On a recent weeklong cruise along the shores of southeast Alaska, the dining room menu included wild salmon, Dungeness crab and sablefish. Many of my fellow 63 passengers had neither heard of nor tasted sable.
No wonder: Almost all of this delectable, nutritious fish caught by Americans is exported, along with about one-third of all our wild catch. Instead, we dine on farmed seafood imported from countries like China, Thailand and Chile; 86 percent of the seafood we consume is imported.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of shrimp among Americans, none was served on the trip. A naturalist who lectured on board cautioned that almost all the shrimp reaching American tables is imported, half of it farmed in Asia – mostly under conditions that would ruin even the most voracious appetite.
Shrimp farms in Asia have been swept by bacterial and viral infections. When a site becomes unusable, shrimp farmers simply move on, destroying more miles of mangrove along the shore and wrecking habitats for all manner of wildlife, including spawning fish.
There is nothing inherently wrong with farmed seafood, said Paul Greenberg, the author of two excellent books on seafood, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” and, just published, “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.” Greenberg describes several efforts to produce and market farmed seafood in an environmentally sound manner.
Governments like ours would be wise to divert some of the subsidies that sustain animal husbandry on land to the underwriting of sound fish-farming practices. Fish and shellfish are by far the most nutritious sources of animal protein, and we should be eating much more of them.
Even now, however, it is not possible to satisfy the world’s appetite with the wild catch from oceans, rivers and lakes. That amounts about 170 billion pounds of fish a year, Greenberg said in an interview. If everyone were to eat at least two servings of fish a week, including one oily fish like salmon, as nutritional guidelines suggest, 60 billion more pounds would be needed to meet the demand.
So the farming of fish and shellfish is here to stay. But if we must farm, it must be done responsibly, with an emphasis on safety and future viability.
And those who shop for and dine on fish, whether wild or farmed, must do so knowledgeably if future generations are to have the same options.
I’ve repeatedly been admonished to avoid farmed salmon, for instance, a relative bargain that sells in most markets for $9 or $10 a pound. Yet wild salmon costs at least 50 percent more because the supply has been devastated – mainly by the thousands of dams on American rivers that prevent the fish from spawning.
“If we are going to continue to eat wild salmon, we must eat them sparingly as the rarest of delicacies, and their price should reflect their rarity in the world,” Greenberg wrote.
But how many families of modest means can afford to do so? And is farmed salmon really so bad?
Some critics have worried that farmed varieties might contaminate the gene pool of wild salmon. But as Greenberg noted, almost all the farmed salmon we’re now eating comes from Chile, where there are no wild salmon. There is little chance that those farmed fish will cross the equator and mingle genetically with our wild stock.
Along with salmon, the most popular fish on American plates are sea bass, cod and tuna. Shrimp is by far the most popular shellfish. But many other species have all but disappeared from seafood counters and restaurant menus.
Where is the orange roughy that was all the rage a decade ago? When was abalone last on a regular seafood menu?
Consumers must begin to consider alternatives. Oily substitutes for salmon, for instance, include mackerel, bluefish, herring, sardines and anchovies – most of the latter are used to make fish meal for farmed salmon.
Stocks of cod have declined so much from overfishing that many Northeastern fisheries were forced to shut down before the entire species disappeared. Those seeking a flaky, “nonfishy” wild alternative might select Alaskan pollock, popular in fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches and California rolls.
In the best of all worlds, mussels, nearly always sold from hygienically farmed stock, would replace shrimp as the leading shellfish. Like other bivalves, mussels are filter feeders that cleanse the water they live in, stocking up on valuable omega-3 fatty acids from algae in the process.
Mussels are also low in calories, and much lower in cholesterol than shrimp and squid.
Two useful bits of advice for consumers:
• At fish counters, look for the eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council, which represents the international gold standard for sustainable fishing practices.
• When shopping or eating out, consult the color-coded guide produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, selecting mostly fish on the green list and avoiding those red-listed.
Greenberg argues that the harvest of wild fish must be better controlled if we are to maintain sustainable populations. We need an “ocean policy that looks at wild and domesticated fish as two components of a common future,” he wrote in “Four Fish.”
He pleads for a standard that will boost fish supplies in as sustainable a manner as possible.
“Humans should purposefully select a handful of fish species that stand up to industrial-size husbandry,” he wrote, “with the goal of compensating for the huge gap between wild supply and growing human demand.”