By PAUL GREENBERG
JUNE 13, 2015
NEARLY a decade ago, the writer Michael Pollan advised: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Ever since, a certain kind of progressive supermarket aisle has emerged: “Real” foods, calorie-limited portions and vegetarianism (or at least Meatless Mondays) have become culinary aspirations for millennials and boomers alike.
Mr. Pollan’s advice is sound. But what about the 71 percent of the Earth’s surface that provides humans with 350 billion pounds of food every year? How do you make rules for our oceans and freshwater ecosystems, whose vast production is, even in this increasingly mechanized world, still more than half wild?
Since I first read Mr. Pollan’s haiku-like dictum, I have been trying to be like Mike — i.e., to work out a seafood three-liner that would be as concise, elegant and free from exceptions as his. I can’t say that I have been entirely successful. No sooner do I present a draft idea at a local seafood forum than I get shouted down by a New England dragger captain whose cod doesn’t fill the bill.
But rules are useful no matter the exceptions. And since World Oceans Day was this month, I thought I would offer up my own, admittedly clunky, variation:
Eat American seafood.
A much greater variety than we currently do.
Mostly farmed filter feeders.
Some explanations are in order.
To begin with, why American?
Is there something intrinsically better about fish and shellfish caught in our waters? No. But there is something better about the way the United States and just a handful of nations manage wild fish.
In a 2009 analysis in the journal Nature, which ranked nations by the level of compliance with the United Nations code of conduct for fisheries, only the United States, Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada and Namibia had “overall compliance scores whose confidence limits overlap with 60 percent.” De-wonkified, that means that the United States and this handful of nations have done the best to apply science-based fish management, but even they have room for improvement.
In the case of the United States, that has meant the imposition of quota systems and legal statutes that mandate overfishing’s end within a defined time frame. Another recent analysis of fishery governance commissioned by The Economist showed a similar cluster of nations with the United States at the top.
Yet in spite of these better ways of doing business with the ocean, up to 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, much of it from Asia, where regulation is markedly poorer than in the United States. According to a recent study published in the journal Marine Policy, as much as 32 percent of the wild fish we import may come to us via illegal or unreported fishing.
But it’s not as if we don’t have a lot of American fish. The United States exports about three billion pounds of what we catch. Which brings me to seafood rule No. 2: If we are going to default to eating American fish and shellfish, we will need to eat a much greater variety of it.
The top three seafoods on American plates are shrimp, tuna and salmon, together more than half of what we eat from the sea. Each is largely imported, and each comes with significant complications.
Shrimp aquaculture in Southeast Asia has caused significant damage to coastal mangrove forests, which are only now starting to receive much-needed attention after the explosion in shrimp farming in the 1980s and ‘90s. Moreover, recent investigations by The Associated Press and The Guardian reported human rights abuses, including forced labor, in the Thai seafood industry, one of the largest providers of shrimp to the United States.
Canned tuna, meanwhile, has been cited by Consumer Reports as “the most common source of mercury in our diet.”
And salmon, often well managed in the wild, mostly comes to us in its farmed form, which is reliant on huge amounts of wild fish as part of its feed.
But there are alternatives to shrimp, tuna and salmon.
More than 30 wild fish stocks in the United States have been rebuilt from previous depletion in the last quarter-century. The problem is that many of these stocks — like Atlantic porgy, Acadian redfish and Pacific sablefish — are unknown to many American consumers, which is one reason so much American fish is exported.
Still, no matter how much we change our eating habits, there is probably not enough wild American seafood to meet our country’s yearly demands, which are currently about 4.5 billion pounds (the third largest seafood consumption in the world, after China and Japan). In our country, a nation that ranks 15th in farmed seafood production, behind Egypt and Myanmar, a more significant investment in aquaculture is clearly necessary.
Which brings me to my last rule: We should eat more farmed filter feeders — animals like oysters and mussels that don’t need feed because they strain their sustenance from the water.
As I noted earlier, farmed carnivorous fish like salmon require wild fish as part of their diets on the farm. And though the salmon industry has made epic improvements in efficiency on a per-fish basis in the last decade, aquaculture is growing so fast that the overall removal of wild fish for farming remains high.
For the time being, we would be much better off eating filter-feeding organisms like oysters. Farmed oysters live off microscopic phytoplankton that naturally occur in marine environments, and in the process clean the water; a single oyster filters about 30 to 50 gallons of water a day.
And it’s not just oysters that work this kind of magic. Mussels filter many gallons of water as well, and provide habitat for fish. Mussels also have levels of omega-3s similar to most canned tuna, without the mercury burden those predators can carry.
And other efficient biological filters also exist. Ocean farmers are finding that edible kelp grows miraculously fast, can be high in omega-3s and extracts huge amounts of excess nutrients from the water column. Grown together with mussels and other bivalves, kelp represents a real bright spot for making a better American seafood supply.
It’s exactly this kind of farming that we should be doing along our coasts: a kind of ocean farming that supports clean water, gives us nutritious food and creates habitat for other fish.
Of course within these food rules, contradictions abound.
Not all American fish is equal; New England cod is still overfished, and threatened by climate change. Some foreign fisheries are improving — Russia and Namibia, for example, have made assiduous efforts toward sustainable harvesting. Not all filter feeders are sustainable. Baleen whales, for example, are not a good choice.
But food rules are meant to be aspirational, even if they’re not always realistic. We are what we eat, in both our hearts and our minds. And if we’re going to take the time to follow rules on land, it seems only fitting that we do the same when out at sea.