Imagine a World without Seafood

Could you stop eating fish and seafood completely? Would you miss the taste and health benefits of eating salmon, tuna, haddock, shrimp, crab, lobster, scallops and all the other succulent species from our oceans? We may not have a choice because many scientists predict that most seafood will be fished to near extinction by 2048.

An image from The End of the Line.

Photo of dead fish taken from the documentary The End of the Line. If we continue to pillage our oceans of seafood, we may run out completely by 2048. © Image reproduced with the permission of Tom Alexander of Mongrel Media.

The issue of exploring sustainable seafood sources was discussed at length at the museum’s third Café scientifique of the season, held on January 27, 2012. During the event, participants discussed the question “Is eating seafood ethical and sustainable?”

The two guest speakers initiating the discussion were Melissa Marschke, Ph.D., assistant professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, and Joshua Bishop, owner of The Whalesbone Oysterhouse and Sustainable Oyster and Fish Supply.

To begin the evening, participants watched The End of the Line, a documentary detailing the swift decline of seafood from our oceans and the destructive consequences of continuing these unsustainable harvesting practises.

This film places the responsibility on consumers who innocently buy endangered fish, politicians who ignore the advice and pleas of scientists, fishing companies who break their quotas and sell their catch illegally, and the global fishing industry that is slow to react to an impending disaster.

Several people sit around a table, talking.

Guest speaker Melissa Marschke (left) shares her views on sustainable fishing practices with a group of café participants. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of the many topics discussed, that of the rise of fish farming, or aquaculture, was at the top. This “blue revolution” is taking over international sources of imported seafood, such as shrimp and catfish from Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Melissa spoke in detail about the negative impact these fish farms are having on local fisherfolk who are trying to provide for their family. To put the numbers in context, she stated that 50% of seafood imported into North America is farmed. Unfortunately, these fish farms are still employing “ocean real estate”: their pens are in the ocean shallows. When multiple fish farms follow suit, very little open ocean, not to mention fewer fish species, are left for residents to eat and sell locally.

Additionally, what many consumers are completely ignorant of is that buying farmed fish still affects wild fish depletion. Since many species of farmed fish, such as Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), are carnivorous, fish farmers rely on catching copious amounts of wild smaller fish, such as the sardine European Pilchard (Sardina pilchardus), and grind them up as fish meal. Therefore, on a global scale, the very model of fish farming is definitely not sustainable.

Fish-farm infrastructure in a river.

A fish farm on the Chanthaburi River, Thailand. Image: © iStockphoto.com/rattanapat

Another common conflict many participants discussed was that of mixed messages regarding seafood in our diet. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada states that we should eat at least two servings of fish every week, especially the kinds that are highest in omega-3 fats.

In fact, many people who have eliminated chicken, pork and beef from their diets will still eat seafood to receive the necessary protein. Therefore, as both health conscience and ecologically concerned consumers, to whom do we listen?

Cutting fish and seafood out of one’s diet entirely is certainly still an option, as many participants at the café stated they have indeed done. However, Joshua doesn’t believe that eliminating fish from our plates is necessarily the answer. The real solution, he states, is staying educated about the topic, asking the necessary questions of seafood restaurants and retailers, and creating a larger demand for sustainable choices.

Many stores are making strides towards providing sustainable seafood (see links below), but we as the consumers must continue to demand these products. Once businesses know that there is a large-enough market, sustainably caught fish will, hopefully, be widely available and easily identifiable.

So, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel, consumers must not only ask for sustainable seafood, but also question retailers about its source. Although a product may be labeled “sustainable”, retailers should still be able to provide the background information about the provider and the method caught, if asked.

Several people sit around a table, talking.

Guest speaker Joshua Bishop (left) listens as a café participant shares his views on sustainable seafood. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Are you still unsure about what to buy? Many participants did find the various guides available (see “Seafood eating guides” links below) quite useful, and “there’s even an app for that”, for the technological savvy seafood shopper. (http://www.oceanwise.ca/news/ocean-wise-iphone-app)

Therefore, it’s not a hopeless situation for the seafood lovers out there. As Melissa and Joshua both insisted, it isn’t about eliminating seafood from our diets completely; it’s about being aware of where and how it was caught, as well as which specific species to avoid, such as the endangered Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) and the Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua). And asking those necessary questions is of the utmost importance.

As Joshua summarized, “we can turn things around if the proper efforts are made!”

Continuing the Discussion

We would like to invite everyone to continue the discussion of ethical and sustainable seafood practices below in the comments section. Please feel free to respond to any of the follow-up questions raised during the Café scientifique. We also encourage you to post other useful or informative links/resources, if not already listed below.

Follow-Up Questions

  • What do you find is the largest barrier to purchasing sustainably harvested seafood? (For example, availability, awareness, price, etc.)
  • Of the available seafood guides in circulation (see links below), which ones do you find the most helpful?
  • How can we (in the Ottawa–Gatineau area) encourage more people and businesses to endorse and purchase exclusively from sustainable sources?
  • Is certification of sustainable fish sources truly the answer?
  • Do we have an ethical responsibility to support small-scale fishing over large-scale industrial fishing if both are considered unsustainable?
  • Is buying locally harvested fish, such as wild Pacific salmon, better than buying internationally harvested fish, such as farmed Tilapia from Asia, when neither source may be sustainable?

Resources
Seafood-eating guides:

Additional links about sustainable fishing:

To learn more about ocean-friendly seafood, visit The Be Happy Pledge on Facebook:

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2 Responses to Imagine a World without Seafood

  1. Laurel McIvor, CMN Project Leader says:

    Additional comments from Melissa Marschke, one of the guest speakers:

    Many fish farmers in SE Asia are small scale (your picture from Thailand is an example of small to medium scale fish farming), and they are responding to increased consumer demand for fish in the region but also in Europe and North America. My problem is not with small-scale fish farming — this is likely a decent form of poverty alleviation and of food security, particularly for those that can move between fishing and fishing farming. Where we have a real sustainability issue is with large-scale farming (here the salmon example is a good one), and with over-fishing of our wild stocks. Thus, what is imported into Canada is a mix of farmed fish species (some of which is grown at a smaller scale, is bought up by a series of fish buyers and is then exported).

    Also, it really depends upon the model of fish farming as to what is sustainable or not — this is why Joshua was talking about using a supplier like Ocean Wise to help sort through what is and is not sustainable (this links to the ‘feed conversion ratio’, how the fish are grown, water conditions etc).

    (Sent February 18, 2012)

  2. Pingback: Ignorance is not always bliss | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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