Aside from its distorted facts and questionable agenda, the Netflix documentary smartly spotlights glaring issues in the sustainable seafood industry. However, options exist that support a healthy seafood system -- we just need to ask the right questions.
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As native Bostonians, my husband and I instinctively demand seafood in our diet. When planning a visit with our family in coastal New England, the first two things on the to-do list are placing an uncomfortably large order with the local lobster pound and buying up all the unsalted butter at the grocery store. It gets intense, to say the least: the array of surgical-looking utensils, wet naps strewn all over the table, and those silly-but-necessary lobster bibs. But we feel comfortable in our consumption, knowing it’s all locally sourced and sustainably caught. And that our cholesterol levels are reasonably low.
So when our marketing director, Hayley, asked if I had seen the Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, I guffawed and got a sudden pang for a buttered lobster roll. But then I started recalling my previous blindspots in our global food system and the deeply unsettling opacity of the seafood industry.
For instance, only 10-20% of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is sourced from here, leading to cases in which purveyors don’t even know the source, let alone the type of fish sold to us. So with that fundamental knowledge (and echoes of recent headlines questioning the main ingredient in Subway’s tuna salad), I sat down and prepared myself for the incoming deluge of information.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices contribute to the mislabeling of seafood, as well as many other prohibited activities that Seaspiracy identifies throughout the film.
The producers of Seaspiracy know how to create a compelling journey; after all, Kip Andersen and Jim Greenbaum also produced the very dramatic, very anti-meat documentaries, Cowspiracy and What the Health.
Knowing this, I assumed my reasonably rational thinking and iron-clad stomach would pull me through. But, disappointingly, I definitely grew queasy during some of the really brutal scenes, which then triggered my anger at human nature to pollute with such wild abandon. These filmmakers know what they’re doing, that’s for sure.
I then tried to see the larger picture of the story. Despite the obfuscated facts and pro-vegan sentiment that concludes each of their films, it still brings a lot of frightening but necessary issues to light.
“Even if it’s chocked full of lies and half-truths, maybe [Seaspiracy] is still good overall if it introduces people to ocean issues and inspires a desire to make a difference.”
– Liz Allen, marine sustainability writer at Forbes
But does that mean we must throw the delicious, soft-shell chick lobsters out with the bathwater? I would still like to eat seafood, after all. Just maybe not yet.
Diving back in
To help me get back on the seafood track, I merged some of the broader points made in the film and some of the concepts we practice here at Dirt to Dinner to find a simple yet strategic way to improve my selection of sustainably sourced and responsibly managed seafood. Below are five key rules.
Rule #1: Farmed fish can be the most sustainable seafood
Despite common misconceptions (including my own), farmed fish that’s sustainably managed is the most cost-effective and planet-conscious choice. How else can you be 100% certain that the fish you’re paying for is actually what you think it is. For wild-caught, it could be flounder bottom-trawled off the coast of Southern Asia and not the $30/lb halibut from Norway.
Since farms facilitate the entire lifecycle development, filtration systems, and production management, farmed seafood offers an unparalleled level of transparency compared to wild-caught seafood, making consumer research much more accessible.
Are you still feeling meh about aquaculture? When you zoom out on the fish-farming landscape, aquaculture is the same practice as livestock management for cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. Don’t forget that modern ag practices have guaranteed incredibly safe, fresh, and affordable food on our tables for decades.
Rule #2: Where your seafood is raised or caught matters
Just like buying your beef, lamb, and chicken, it matters which regulatory food system is involved. But trying to find a nice, tidy little crib sheet of countries with the most stringent sustainability and safety guidelines is like seeking out the elusive Mid-Atlantic blue lobster.
Though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has done an incredible job defining various codes of conduct for sustainable fisheries all over the world and is highly regarded by many countries, I had a hard time finding any detailed data that I could play around with on their site.
My data source target then turned to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch project.
This resource is impressive – it offers highly specific recommendations for sustainable seafood and is very transparent. I used their search function to see the most consumed seafood in the U.S., like shrimp, salmon, albacore tuna, and tilapia. The regions most often cited as offering the “best choice” in terms of sustainability among these kinds of seafood are the U.S. & Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Japan.
But it’s important to note that more countries are following suit, like Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, and Palau. These countries will end harmful subsidies contributing to overfishing by 2025 as part of their sustainability initiative.
