Here’s a dismaying statistic to swallow: When you buy fish from the supermarket, it almost always comes from an industrial seafood company, and the typical distance from landing dock to point of sale is an astonishing 5,476 miles. That’s farther than a road trip from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Key West, Fla.
It’s worse than that, really: According to a recent study in the journal Marine Policy, 91 percent of seafood purchased in the United States is imported, and up to a third of that is a product of “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing—also known as IUU, or pirate fishing. Still worse, the leading suppliers of the imports at your supermarket seafood-display counter—that glistening salmon, those tuna steaks—are China and Thailand, both notorious strongholds of illegal fishing.
What’s the average American, who consumes 15 pounds of seafood a year, supposed to do? The Seafood Watch Pocket Guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium are a good place to start, and you can find the one for your region here. But when the pocket guide says king crab is a good choice, it can’t tell you whether the crab in your supermarket was illegally harvested in Russia, as often happens.
A better alternative, according to an upcoming study in the journal Fisheries Research, is to buy from a community-supported fishery, or CSF. That’s the seafood counterpart to community-supported agriculture, or CSA. In both cases, the idea is for consumers to support local producers and ensure a steady supply of sustainable food by paying in advance for shares of what nearby farms or fisheries can harvest. It generally means picking up a regular order of a pound or two of seafood from a nearby distribution point.
Colby College conservation biologist Loren McClenachan says she and her coauthors first became interested in CSFs when they realized that while many people pay attention to the “food miles” it takes to get a meal from farm to dinner plate, they seldom apply the same thinking to seafood. So McClenachan and her team set out to see how well CSFs in New England, California, British Columbia, and North Carolina are doing. These CSFs serve from 100 to 1,000 customers, with a typical annual share of about 48 pounds of seafood. Among other benefits, the typical CSF cuts the travel distance from fishing dock to point of sale—and thus the carbon footprint—from 5,476 miles down to just 40. That distance varied from zero, for pickups at the dock, to 194 miles, for a CSF serving the inland communities of Raleigh and Durham, N.C. Apart from the carbon footprint issue, the researchers found that CSFs are more sustainable than supermarket seafood in five ways:
1. While industrial fisheries often discard their bycatch or sell it for bait, wasting millions of pounds of non-target species, CSFs bring the bycatch to market. In British Columbia, for instance, octopus can turn up in the prawn trap fishery and it usually ends up as bait. But octopus is a delicacy in many parts of the world, and when CSFs serve it up to customers, it means a 50 percent increase in price for fishermen.
2. The CSFs also create markets for species that are abundant but underused. For example, lobster traps in New England frequently catch Jonah crabs, which have become more common as sea urchin populations have declined. Jonah crabs are kin to Dungeness crabs, but there’s no real commercial market—except through CSFs.
3. CSFs also create local markets for foods that would otherwise be shipped abroad. For instance, California fishermen catch longspine and shortspine thornyheads to serve a strong demand from Asia. (Thornyheads are also sometimes called “idiot cod,” but let’s just think of them as rockfish.) By introducing these unfamiliar fish to local markets, CSFs avoid the energy costs of freezing food and transporting it overseas, “and because the fresh market commands a higher price, fewer individuals need to be caught to return the same profit,” says McClenachan.
4. Some CSFs provide incentives for fishermen to use gear with reduced environmental impact. For instance, fishermen supplying California CSFs use trawls with reduced roller weights to minimize damage to the sea floor, and they’ve also expanded use of hook-and-line fishing.
5. Many CSFs also provide member education about seafood issues, restoring a sense of connection between suppliers and consumers. Recipes for the week’s catch are also often part of the deal. At the Village Fishmonger CSF in New York City, recent offerings included recipes for sesame tuna, hake fish cakes with paprika lemon mayonnaise, and calamari al forno.
If this all sounds a little too good to be true, well, yes, in some ways it is. Since the CSF movement began in 2007 in Port Clyde, Maine, it has grown to a total of just 30 CSFs in all of North America. Living on the coast makes it more likely that there will be a CSF nearby (here’s where to find your nearest one). But it’s no guarantee. I live in sight of Long Island Sound, and I’d need to make a roughly 50-mile round trip to the nearest CSF pickup point, completely tanking the carbon footprint argument.
But McClenachan describes CSFs as a “back to the future” solution that’s attracting increasing interest. “It’s really consumer demand–driven, and as more people know it's an option and are willing to buy into this, more of these will develop,” she says. Most times it takes a nonprofit or a university to organize a network of buyers and the fishermen willing to supply them. Local Catch, a coalition of fishermen, organizers, and consumers, can also help.
For those of us stuck with our supermarket seafood? “We really want consumers to look for seafood labeled as sustainable, which for us means the Marine Stewardship Council logo,” says Roberta Elias, the World Wildlife Fund’s deputy director of marine and fisheries policy. Consumers should also consistently ask retailers where the fish they sell is caught and whether the retailer can document that it is legal. (Beware: As much as 40 percent of tuna imported from Thailand is caught illegally or without proper documentation, as is 45 percent of pollack.) Asking those questions, says Elias, “trains retailers that consumers really want the assurance that they are buying what they think they are buying, and that it’s a good, legal, sustainable product.” The guy behind the seafood counter won’t have the answers at first, Elias says, so consumers also need to push for industry and government action to ensure that all seafood being sold is legal and traceable.
Experts say the United States does a better job than most countries at managing its fisheries for sustainability. So when it all gets to be too much to think about, it’s a smart choice to just buy American.