Wild fish stocks around the world are in trouble, with about 90% of them being either fully fished or overfished. On the other hand, wild fish represent one of the most nourishing and nutrient-dense foods to be found on earth and are one of the very few remaining sources of wild food in our diets. This is where sustainability gets tricky: does sustaining our bodies with nutritious wild game come at the cost of sustaining the health of the marine environment? Should we be eating wild fish anymore? Today, I argue that securing the future of wild fish may in fact depend on it.
I had a lot of trouble picking today’s topic. There’s so much to write about in sustainability. So, why food, and why fish?
Food is one of the most fundamental ways in which we interact with the planet. Therefore, it’s a natural place to start writing about sustainability. It is also one of the most deeply personal choices we make as people, being our source of nourishment and a veritable cornerstone of community and culture. It was how we connected to the landscape as paleolithic hunter-gatherers. The landscape is dramatically different and the relationship is more loosely tethered than back then, but food nonetheless remains our most integral connection to the natural world. Any conversation about the sustainability of food should prioritize the sustenance of these deeply human needs in parallel with a robust and fertile natural landscape and seascape.
And why fish? My background is in marine biology. I cherish the ocean, value its protection, and yes, I also like to eat from it. It’s pretty cool to study, too. Fisheries are a global issue, but for today’s conversation, I want to talk specifically in the context of American fisheries because (1) I am most familiar with American fisheries and with the seafood choices available to most Americans, and (2) a framework already exists in America for both responsible harvest (fisheries management) and responsible decision making (us, the consumers), if we choose to prioritize domestic seafood.
Should We Just Stop Eating Wild Fish?
There are clear and present dangers facing wild fisheries. Those dangers are already comprehensively documented elsewhere, but I want to quickly acknowledge them and then move on to the meat of the conversation. If you’re interested in learning more about the severity of these problems, Seafood Watch and Fish Forever offer excellent and eloquent descriptions of the issues. With that said:
- We catch too much of almost every kind of fish out there.
- The way we catch fish is often destructive to their (and other species’) habitat.
- We catch tons of things we don’t mean to (bycatch).
Meanwhile, the candle of American fishermen is being burned at both ends. Not only because fish stocks are drying up, but because they are challenged to compete with ultra-efficient commercial fishing vessels – which I only call efficient in that they can extract jaw-dropping quantities of fish (target and non-target) and process and distribute them quickly and cheaply. When we buy wild fish without knowing the source (read: supermarket counter / freezer case), the odds are it came from these kinds of operations. There’s nothing environmentally efficient about these methods, nor do they yield outcomes that support communities.
Eat Fish to Protect Fish
In spite of the problems described above, I still choose to eat wild fish, though this doesn’t mean I eat limitless amounts or do so non-selectively.
Eating wild fish is a classic example of voting with our dollars – if we don’t eat wild fish, we’re not casting a ballot, and we’re giving our government license not to consider those ecosystems as economically important in comparison to competing interests (oil, mining interests, coastal development, etc.). Part 3 of Paul Greenberg’s excellent American Catch shows this chess match literally in action up in Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to one of the world’s premier and prolific wild sockeye salmon runs. When we stop buying, we remove our voice from the conversation.
Seafood is the food output of a variety of ecosystems (estuarine, coastal, offshore, lake, river), so when we fish them irresponsibly, we place too much pressure on those ecosystems. But when we fish them with a shred of ethics and scientific input, the ecosystems remain functional and in fact then become important economic and cultural resources to our country. This affords them popular goodwill in the event that competing interests want to exploit that region or ecosystem.
Wild fish are also one of the last wild foods that remain in our diets. Wild fish is amazingly nutrient-dense in ways that simply cannot be replicated in farmed fish that were fed a biologically inappropriate diet. The macro- and micro-nutrition offered by a wild animal is almost unparalleled (toxic burden in certain species like swordfish notwithstanding). And to say nothing of taste would be criminal. The rich red of a king salmon like that in the featured image of today’s article is a feast for the eyes and the palette. The flaky, buttery texture of fresh Pacific black cod just can’t be matched.
