time to promote sustainability for America’s favorite fish (and all of our favorite foods). We shouldn’t have to choose the hair shirt to feel like we’re living authentic lives in balance with our world.

So far, we’ve been given false choices. We can choose sustainable Alaskan Pollock, primarily because it’s a low demand species. In contrast, our favorite fish are mostly on the “do not buy” lists because they’re overfished and vanishing. What do we get if we choose sustainable Pollock? Well, a few years ago, Pollock was only considered to be suitable for surimi—which is fish paste used to make imitation crab. Now, it’s sold as whitefish fillets because of the severe decline of more desirable species like real Atlantic cod.

If you want to buy your favorite fish, you often have to feel guilty. Red snapper, one of America’s favorite fish, has been fished down to less than 3% of historic levels. Red snapper are not sustainably fished, and a long rebuilding period is necessary to get them back to sustainability. The story continues for Atlantic cod, grouper, and most other favorite fish.

The problem is so bad that much of the fish you buy is labeled as good fish in order to fool you into buying it. So-called “Pacific red snapper” doesn’t really exist. It is actually one of 80 species of Sebastes rockfish, some of which are reasonably good to eat, but not in the same league as the prime red snapper you get in Texas. Sometimes the “grouper” that you buy are nothing but cheap substitutes such as Vietnamese catfish that are illegally mislabeled.

When I was a young boy, my favorite seafood wasn’t a luxury. I grew up fishing and eating coho salmon in Oregon. Smoked salmon was always in our refrigerator, and I was smoking my own salmon and experimenting with different brines before the age of 10. As an 18 year old, fresh out of high school I was a commercial fisherman. That year, we caught over 80% of the coho salmon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I helped kill off the coho salmon, MY coho salmon. Later, as a marine biology professor in the early 1990s, I was surprised to learn that coho salmon were proposed for listing as a threatened species. I quit my job and jumped full time into saving salmon, because what else could I do?

How did we get in this leaky boat? How did we make a world of overfishing, habitat damage, and the loss of our favorite prime seafood? Pure and simple, it’s the lack of political will. Those in charge of managing America’s favorite fish have long been beholden to the fishing industry—or they even moonlight as managers while serving day jobs as industry executives. That’s right, America’s fish are managed by people who make a living selling you those fish. And, they collect a nice government paycheck for their time as managers. It’s an unparalleled conflict of interest, with an unmatched exemption from federal conflict of interest law. We can do much better.

If you’re tired of false choices here’s what you can do. First, Slow Food is the right place for you, let’s build a movement. Stay connected and engaged, and keep valuing the experience of fine, local seafood. Second, find some people or groups that are engaged in protecting your favorite fish and offer to help. You’d be surprised how lonely it is speaking up for conservation at the meetings where managers divvy up this year’s fish. And finally, let your seafood retailers know that you care about sustainability and that you look to them to put pressure on their suppliers. Those of us engaged in protecting fish are finding more and more allies among concerned seafood businesses. We want to keep eating America’s favorite fish, and they want to be the ones to sell us our fish. Let them know we care about sustainability.

The tide is turning. The reward for your involvement is a healthier ocean and bouillabaisse that will knock your socks off!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Educating the public is essential for the conservation of all fish stocks. Factually-based information should identify what species are farmed using methods that cause environmental damage, or fished with such intensity that it leads to population collapse and habitat loss. Equally, education should highlight fish species that are being fished or farmed in an environmentally friendly manner. For every “bad” fish there is an equally nice-tasting “good” fish. For example, instead of eating overfished Atlantic Halibut try Pacific Halibut, which is abundant and well managed ( But like everything, subtleties exist. Chilean Sea Bass, or Patagonian Toothfish, are being overfished, except for one small fishery in South Georgia located far southeast off the southern tip of South America. Thus information about a fish or fishery must be transparent and easily tracked from fishing boat, processor, and wholesaler to restaurant and supermarket, so the public has confidence knowing what they have bought is a sustainable product. A combination of public pressure and government regulation will help implement a transparent process from sea to table. Blue Ocean Institute and others publish seafood guides that educate and inform the public about sustainable seafood, identifying species that are fished or farmed in a sustainable way. If no guide is within easy reach, use FishPhone by texting 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish in question. We’ll text you back with our assessment and better alternatives to fish with significant environmental concerns.

Alan Duckworth
Research Scientist
Blue Ocean Institute