Greener Pastures: Get schooled on seafood
Vail, CO Colorado
Seafood is one of the most difficult sustainable waters to navigate. It’s hard because the state of our oceans is so grim and even “the best” choices leave you feeling greedy. And like the ocean itself, the health of its inhabitants is fluid, always changing, and it’s tough to stay on top of what fish is abundant and what fish Joe’s Crab Shack has served one too many times.
My sustainable food class at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards recently dove into the subject. To help learn the major issues, our instructor, Todd Rymer, had us complete an online certification on sustainable seafood developed by Chefs Collaborative and Green Chefs, Blue Ocean. The course was developed specifically to help working chefs make better choices, but it’s free and open to anyone who likes to eat.
As the course points out, chefs are in a powerful position to improve the health of our oceans just by what they order (or don’t order). But it’s up to diners, consumers in general, to know the issues so we can make – and demand – better choices of our restaurants, fishmongers and supermarkets.
The course – which is interactive and includes chef interviews – begins by identifying the three biggest threats to our sea friends: overfishing, bycatch and habitat destruction. Then, it takes a closer look at high-impact fishing techniques and explains how each method of fishing contributes to the three biggest threats.
Purse seining, for example, uses a circle of netting to catch schooling fish, targeting species such as skipjack and yellowfin tuna. This technique also catches large amounts of bycatch, such as dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and juvenile fish, further depleting our oceans.
Next, the course takes you through low-impact fishing techniques, the methods you should look for when purchasing finfish. Hook and lining, for example, is the “old-fashioned way” of fishing. A single line with one or more hooks with bait or lures is used to catch fish. It’s targeted, reducing the amount of bycatch, and if species are caught by accident, it’s easy to release them quickly into the water.
The next lesson digs into aquaculture, and like the fishing techniques, the course identifies high-impact farming and lower-impact farming. Two of the major concerns with farmed finfish are the fishmeal used to feed carnivorous species, such as salmon and, in the case of an open-pen or cage farm in offshore coastal areas, the escape of farmed fish into the wild. There’s also antibiotics and chemicals to think about with aquaculture, as well as how the wastewater is treated in concentrated farms.
Some operations take from wild stock to feed farm fish, again further depleting our oceans. With open-pen or cage farms in coastal waters, there is a risk of farmed fish escaping into the wild and competing with wild finfish for food, habitat and mates. Farmed fish escape and may breed with wild fish, diluting the wild gene pool.
Just as there is a difference between beef factory farms and grass-fed beef operations, there are techniques fish farmers can use to reduce the overall impact, such as reducing the density of fish. The course identifies good aquaculture techniques, too, and there are some fish farmers doing a very healthy, clean job.
After learning about shellfish, mollusks and crustaceans and the differences among local, regional and imported seafood, the course ends with a challenge using everything you learned. You must build a sustainable menu, and the course explains why your choices are green or not so green. The menu lesson really illustrates how sustainability is a balancing act. Chefs (and consumers) need to weigh the pros and cons to make the best choice in regards to location, season and cost.
With the world hitting 7 billion last week and the oceans growing drier and drier of wildlife, many experts feel fish farming is the future of feeding all of these people. Having learned about some of the nasty impacts of aquaculture, I’m not so sure. Like the wolf, a keystone species that changes what it preys on to keep the population of elk, deer, bison and rabbits all in check, I’d like to see humans lay off seafood for awhile – especially certain species. But chances are, the world is not going to give up its seafood to allow the waters to replenish. The most we can hope for is to use education such as this sustainable-seafood course to make “the best” choices every time we dine and hope the waters bounce back.
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the Eagle-Vail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability. Contact her at email@example.com.