Beyond the nutrition that wild animals provide, it’s symbolically and culturally important to continue to eat and revere this wild form of nourishment. For me, eating these animals honors and maintains their eco-cultural heritage and prestige.
Catching wild fish also keep us interacting with oceans as participants in the ecology, not just as spectators. Books like Blue Mind, by Wallace J. Nichols, characterize the science and health benefits underlying the vibrant connection our minds have to water. Re-wilding advocates like Daniel Vitalis put forth the kinds engrossing dialogues we need to be having on the ethics of conscientiously participating in our environments, evolving beyond the mode of passive observation of the “leave no trace” movement. Doing so anchors us with a sense of place.
Mindfully sourcing food from these environments, whether by personally fishing them or by purchasing them directly from the fisherman, creates a bridge to that place, an emotional bond that serves as some skin in the game when it comes time to protect it. I’d argue that not eating these wild creatures only further disassociates us from the ocean and further divorces us from our own human ecology. We simply have to stop acting as though divesting from intrinsically human activities like omnivory is going to solve our problems. It’s going to have poor outcomes for our bodies, minds, and communities. I choose being a conscientious participant.
Keep Your Dollars Close and Your Fishermen Closer
Speaking of fishermen, eating wild-caught fish gives me the opportunity to support small, local businesses and keep my dollars within my community. This is often much, much easier than trying to navigate the labels, choices, and rankings of fish at the Whole Foods counter. Even though following regional guides like Seafood Watch is great, you can also get even more fine-scale by talking directly with fishermen to find out what fisheries are bountiful in a given year and season, and opting to support those options first. The good ones know their fisheries inside and out, including the management plans and regulations that they need to comply with. They don’t have biology degrees, but they are skilled naturalists and observationists. And they are some of the most pleasant, gentle, ethically minded people you’ll ever meet.
One of my favorite fishermen, Gary, lands Pacific King salmon off Fort Bragg, CA, during the summer season in small quantities using simple pole-and-line fishing. These fish are a great example of how sustainability depends on scale. Pacific salmon stocks in CA have been depleted over the years and are now intensively managed as a result. It remains a solid option for eaters in nearby San Francisco, but it’s not a fishery that can sustainably support national or global distribution. Therefore, it may be a poor choice for you if you live somewhere that the fish has to get trucked/flown across the country and diverts your dollars out of your community.
Which Fish Are Sustainable That I Can Eat?
Last week I wrote about how sustainability is more than just being environmentally friendly, so there’s no one-size fits all here. It depends on your bioregion. But here are the 3 simple rules I follow:
- Source Local – support your local community and your bioregional ecology.
- Buy Direct – get it straight from the people who catch it and can talk to you about it.
- Consume a Variety – develop a taste for big fish, small fish, shellfish, and everything in between. The more you opt for variety, the less fishing pressure on any one fishery (not always, but generally).
Supporting local fishing operations directly is usually easiest to do at your local farmer’s market because you can get in there face to face and have a conversation. If you don’t have a local farmer’s market (or if yours doesn’t have a fishmonger), consider subscribing to a community supported fishery that will bring you a weekly box at a set cost. This is actually my favorite model because it forces a little variety on me (I’m a creature of habit), is tremendously affordable, injects a little creativity into my kitchen, and gives me the opportunity to ask and learn about the fish in my delivery each week.
Measuring fisheries sustainability is hard and so as usual, keep it simple. Find out what fish are native to your nearest coastline, lakes, and rivers, and how pressured they are by human fishing, and then go from there. If this is new for you, check out https://localcatch.org/ for help tracking down what your options are.
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P.S. – while it’s remote from all of us, lend some sustained, periodic support to Alaska’s magnificent and intensively managed fisheries. This serial show of support bolsters the economic value of those fisheries and ensures their continued protection in the face of the development of entirely unsustainable extractive industries. Because of their distance from our plates, I don’t encourage constant consumption of a product with so many food miles behind it, but it’s pretty easy to come by when you want to treat yourself. Plenty of Alaskan fish products are flown into national grocery stores already. You can also order premium Alaskan fish online from trustworthy sources such as VitalChoice.com.