The Complex Choices in Sustainable Seafood
In order to have a better understanding of the effect my food choices have on the environment, I recently read “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” by Paul Greenburg. The book focuses on the four major fish species we find in today’s market: Tuna, Cod, Bass and Salmon. Greenburg takes his readers through the issues surrounding these species, and explains the general state of the seafood industry from a sustainability perspective.
I find that I am pretty confident when it comes to buying grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and other land meats, but I am confused when it comes to buying fish. Do I get wild salmon, canned pole caught tuna or farmed tilapia? Do I trust the signs at Whole Foods next to the sea bass claiming it’s sustainably raised and a good choice, even though it’s flown in fresh from South America? What about fish I catch myself? Which fish are still in good enough numbers that I can feel good about eating them and which ones are so full of mercury that I need to avoid them? After reading Greenberg’s book, I feel a little closer to understanding the complex world of sustainable seafood, though I still feel there is a lot to learn.
Visiting a Fish Farm
One fish Greenberg touted as sustainable is the barramundi, farmed by Australis in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Since this town is only a two-hour drive from my home, I thought it would be a fun road-trip and night away from the farm for my husband Andrew and me.
The owner, Josh Goldman, was very welcoming and spent over an hour showing Andrew and me around his large facility. I don’t know why I pictured a bunch of greenhouses and some underground cement pools, but Australis was incredibly clean and much larger than I had imagined. Josh first showed us the room where the tiny new fish live. He explained their diet and showed us the little pellets they are fed. The fish get a healthy mixture of pre and probiotics, algae, wild fish products, and a conventionally farmed grain mixture.
As a sustainable farmer and paleo nutritionist, that last ingredient they are fed really threw me off. If this fish is touted as such a sustainable fish, how come they are fed conventional grain? Josh stated that the costs for organic grain are financially prohibitive. Also, he is exploring other avenues of feed, like growing his own algae. One plus is that they don’t require much grain to convert the input into fish flesh. When compared to conventionally raised meats, barramundi convert grain to flesh at a pretty incredible rate of 1.3:1.
For clarification, this chart represents conventionally raised meats, not the animals we grow here on our farm which is a completely different model. It is ideal to eat pasture raised meats, but lets face it, I realize that it’s hard to consume 100% sustainable meat all of the time. So, when hitting up the grocery store for a protein source for dinner, the choice is usually factory farmed meats, raised on grains. When you look at the chart and compare farmed fish to conventionally raised poultry, pork or beef, fish win. Also, it seems that barramundi are able to convert the omega-6 fats from the grains to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. The barramundi ends up having a ratio of 1:1 of omega 6 to omega 3. That’s a lot better than other conventional meats and fish out there.
Farmed Fish on the Rise
In 2013, farmed fish overtook wild fish in worldwide sales. This is only going to increase. We’ve all heard that wild fish stocks are in serious danger. There are also lots of issues with farmed fish. Tilapia can quickly breed and take overtake the wild species in many areas. Many farmed salmon can get loose and interbreed with wild salmon, weakening the species and spreading disease. Australis barramundi in Massachusetts are bread indoors so there’s no chance of getting loose. The company also farms them in Asia in outdoor conditions but they rotate the pens, so that the sea bed has a chance to lay fallow and regenerate. In 4 years, I’m told they’ve had zero escapes.
Barramundi breed on a lunar cycle, making them more profitable for the company than most cold water fish, which tend to breed once a year. It takes 10 months to harvest one of these fish, which retail for $7.99 per 12oz package in stores like Whole Foods Market and other major retailers. Eighty percent of their fish are sold live to Asian markets, who sell them live in markets or restaurants and process them “pre-rigor” in a “quick lot cook” lending to a very tender flake and produces a fresh taste.
So, what did I learn from reading Four Fish and visiting Australis? It seems that the future of our wild food supply from the ocean is in peril and that we can’t rely on buying wild salmon and think that’s the best choice we can make. Farmed fish aren’t necessarily evil, and there are ways some companies can be much more responsible than others. Restrictions on ocean fishing seem sometimes to only benefit the larger companies, and small-scale fishermen are losing out. Living near Gloucester, in Massachusetts, you easily can see the impact that fishing regulations can have on small fishing towns.
So, What to Choose?
