Sustainable seafood is such a controversial issue today among scientists, environmentalists, sustainable food advocates, and animal rights groups who all weigh in their 2 cents about why we should and should not stop consuming seafood as a protein source.
Nutrition Pros and Cons
On one hand, we should consider the nutrition component. Seafood and fish can be incredibly healthy when regularly included in a balanced diet. An article published in the U.S. Library of of Medicine National Institutes of Health shows the nutritional benefits of consuming fish and seafood balanced with protein consumption of terrestrial animals. Fish and various seafood sourced contain high level of fatty acids including DHA and EPA. These fatty acids have been proven to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even depression due to their anti-inflammatory effects on the body. "There is also an increasing amount of evidence that suggests that diets containing fish and/or EPA/DHA may protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer." Fatty acids contribute to increased satiety and a hormone called leptin, which subdues our bodies' hunger cues. This makes fish a beneficial protein source to achieve a healthy body composition. Many types of fish are also high in iron, protein, taurine, and phospholipids that that can support healthy brain function.
Of course, as with any food source, there are some health risks as a result of commercial production. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, certain types of fish like swordfish and tuna may contain higher levels of mercury, especially larger fish that have lived in ocean waters for a significant amount of time. Mercury can affect our nervous systems, especially in young children and unborn babies. Excessive amounts of Omega-3's could cause blood thinning in some people, so it is not recommended to take Omega-3 or cod/fish oil supplements if your diet is already high in seafood consumption. In addition, as happens in many hyped-up health trends, Omega-3’s are now being artificially added to products such as breads, orange juice, and dairy products as “fortification”. Consumers can be getting an unhealthy dose of these fats from over-compensating the nutrient in their diets, which can adversely affect body weight and overall health.
Environmental Pros and Cons
The environmental component of seafood consumption is where consumers really should think carefully about where their seafood is sourced. The truth is, the rate and way in which the world's population harvests seafood from our oceans is completely unsustainable. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 33% of the world's fisheries are over-fished, while 60% are fully-fished, meaning that "potential for food has been realized without jeopardizing the future abundance of the fish." While that "60%" number may seem indicative that we are doing a pretty good job keeping our fishing in check, keep in mind this is the number of fisheries, and the size of the fisheries plays a major role in the percentage of our seafood output that is actually sourced sustainably. If even a quarter of the 33% of fisheries that are over-fished are major world suppliers, that is a massive problem in the future of the world's seafood consumption. A proposed solution to the potential catastrophe of global over-fishing is a growing industry: aquaculture.
Aquaculture is the cultivation of fish, shellfish, mollusks and other marine organisms in a controlled freshwater or saltwater environment. You may already support U.S. aquaculture and not even know it. If you've ever consumed U.S.-sourced salmon, consider that according to NOAA Fisheries, 40% of Alaskan salmon and up to 90% of Pacific salmon are stocked from hatcheries to maintain the fish supply. Raising marine-life for consumption can be extremely beneficial. It provides a means to replenish marine populations, can prevent over-fishing by operating to serve demand, creates jobs in rapidly growing industry, and the plants grown in hatcheries and fisheries can provide material used in pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biotechnology products, according to NOAA Fisheries. U.S. laws governing aquaculture are some of the most stringent around the globe and further inside can be found here.
Despite the fact that about half of the world's seafood supply already comes from aquaculture, many environmental activists are against farming for marine life. Unfortunately there are instances where aquaculture can heavily pollute natural waterways, destroying ecosystems and the quality of human drinking water, and affecting the food chain in that area. A more (and very unappealing) issue around aquaculture is that methods of production, especially those in other countries, link aquaculture with treating sewage and wastewater. It is common for producers to flood treated sewage into their production ponds. Fish and other organisms feed off the nutrients in the waste, and clean the water which is then used for agricultural purposes. Extremely efficiently from a sustainability standpoint...however not so appealing to a consumer....
Figure Out Where You Stand
What is your biggest priority when considering the sources of your seafood? Below are some of my favorite resources I consider when choosing where to buy, consume, and learn more about my fish and seafood choices. If you have more, share some of your favorite resources in the comments below or shoot me an email to explain your viewpoint. As the debate continues, let’s work together to make the best decisions we can for our oceans and our sustainable lifestyles.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a resource called Seafood Watch that I’ve frequented more than once as I'm standing by the fish counter at the grocery store. Just type in a fish, shellfish, or other seafood and the online tool provides an amazing variety of information including harvest methods to avoid (and why), nutritional information, and locations around the globe that are known for producing that variety of seafood sustainably (or not sustainably). You can also find links to external sources and fact sheets to investigate your unanswered questions.
The Marine Stewardship Council is another great source for research into your favorite brands, fish varieties and suppliers. They actually created a seal, just like the “organic” label, that certifies seafood as sustainably sourced. Their website has recipes to use sustainable seafood, a blog, additional credible information about the debate around seafood sources, and explanations of harvesting methods. Look for the blue seal next time you’re purchasing seafood and don’t be afraid to ask your favorite restaurants where they source their ingredients. Check out their website here.
The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions is another awesome organization that you can rely on to keep sustainable practices in mind. While they are a great resource for producers and retailers, you can still learn more as a consumer about sustainable practices through their “success stories”, fishery guidelines, and current projects in the seafood industry. If nothing else, their site is a great resource for further understanding the issues to be concerned about regarding wild-caught and farm-raised seafood. Check it out and tell me what you think.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has put together a Smart Seafood Buying Guide compiling the highest and lowest mercury-containing fish varieties for consumers to refer to when choosing which seafood varieties to consume. They also indicate which varieties are endangered in the wild and what farmed varieties may pose additional health concerns. They provide additional resources if you are concerned about the levels of mercury in your diet, including a mercury calculator.
The Environmental Defense Fund has put together a Seafood Selector tool that allows consumers to view a marine animal's "eco-friendly" rating, mercury content rating, serving recommendations, and sustainability status in an alphabetical, straightforward list. They also have pre-sorted lists available of the best, worst, and "ok" rated fish you might find in your favorite restaurant or grocery store.
FishWatch.org is a government-run site that gives you basic information about aquaculture and fish trade in the U.S. If you were to Google “farm-raised fish” on the internet, the majority of articles will be negative and explain the unsustainable methods used by a variety of “fish-farmers.” While I don’t argue that many methods can be environmentally degrading and inhumane, I also know many aquaculture professionals personally, and greatly respect and appreciate their commitment to sustainably-raised seafood. The fact is- we cannot continue to consume seafood at our current rate as a globe, while only eating wild-caught seafood. We can’t. If we hope to keep fish and shellfish in our diets, we need to come up with alternative sustainable solutions. Learn the basics of the U.S. aquaculture industry, seafood fraud and explore some additional variety profiles of your favorites.