Sunday, November 15, 2009

Seafood and the Sea

Every once in awhile I get a craving for a tuna fish sandwich. I am not a fan of sushi or tuna steaks; my tuna has always come from a can. For the good of my health and the health of the fish, this necessitates specific choices. Tuna has those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids-good, but tuna is also high in mercury-not good. Add to that, the variety of tuna species and methods of harvest and it starts to get a little confusing. This goes for all the other seafood choices that we make.

Thankfully, good guidance is at hand from such places as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. The Aquarium just published Turning the Tide - The State of Seafood, a must read for anyone who eats seafood and cares about oceans and the life within. The Seafood Report offers a sobering summary of what we have done to fish populations and other sea life, what needs to change, and how we all can help.

Oceans are home to millions of species. How could one species - us - mess up such a vast area so much, not only for other species, but for ourselves. Oceans are key in regulating the global climate: they produce half the oxygen that we breathe and absorb 1/4 of the carbon that we emit each year. Of all the things we do to the oceans from dumping garbage overboard to allowing polluted runoff, the most significant factor in the ocean's state of decline is our demand for seafood. Consider that fishing (including wild caught and farmed fish) represents less than a quarter of 1% of the global economy, yet it has one of the largest ecological footprints of any economic sector in the world (see the Seafood Report).

Some of the sad stuff in the report: populations of large long-lived marine animals--whales, sharks, tunas, turtles, manatees, some fish--have plummeted; once vibrant coral reefs in Jamaica are essentially gone; industrial-scale fishing in the North Atlantic has wiped out major fish stocks of cod, halibut, and bluefin tuna; the Pacific leatherback--the largest of the sea turtles--may be extinct soon, its latest threat is as "bycatch" in longline fisheries.

According to the Seafood Report, some places are getting it right. Alaska has some of the best managed fisheries; Pacific salmon from Alaska is one of the "best choices" for seafood on the Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" list. Consumers are given credit for helping restore swordfish populations in the North Atlantic, by avoiding this species for a long while.

Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, strikes an optimistic chord if we all act. The report offers ways for consumers, businesses, chefs, politicians, fishermen --anyone who is involved with seafood--to just that.

So, here is what I am doing to help our fish, our oceans, our climate, and my health.
  • Follow Michael Pollan's advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Fish is a healthy food, so it meets the first principle. Just don't eat it too often (second principle), and when I do, have lots of vegetables and grains too (third principle)
  • Eat local, seasonal seafood when possible
  • Choose seafoods with low mercury levels, high levels omega-3 fatty acids, and those harvested sustainably. Based on Seafood Watch for the Northeast this includes:
canned clams
canned tuna (skipjack - "light")
canned pink salmon
U.S. or Canada shrimp
U.S farmed catfish
U.S. farmed tilapia
Alaska wild-caught salmon
Pacific halibut
  • There are other choices and a long list of things to avoid always such as imported shrimp (farmed or wild-caught), bluefin tuna, shark, most of the big fish, and most seafood imported from Asia.
Billions of people include seafood as a source of protein in their diet. What kind of seafood each of us eats makes a difference, just as it does with beef, and pork, and chicken, and other foods. We can save the oceans, but only if we try.

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