Living in Newfoundland during the implementation of the cod moratorium in 1992 opened my eyes to the devastation the death of an industry brings to a community. The subsequent visits to fishing ports throughout the North Atlantic on Morgan’s Cloud and our interactions with fisherfolk there have only served to make me more aware of the highly charged issues surrounding the fishery.
And from a gustatory perspective, the proliferation of stories about high levels of mercury in large predator fish, the rampant use of antibiotics and other medications in farmed fish, and the overfishing of wild species, had just about turned me off eating seafood at all.
So it was with great interest that I read Bottomfeeder: A Seafood Lover’s Journey to the End of the Food Chain by Taras Grescoe. A Canadian, he has traveled all over the world eating, talking and analyzing the state of the world’s fishery. (Note that bottomfeeder here refers to someone who eats from the bottom of the seafood chain, versus bottom-feeder, which refers to a fish that feeds on the bottom of the seafloor.)
His take on what needs to be done within the fishery:
- ban bottom trawling (dragging) to protect habitat;
- cargo ships must change ballast water at sea to avoid introducing invasive species into inland waters;
- bycatch (now thrown back dead and dying) must be saved and used;
- protect the big predator species like swordfish and bluefin tuna, which are endangered and also rife with mercury;
- beef up enforcement against pirate fishing and shut down ports that allow transhipment of illegal fish;
- appoint independent councils to manage the fishery, instead of politicians, who will always buy votes with fish, as is now the case;
- ban industrial aquaculture of carnivorous species as it is a terrible pollutant, it uses up huge amounts of seafood that would normally feed people in some of the poorer parts of the world (e.g. Africa) in order to produce smaller amounts of luxury fish such as salmon for people in the richer parts of the world, and it threatens wild species;
- set up marine reserves where fishing is banned completely;
- demand more transparency in the seafood industry: where from, name, how caught.
He suggests some basic guidelines on how to eat sustainably and healthily:
- avoid fish that has traveled too far since being caught,
- avoid long-lived predator fish,
- avoid farmed predator fish (except tilapia, carp, and catfish which eat vegetable matter and so don’t have the issues discussed above, at least if farmed in North America),
- favour seafood at the lower end of the food chain, from mackerel down to oysters; in other words, be a bottomfeeder.
He also provides several resources to help make the right choices:
- www.seachoice.org (Sustainable Seafood Canada),
- www.msc.org (Marine Stewardship Council),
- www.fishbase.org (Fish Base),
- www.iucnredlist.org (World Conservation Union),
Though the present state of the fishery is abysmal, and Taras doesn’t pull any punches in his analysis of what is wrong with the industry, in his conclusion he is actually quite positive that we can eat seafood sustainably and safely if we follow the guidelines he provides and demand that providers (restaurants and grocery stores) follow the same guidelines.
And this doesn’t have to put independent fisherfolk, a number of whom we consider our friends, out of business, either, which is something I was concerned about. In fact, Taras says that a small boat inshore fishery is the only way to go—one or two people, fishing with a harpoon or single-hook line or lobster trap (the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery looks like overfishing but so far it seems that it is sustainable), will have difficulty killing off a species as long as the habitat is protected.
Hopefully as a global society we can make these necessary changes and foster a healthy fishery and ocean environment.