A Sustainable Protein: Seafood
The effect of overfishing isn’t easily seen from a consumer’s point of view. In our eyes, the case of fish at the grocery store is full, as are the freezer and canned goods sections. And unless we all frequently get out on – and rather, in – the water, it’s hard to imagine not only the state of the oceans, but why we should care in the first place.
The 411 on Oceans + Seafood
Get this: ocean plants produce half of the world’s oxygen and absorb nearly one-third of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. They also regulate our weather and form the clouds that bring us fresh water, according to the Nature Conservancy. And while we may not feel directly affected by the decreasing health of the oceans, many people worldwide rely on the it for their livelihood and feel it for us.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that approximately 57 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited and another 30 percent are over-exploited, depleted, or recovering. Fish stocks and their habitats are under threat due to overfishing; destructive fishing practices; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; pollution; and coastal development. So how is it that seafood deserves a spot on our sustainable plate?
Three factors make the case for seafood:
- It requires no fresh water
- It produces little carbon dioxide
- It doesn’t require arable land
This can’t be said about other animal proteins. In fact, seafood provides protein at a cost per pound that’s lower than beef, chicken, lamb, and pork. Through the proper management of fisheries and protection of key habitats, we can restore the productivity of our oceans, which hold the potential to feed an estimated 1 billion people a healthy seafood meal each day, according to international ocean conservation group Oceana.
Health benefits of fish
Fish is a high-protein and low-fat food that is also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for cardiovascular health. Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids allows us to balance out the omega-3:omega-6 ratio. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for our health, but American diets typically lean in the omega-6 direction. This is because these fats are found in the vegetable oils commonly used in unhealthy foods, such as salad dressings, fried foods, and processed meats. Salmon in particular is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish also contains essential vitamins and minerals including niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin E, vitamin B12, thiamin, riboflavin, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, potassium, and selenium. Oily fish such as salmon and trout also have generous amounts of fat-soluble vitamins A and D.
Choosing wisely: fishing methods, species + fish fraud
From trawling to purse seiners, fishing methods are wide-ranging and don’t make the confusion around the sustainability of different species any simpler. Luckily, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made it easier for consumers to navigate these waters with its Seafood Watch program. Shoppers can download the app directly to their phone and easily search for the fish they’re eyeing at the store to see its sustainability rating based on species, location, and method caught. Green means best choice, orange means good alternative, and red means avoid. You can also search from your desktop here or print a pocket guide here.
This is a great step (leap?) in the right direction, but let's bring another important point to light: many fish are intentionally mislabeled in order to increase the profits made on a less desirable fish. And as a consumer, it’s really hard to tell exactly what you’re getting unless you buy the whole fish (head and all) or buy from a retailer that tracks its catch from sea to counter. A report by Oceana found that one in five of more than 25,000 samples of seafood tested worldwide was mislabeled, on average. Additionally, of the 200 published studies from 55 countries that were reviewed in the study, only one didn’t show seafood fraud.
In other words, for every two steps forward, there seems to be one step back. While we’ve definitely seen progress in recent years through the accessibility of more information about seafood sustainability and efforts to educate consumers and increase transparency, it’s clear we have some work to do when it comes to restoring the world’s oceans. But by supporting sustainable fishing practices, we as consumers can help them get there. "Vote with your dollar" couldn't be more appropriate when it comes to food choices.
Vegetable and Butcher strives to make healthy seafood choices in line with its environmental values by purchasing from Samuels Seafood Co.
Emily is the PR and Marketing Specialist of Vegetable and Butcher. She's a graduate student studying nutrition education at American University and has a certificate in plant-based nutrition. Emily has been following a vegetarian diet for ten years, dabbling in diets like raw and vegan before finding her perfect balance. When she doesn't have her nose in a nutrition book, she loves to spend her time outdoors.