Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Fish Story

Standing in front of the fish cooler at the grocery store, I found myself stumped as to what kind of fish would be best for my family’s health and the planet’s. I don’t buy fish that often. I’ll confess that I don’t like fish. I realize it’s the uber-healthy protein, but I physically gag at the smell and can’t bring myself to eat it. I hold my parents partially responsible for this quirk because as a child we spent two weeks each year fishing in Nags Head and the rest of the year fighting over how much of that fish I had to choke down in order to earn dessert or at least be excused from the table. As a parent, I can’t be angry because heaven knows I’m giving my own kids their share of hang ups, but I do wish I could eat fish.

Shellfish are another story entirely. Shrimp is my all-time favorite food, but I rarely get to cook it because my hubby is allergic. Seems like some kind of divine punishment for my fish problem. His allergy developed after I’d already married him, otherwise it might have been a negotiating chip (just kidding honey). We have worked out a compromise since my boys love fish and my daughter is repelled by it. A few times a month we have “fish” for dinner. Nick cooks the fish for the boys and I steam the shrimp for the girls (my daughter won’t eat it any other way).

A Time cover article recently highlighted the problem of unsustainable fishing. We are catching and eating (or wasting) more than is being replenished and like so many other precious resources on this earth, we are in danger of destroying our fish supply. In response to this threat, a new type of “fishing” has developed in the form of “aquaculture” but for all its promises, much like big agribusiness it creates even bigger problems than it solves.

- It takes two pounds or more of “fish” to make one pound of fish. Fish eat other fish, and when they are raised altogether on "farms" their food must be made by catching other fish. Seems like simple math will tell you this isn’t “sustainable” in the long run.

-          When large numbers of fish are raised in concentrated areas, disease is always a threat. To counter this fish “farmers” treat their fish with antibiotics just like cow and chicken farmers do. The excess antibiotics and other drugs are released into the water and affect aquatic life and water supply.

- Farmed fish are treated with drugs not necessary for wild fish. For example, farmed salmon must be injected with a dye to give them that pretty pink color because unlike their wild cousins, they don’t consume krill to give them a natural pink color. (the dye used for this – canthaxanthin – has been shown to adversely effect sight when consumed in large quantities.)

- Fish farms pollute the oceans. The vast quantities of waste – both from the fish and the uneaten food – fill the ocean floor and affect the life around them. I know it only takes about a week of our little beta fish’s leftover fish food (and poop) to contaminate our tank (the fish farmer is generous with his servings and the cleaning service is intermittent at best), so imagine what hundreds of thousands of salmon are capable of.

- Fish farms endanger the sea life around them. Other creatures get caught in the nets. Farmed fish escape and compete with the native fish for food and also spread disease.

- Did you know that fish can get lice? Fish can get lice just like any large number of living beings crammed in to too small space! Treating this lice introduces pesticides to the water supply and exposes other water life to lice. A few years back we had a lice outbreak amongst our children - the work and poison necessary to eradicate it from two heads nearly leveled me. I can't imagine 100,000 lice infested fish. Ick.

- Farmed fish aren’t as good for you as wild fish (according to FDA studies). Wild salmon have 20% higher protein and 20% lower fat content than farm-raised salmon

- Just like small farmers, small fishing operations are losing their livelihood to larger scale fish farms.

Of course wild-caught fish can have their share of problems.

- Because they must be harvested far and wide, they cost more.

- The availability of any species is inconsistent. If you’ve ever gone fishing, you know this personally.

- The number of fish is diminishing. If we keep fishing like we are, major populations of fish will be extinct by the mid-century.

- Many conventional fisherman harm the ocean inhabitants and the reefs with their nets and boats.

- Lots of fish, called “by-catch”, are inadventently caught and then thrown out because they aren’t the sought-after species (25% of each catch is by-catch).

- Many larger ocean fish are filled with mercury.

So this leads to the question – is there such a thing as sustainable aquaculture? The industry is still so new that lots of mistakes are being made as we figure this out. There are some “organic” fisheries trying to do the right thing, but not everyone knows what the right thing is.

Vegetarian fish are being cultivated. One very sustainable fish hails from Austrailia, the barramundi (nick-named “sustainable sea bass”), are vegetarian and seem to do well growing in fish farms. But most people have never heard of this fish. Marketing will be necessary to convince people that a nice poached barramundi is a gourmet meal. Tilapia is another species that is adaptable to sustainable fish farming and somewhat wider known. So if you’re going to choke down some fish and these issues are nagging at your conscience, look for these two.

You can also get a little guidance from the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit, global organization that certifies seafood as sustainable. Through careful investigation, they determine which suppliers are practicing sustainable aquaculture or fishing and mark their products accordingly (with a bright blue “fish forever” seal from the MSC). MSC has produced a video about sustainable fishing.

As far as the toxins, the only way to avoid them is to steer clear of the long-living, carnivorous ocean-caught fish like salmon, tuna, swordfish, and shark.

There are several guides for making choices about which fish to buy. Monterray Bay Aquarium has an exhaustive guide that is modified for areas all over the US. also has a helpful general guide for choosing sustainable fish. If you buy and eat a lot of fish, you might want to make a copy of their handy little chart to keep in your wallet.

So now you see why I was stumped. When I started to read about all this I was overwhelmed by all the issues that are as deep and wide as the ocean. I still can’t determine if farm-raised or wild-caught shrimp is best. (suppose it depends on how they were farm raised) I’m guessing that as these issues gain traction, the fishing industry will find its footing and educate us all (in the name of profit)– we’ll just have to be sure we understand what they’re talking about before the fish stop biting.

No comments:

Post a Comment