Rule #3: Labels can be an easy way to dress up a questionable product
I expect the producers of Seaspiracy and the Dirt to Dinner team to agree on this rule wholeheartedly: non-government-issued third-party verification package labels displaying a qualified, certified, or recommended product are generally garbage.
Unless you see a government department on the label from reputable countries with sustainable seafood practices and accompanied with some sort of grade or indication (think USDA “Choice” or “Prime” beef; USDA “Organic” products), focus on rules 1 and 2.
At best, labels allow non-government organizations (NGOs) to “certify” products to the degree they feel necessary. The organization then gets paid royalties by a food producer to apply the NGO’s label on their products. But at their worst, they can prey on our most basic survival instincts of fear and mistrust to manipulate us toward their often-obscured agenda. And I believe some organizations with these highly visible labels, like the Non-GMO Project and MSC, lie somewhere deep within that spectrum.
Rule #4: When in a rush, buy your seafood from highly reputable stores with not-too-cheap prices
First things first: I genuinely believe any decent grocer with U.S.-farmed seafood will have sustainably-produced fish that’s fresh and safe.
The trouble is, it’s not always easy to find. Our demand is low for U.S.-specific farmed fish, and it’s often a little more expensive than its potentially questionably-sourced counterpart, which really stinks because the U.S. is a global leader in sustainable and responsibly managed fisheries.
So I was disheartened to read the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s assessment that U.S. production only accounts for $1 billion in a $100-billion global aquaculture market. Hungry for more market data? Please check out their site – it’s surprisingly easy-to-read and fact-heavy.
But as far as retailers are concerned, it appears that Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Aldi, and Target are all great picks. These stores have seafood procurement departments that only purchase from sustainably caught or raised fisheries that are also responsibly managed.
There are some great home-delivery seafood options, too, like Crowd Cow. We really like the information they provide on where and how their fish are caught, and your selections arrive at your doorstep within a couple of days. Give online retailers like this a try by checking out how transparent they are with their sourcing and supply chain.
Rule #5: For wild-caught, dive deeper into your research…and wallet
Basically, nothing compares to wild-caught Alaskan seafood. Period. Producers feel incredibly responsible for maintaining their unique and pristine marine life, so everything is carefully managed to limit overfishing and bycatch. But this will affect your food budget, so prepare accordingly. And, again, if you stick with those aforementioned countries, you’re on the right path.
Another consideration is how the fish is caught, which you can better understand with the Seafood Watch site. It lists a bunch of reasons why it’s essential to be equally aware of seafood capture practices as country of origin. So try to stick with fish caught with handlines, pole-and-lines, midwater trawls, and trolling lines. And don’t buy seafloor captures, like trawls, seines, and dredges. Gillnets can be dangerous to local marine life, too.
Some quick dining and takeout rules
Need some time for research but craving shrimp pad thai tonight? Consider these tips:
- Do your research about the meat & seafood philosophy of the restaurant and its holding company before you leave the house. This may help reduce awkward staredowns with your waitperson.
- Feel free to ask questions that are important to you, like if they sell sustainable seafood, if it’s farmed or wild-caught, and which country it’s from. If the waitperson doesn’t know, ask them to check with the chef. If the chef doesn’t know, order the burger.
- Are you a sushi lover who’s curious about sustainable yellowfin tuna? Or only interested in fish locally caught in the South? Seafood Watch has a guide for you. Seriously, this site has almost everything you need to make informed decisions about what you eat.
How we can create demand for responsibly managed fisheries
Yes, government and academic sources are great for a particular industry. But if you’re eager to find a company you feel you can stand behind, ask your local fish market where they buy their seafood from. And then check out the producer’s site. The more information the site has, the better.
And if you really like a tilapia that’s caught in a country not listed here, that’s fine! Fisheries aren’t inherently “good” or “bad” based on overgeneralized criteria – those are for finding our way initially. As with most things ag-related, it depends on the producer and their practices, so more reason for research.
And, if you’re open to it and it’s available, please give U.S. aquaculture a shot. We need to drive demand for responsible seafood by standing behind products that do just that. It’ll help drive down food waste, transportation costs, carbon emissions, and unfair labor practices while supporting supply chain transparency, marine biodiversity, and future generations to fully reap the benefits of our waters.
The Bottom Line
Sustainability and responsibly-managed fishery policies and productivity should increase as we demand these products ourselves – we just have to be mindful of the effects of our purchase decisions. This gives us a chance to increase the long-term health of local economies, global production, aquatic life, and the environment.