Looking for farmed fish from companies like Australis and seeking out wild caught fish from sustainable stocks can be a better alternative to farmed fish and wild fish caught in unsustainable ways. Fish like barramundi are also a better choice to other factory farmed animal proteins, due to their low food conversion efficiency and high omega 3 content. Choosing frozen fish instead of fresh can help save on the amount of spoilage in retail stores. Another thing I learned from Goldberg at “The Future of Food: Seafood” lecture through WBUR was that bivalves are an excellent choice because they require “no input”. We must protect the larger species of fish like tuna while also protecting smaller fish which bigger ones eat.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a “Super Green List” as a basic shopping guide based on omega-3 content and sustainability:
The Best of the Best: July 2013*
- Atlantic Mackerel (purse seine from Canada and the U.S.)
- Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
- Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
- Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
- Salmon, Canned (wild-caught, from Alaska)
Other Healthy “Best Choices”**
- Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
- Sablefish/Black Cod (from Alaska and Canadian Pacific)
The Super Green list includes seafood that meets the following three criteria:
- Has low levels of mercury (below 216 parts per billion [ppb])
- Provides at least 250 milligrams per day (mg/d) of omega-3s
- Is classified as a Seafood Watch “Best Choice” (green)
*The Super Green list is based on dietary requirements for an average woman of childbearing age (18-45, 144 pounds) eating eight ounces of fish per week. The list also applies to men and children; children should eat age-appropriate portions to maximize their health benefits while minimizing risk. The recommendation of 250 mg of omega-3s refers to the combined level of two omega-3s of primary importance to human health: eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).
**Other Healthy “Best Choices” are low in contaminants and provide a smaller amount of omega-3s (between 100 and 250 mg/d, assuming eight ounces of fish per week).
I’m also impressed by their handy mobile phone guide.
One thing aspect that the Monterey Bay Aquarium does not consider is the distance the fish travels to get to your table. Somehow, that doesn’t make it into their sustainability equation, and I think it should. During the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, I attended a sustainable seafood talk by Mark Gibson. He addressed many of the issues I covered in this post but also highlighted how seafood can travel vast distances to get to your table.
For more information, I highly recommend reading “Four Fish” and checking out this searchable sustainable seafood guide by National Geographic . The Environmental Defense Fund’s “Seafood Selector“, according to Gibson, has the broadest selection of seafood species and also incorporates nutritional information, like the National Geographic one. Vote with your dollars and try a “trash fish” – something local to your region and of little value in the modern fish market. Lobster, for example, used to be considered trash fish in New England. Carp is considered a trash fish in the US, but is highly desirable in Asia for eating. Broaden your horizons beyond salmon, tuna, cod and bass.
What is the Future of Food?
On the long ride back to the farm, Andrew and I reflected on our trip. We envisioned the planet 100 years fast forward, where perhaps farming is moved from land into the oceans in order to feed our growing population. I do hope that in the future, conventional grain doesn’t come into play when producing a farm raised fish. Mono-cropping, fossil fuels required to transport the grain, GMOs and heavy pesticide spraying in grain farming is certainly a step backwards in the sustainability realm. In a follow-up email to Goldman probing further about the need for grain as opposed to algae or other protein sources, he replied, “We do incorporate seaweed (macro-algae) and krill in our feeds as functional ingredients, but the possibility of replacing large amounts of grain does not exist today since there is no commercially available and/or affordable algae or bacterial based protein sources … thus the best alternative is to make much more efficient use of the ingredients we have today in parallel with supporting research on novel ingredients to make tomorrow real. In a world of starvation and obesity, smart aquaculture is a great step forward.”
I still think grass-fed herbivores are the ideal protein for both the environment and for human health. Consider checking out organizations like The Savory Institute, helping to educate small farmers across the globe on environmental grazing techniques. In the meantime, I’m going to bring more shellfish and other locally sourced sea creatures to my table.
Want to give barramundi a try? I was given some fillets to cook and found the fish to have a light, flaky texture and clean taste. Check out this recipe:
Oven Roasted Barramundi with Herb Sauce and Cherry Tomatoes
1lb of barramundi fillets, thawed overnight in the fridge
1/2 cup fresh mint
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
juice of one lemon
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
1 tsp fresh ginger
1/4 cup onion, diced
9 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the fillets on the paper. Combine the mint, cilantro, basil, olive oil, lemon, jalapeno, ginger and onion in a food processor and blend until smooth. Coat the fish with the sauce. Top with sliced cherry tomatoes, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the fish for 10 minutes. Serve with a fresh salad.