In Monday’s “Room for Debate” column, The New York Times asked the mother of all seafood questions: “Is there a way to meet consumer demand for quality seafood and protect threatened marine life at the same time?”
Nine experts were tapped to respond, but in the end, the only clear answer was this: “We don’t really know for certain.”
Callum Roberts, author of the excellent The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, gets at the heart of our seafood dilemma: Much of the fish we love to eat has the misfortune of growing large, maturing late, and having a long lifespan, he writes. “A lethal combination.”
His solution is to create more ocean refuges—spots where fishing is off-limits. These at-sea sanctuaries would allow fish to thrive and replenish.
While they can take decades to show results, the concept is promising, and is one embraced across the country. Today, there are over 1,700 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the U.S., but only one percent of them have strict “no take” restrictions. And of course, our oceans are all connected. Roberts recommends cordoning off a whopping one third of the sea, and giving young fish the time they need to become abundant again. It’s an excellent solution—but is it one the rest of the world would be willing to embrace? It’s hard to imagine it when, as a global society, we’re not dealing with climate change very well.
Of the experts tapped, we think Taras Grescoe, author of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, nailed it: “There are enough fish in the sea to satisfy the ever-growing human appetite for protein. The problem is, we’re eating the wrong ones.”
Like Roberts, Grescoe calls for marine protected areas, “the marine equivalent to the national park system,” but he builds on the sanctuary approach by calling on consumers to eat lower on the food chain too. “I avoid problematic prestige proteins like swordfish, bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod. As a guiding principle: the closer you are to mussels, and the further from sharks, the better off you’ll be. Herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies are my mainstays. These toothsome schooling fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in contaminants could easily feed the planet. Instead, we grind them up and feed them to pigs, chickens, and farmed shrimp and salmon,” he writes.
That’s right: We are literally vacuuming up tiny oil-rich fish like menhaden and anchovies. And instead of mashing them up to make our Caesar salads more delicious, we feed them by the ton to farm animals and farmed carnivorous fish.
Which brings us around to Paul Greenberg’s solution. The author of Four Fish reminds us that not all farmed seafood is sinister. In fact, one of the best things we can do for the health of our oceans—while feeding ourselves too—is to farm more bivalves, like delicious oysters, mussels and clams.
“They require no outside feed, and they clean our waterways as they gobble up micro algae and create habitat for other wild fish. If we radically ramped up the farming of bivalves, we would be doing the world a great service,” Greenberg writes.
We love this solution, but a menacing problem wasn’t mentioned: ocean acidification. Our oceans are changing, and the ability of species like oysters and clams (or any creature that relies on calcium to form shells) are already being impacted in places like the Pacific Northwest.
Better fishing gear; traceability; reduction in the amount of fish harvested; elimination of bycatch and waste; the end of plundering of fishing grounds off the coast of West Africa. All of these ideas—and more—were also presented as solutions to the question put forth by the Times editors, but none by themselves are a healing salve to a complex and worrisome situation. “Having our fish and eating it too” will inevitably involve a combination of all these solutions, and it is something that we, as eaters, need to be working on in a hurry.
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