I watched one of the most popular documentaries on Netflix right now, Seaspiracy, and what I saw made me never want to eat fish again. At least for a few days. It’s no secret that the purpose of Seaspiracy is to shock viewers into reducing their seafood consumption. The same film crew is behind Cowspiracy, a movie about the devastating environmental and ethical impact of industrial meat production. Even if you’ve never watched either of those films, you know that they are meant to make you feel bad about eating meat. But you should also know that there has been a massive backlash against the movie Seaspiracy from foodies, conservationists, and marine biologists alike. Why? Because the movie oversimplifies the complexity of fisheries management and even takes a racist and privileged stance to sustainable solutions by advocating for veganism.
In this post, I’m not going to write a movie review. Instead, I will illuminate the complexity of the seafood industry, including sustainable solutions. The three most significant problems in the seafood industry today are 1) IUU fishing (illegal, unregulated, and unreported), 2) human and labor rights abuses on board fishing vessels, and 3) the devastating externalities of industrial aquaculture.
Many ocean ecosystems today are near collapse from decades of rampant overfishing. According to the FAO, 94% of wild-caught fish stocks are either maximally sustainably fished or depleted. However, since wild fish are notoriously difficult to count and some regions of the world don’t even record their catches, there is no reliable data on over 60% of fish stocks. The worst blind spot is the 20-25% of fish that come from IUU fishing. These are fisheries that harvest fish with complete disregard for the health of fish stocks, using fishing methods that harm countless other species and destroy ocean habitats, and sometimes are associated with organized crime.
What happens at sea stays at sea, and the immense challenge of effective ocean monitoring creates a system in which people and fish are exploited. Fishing vessels in the high seas are documented sites of modern-day slavery, and horrendous human rights abuses, including the murder of fisheries observers tasked with monitoring and regulating the industry. The causal chain that has led to this is the increasing global demand for fish, the growth of industrial fishing fleets, the overexploitation of fish stocks, and the declining catch that drives fisheries to reduce costs and evade regulations.
The overfishing and human rights abuses entrenched in some fisheries around the world may lead you to ask, “is farmed fish any better?” Unfortunately, not yet. I was surprised to learn that of all the seafood consumed today, roughly 50% is wild-caught, and 50% is farmed. This massive growth of farmed fish has come at a cost. Aquaculture practices, both open water systems (using cages) and inland pond systems, are notorious polluters. Fish farm waste (fecal matter and unused fish food) leads to toxic algae blooms and dead zones in marine ecosystems. The high concentration of fish in these systems leads to disease outbreaks and fish welfare concerns. Even the most sustainable, closed-containment aquaculture farms still admit that fish feed is their biggest challenge. Counterintuitively, aquaculture eats up a considerable amount of land from crops like soybeans used for fish feed. Aquaculture also eats up wild fish. Currently, 14% of global wild-caught fish is used to produce fish feed.
Movies like Seaspiracy stop there and lead viewers to believe that’s the whole story. Fish stocks are depleted, fisheries are abusive employers, and fish farms are no better. But to end the story there is irresponsibly deceptive. Sustainable fisheries management is complex but not impossible, and overexploitation is not inevitable. As the political economist and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom once said, “we are neither trapped in inexorable tragedies nor free of moral responsibility.” There is no single solution for the sustainable management of common-pool resources. Instead, Ostrom encouraged us “to get to the point that we can understand complexity, and harness it, and not reject it.”
Fortunately, there are numerous examples of sustainably managed fisheries and fish species whose stocks have been protected or recovered following years of careful management. Participatory, inclusive, co-managed fisheries can lead to resilient coastal communities that provide sustainable livelihoods and food security in the face of environmental and socio-economic challenges. Furthermore, some types of ocean farming are even restorative, especially those that are multitrophic, meaning they strategically farm multiple different kinds of species. For example, mollusks, like oysters, can clean water when placed downstream from agricultural runoff or fish farms. Seaweed and kelp farms create habitats, increase biodiversity, and protect coasts from storm surges. Plus, these saltwater plants can sequester up to twenty times more carbon than forests!
To watch some exceptionally produced videos about fisheries management challenges and successful case studies, check out the Environmental Justice Foundation’s ocean campaign. To learn more, check out the recent podcast mini-series by Farm Gate on the current and future innovations in wild and farmed seafood.
As a consumer, one of the best ways to support sustainable seafood is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council MSC certification (for wild-caught fish) and the ASC certification (for farmed fish). Through third-party certification and consultations with scientists, the fishing industry, and conservation groups, these certification schemes assess if the fish you’re buying comes from a fishery that is well-managed and environmentally sustainable. One noticeable gap that these certifiers are working to improve is human rights monitoring and protection at sea and on fish farms.
Another helpful resource for North Americans is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list. For twenty years, this organization has assessed most of the seafood available in North America and rated the fisheries and farms of origin based on environmental sustainability standards. Their easy-to-use online tool allows you to search by species and then provides a three-tiered rating system of the best sources, good alternatives, and those to avoid.
When I buy seafood (right now, I live in Germany), I buy almost only these small, pelagic fish: anchovies, sardines, and mackerel. I choose them because they are lower on the food chain (so there are more of them), it’s easy to find MSC-certified options at my local grocery stores, and they are often sold in cans. Tinned fish is easy to prepare, no nutrition is lost in the canning process, it is much less perishable and therefore reduces food waste, and it’s delicious. Honestly, I don’t know how to cook raw fish, and I’m intimidated to learn, so I choose the ready-to-eat canned stuff!
Promoting veganism to consumers is not a sustainable solution for the seafood industry. We, consumers, can have our fish and eat them too, by taking the time to check that the seafood we buy comes from responsible fisheries. If there are no visible MSC or ASC labels, then ask your fishmonger (fish seller) where and how their fish was caught. They should know where their seafood comes from, and if they don’t, they’ll feel pressured to find out. These are just actions consumers can take, but alone they are insufficient. MSC and ASC are also voluntary programs and they don’t certify all types of seafood. In my next post, I’ll highlight policy measures governments must take to safeguard life below water.
Pasta con le Sarde
This recipe is an excellent option for a quick dinner or lunch when your fridge and pantry are empty, and you need food fast. The recipe, using sardines and anchovies, comes together in 10 minutes and makes two servings, but you can easily double it. Our friends served us something like this for dinner once, and this is my husband’s attempted recreation. I should note that we have stolen the name paste con le sarde from the Sicilians who make a sardine pasta dish that is nothing like this recipe!
Makes 2 servings
- 180-200 gr spaghetti (depending on how hungry you are)
- 2 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 anchovies, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 100 gr can of sardines in olive oil (see note)
- Olive oil
- Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the pasta and set a timer with the cooking time.
- Meanwhile, thinly slice the garlic and chop the anchovies. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan or frying pan. Sautee the garlic over medium-high heat until fragrant and starting to turn golden (don’t let them burn). Toss in the anchovies and tomato paste. Mix to heat them.
- Lower the heat and toss in the entire can of sardines with their oil. There may be some splattering, watch out for that. Crush the sardines with the back of a wooden spoon or spatula. The sauce doesn’t need to cook, just mix to heat the sardines.
- When the pasta is ready, reserve about a cup of pasta water in a mug and drain the pasta. Toss the pasta in the pan with the sauce and add pasta water until you reach your desired saucy consistency. Serve immediately.
- Make sure you’re using sardines in olive oil, not packed in water. The flavor is superior and the oil in the can is a key ingredient in the sauce.
- Optional: You can add red chili flakes or capers to the sauce if you like.