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Teaching Your Students About Seafood Sustainability

Teaching Your Students About Seafood Sustainability

29 February 2016

Seafood sustainability involves more than whether a fish species can survive the catch. Chef Adam Weiner begins to educate educators on the many aspects that make a seafood entrée truly sustainable.

By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE

I would like to dedicate this article to my daughter. She has a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and has not only taught me about seafood sustainability, but also that “jelly fish” should be called “jellies” and “starfish” are “sea stars.” She works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Sustainable seafood first came to the forefront in 1999 when the Monterey Bay Aquarium working with Bon Appetit Management Company pioneered a grading system for seafood based on sustainability.

Whether you have a home economics class or an introduction to professional cooking class, you need to teach your students more than just how to cook and clean. You need to teach the basics about the food chain so they can make intelligent decisions about what to buy, and how to treat the items with which they work.

The words and phrases “local,” “organic,” “sustainable,” “low-carbon footprint” and “free trade” have become fixed in the culinary lexicon. The problem is that your students have grown up with these phrases bantered around so loosely and casually that they are not sure what they mean. In addition, many companies use the terms indiscriminately to market their products. (I took my daughter shopping one time when she was in college in Santa Barbara. The major supermarket store had a display “local coffee” even though the closest coffee tree was over 2,000 miles away.)

Over the next year I will address all of these terms. This month I would like to focus on the term SUSTAINABLE, particularly sustainable seafood.

A disclaimer before I begin: I am not a culinary historian nor am I a culinary scientist. I am a culinary arts instructor. I look at these topics, and know these topics, as an instructor and not as a historian or scientist. Although I read the trade journals and many of the websites, I write mostly from personal experience. This is not an academic research paper. Please forgive me if my understanding of history and science is not 100 percent correct. I write so that you have teachable basic concepts for your students.

Sustainable seafood goes beyond dolphins being caught and killed in tuna nets. The issue is far more complex than that. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website :

“Seafood Watch defines sustainable seafood as seafood from sources, whether fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production without jeopardizing the structure and function of affected ecosystems.”

Some of the key issues that help the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program to evaluate whether a fishery is sustainable include:

  • Inherent vulnerability of the species to fishing pressure
  • Status of the species population
  • Nature and extent of bycatch
  • Effect of fishing practices on habitats and ecosystems
  • Effectiveness of the fishery management

Some of the key issues used to evaluate fish farming include:

  • Use of marine resources in fish feed
  • Risk and impacts of escaped farmed fish to wild fish
  • Risk and impacts of disease and parasite transfer to wild fish
  • Risk and impacts of pollution and other impacts on habitats and ecosystems

In other words, sustainability means more than just the species itself reproducing and growing to maturity faster than we are killing them for food. As noted by the Aquarium, there are at least two other major issues of seafood sustainability:

  1. There is the issue of by catch ​for wild-caught seafood. By catch is other sea life (mammal, fish, crustacean, coral, etc.) that is killed or damaged by the fishing. The sought-after fish might be sustainable when caught by net, for example, but the by catch of sea turtles and dolphins might make this fishing method non-sustainable. 
  1. For farmed fish, either on shore or in ocean pens, the farming method may yield sustainable seafood just for that species but it may be unsustainable for other reasons. Examples of poor farming methods include farming that kills the local mangrove forests, or other fish are killed during the operation, or other species could be harmed when the farmed fish escape.

The above is a somewhat simplistic description and definition. The issues about sustainability are interrelated, complex, and a bit of a quagmire. For both wild and farmed fish, there are also related sustainable issues of carbon footprint and domestic vs. foreign caught. The issues are far more complex than how fast a species reproduces and how slowly we catch or farm it.

For example, buying fish farmed in Vietnam may have a lower carbon footprint than local caught halibut because a container ship uses less fuel per pound of cargo than a local small halibut boat with an old diesel engine. However, building the Vietnam farm may have destroyed a portion of a rain forest while the local fish boat was built forty years ago of wood whose forests are well-managed. Another example would be a local fishing method for sardines may be sustainable for sardines, but it does not allow enough remaining sardines for other species who live on them to thrive.           

Making life even more complicated is the propensity of fish mongers or restaurants to misname or mislead you about fish. Red Snapper is something special in the Caribbean and Gulf. On the west coast of the United States, it is a name often given to nondescript fish (often but not exclusively rockfish) and run as a special. My wife and I, when we first started dating 35 years ago, would frequently go to a seafood restaurant in Half Moon Bay, California (which has since closed) and we noted that over the years their special would always be Red Snapper. Similar problems can arise with loosely calling something cod or bass or rockfish without specificity as to where it was caught or farmed.

The best course of action is to get to know your purveyors and fish mongers and to check the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guide listed below. (As an aside, changing the name of something can bring it to the brink of extinction. No one really bought Patagonian Toothfish but when the name was changed to Chilean Sea Bass the fish gained a substantial market share.)

Now, throw into this mix the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In the last several months, the FDA approved the first GMO animal for human consumption. It is a salmon developed by AquaBounty. As I understand it, the genetic modifications allow this fish—the AquAdvantage--to grow faster than a conventionally farmed salmon. However, its overall feed consumption is the same. Many of the top U.S. retailers have said that they won’t carry it, but there will probably be a market for this fish somewhere. (See Time Magazine, December 14, 2015 page 40.)

Finally, and if you pardon the pun, seafood sustainability is fluid. The standards keep changing, the fishing and farming techniques keep changing, and because of successful management a species may change its status from “avoid” to “good alternative.” Unfortunately, it often goes the other way as well.

For more information on sustainability seafood, look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Seafood watch also publishes a state by state guide on which fish is a “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative,” or is on the “Avoid” lists. I recommend you and your students download the Seafood Watch App.

Finally, the National Aquaculture Association is a sponsor of the upcoming CAFÉ Leadership Conference that takes place in June in Chicago. Their representative will be there if you want to speak personally with someone about sustainability issues. 

Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.

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