Thursday, February 28, 2013

Eat more seafood!

I wanted to start this entry by suggesting that the Chick-Fil-A cows have it wrong (see picture), but I’ll take my own lesson in ethodiversity and respect that the cows have different values than I do. You surely also have a unique set of values. If you care about the environment, seafood may be a great choice for conscientious eating.

Though seafood can also offer health and cultural benefits, I will focus on the environmental aspects today. I will also limit my discussion to fish and shellfish caught wild from the ocean. The situation is more complicated for farmed seafood because, for most species (bivalves excepted), there are concerns about their food source and waste, and about damage to natural habitats from the construction of their enclosures. With these caveats out of the way, here are two major arguments for eating wild-caught seafood.

First, seafood promotes the conservation of wild ecosystems. I love this about seafood; it’s one of my biggest inspirations for the work that I do. Who would rather eat some penned in, domesticated animal that was raised on a farm, from land that is unrecognizable compared to its original natural form, instead of a fish that swam wild in a natural ecosystem until its quick and relatively merciful death? Many people tend to worry about choosing seafood because of the negative effects that fishing may have on ecosystems, yet the alternatives usually come from a manufactured ecosystem designed to produce food, not sustain nature. This attitude did not win me friends when I worked for a major conservation organization but it’s true—if you choose a steak rather than a seafood option that gets mixes environmental reviews, you are probably doing more harm as a result.

Second, typical seafood requires fewer inputs in its production and therefore has a smaller environmental footprint than other sources of animal protein. These inputs include fertilizer, farm equipment/fishing boats, and infrastructure and fuel for equipment/vessels, processing, and distribution. Farms can also be a major source of air and water pollution. Focusing on fuel use, the most efficient fisheries target aggregations and operate on a large scale. Alaskan pollock serves as an example and can be found at McDonald’s and in a wide variety of other breaded, rectangular-shaped fish products (see picture). The least efficient are fisheries that drag heavy gear across the bottom of the ocean and thus use substantial quantities of fuel.

There are downsides to seafood. Its origin in the wild lends itself to higher prices than many alternative food sources. However, the discerning shopper can find bargains, whether they be local fish when it’s abundant and on sale or less valuable choice such as sardines, canned pink salmon, or even Alaskan pollock. When it comes to inputs, not all seafood is exemplary. If fuel consumption is a concern, you are better off avoiding choices like scallops and shrimp that are fuel-intensive. However, eating locally-caught seafood can mitigate these concerns. When seafood is flown to far-off markets, the amount of fuel involved skyrockets.

For these reasons, I will usually feel better about eating wild seafood than alternatives, animal or vegetable, produced on a farm. The degree of good feeling, though, and my ability to sustain this pleasure and pass it onto my kids, depends upon effective management—what I have referred to previously as sustainability. Given that the average consumer has limited time to educate themselves about the nuances, what can be done? Here are a few options:

1. Get educated. Use sites such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Fish Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to learn details about various seafood options. My recommendation would be to focus particularly on the management system, which is not regularly highlighted. Ask, though, and you can help to catalyze a cultural change. This alternative does take some work but is not insurmountable. Once you’ve acquired a base of knowledge it’s less effort to maintain it, and you can pass it onto your community of friends. Realistically, though, few people will have time or dedication for this option. As an alternative…

2. Find a trusted source of advice. Please be thoughtful, though. Few sources of recommendations are transparent about the values they use to determine their list of environmentally friendly seafood and many want you to eat seafood that matches their values. Stick with a source that does break down their criteria and whose values match your own. If you want advice, you are welcome to post a comment on this blog and I will tell you what I can. Even this option will be too much for many. For most of you, this alternative may be the best fit…

3. Support watch dogs like us who work to ensure effective fisheries policies, and a strong government program of research, management, and education. You can write your congressional representatives and encourage them to generously support NOAA or your country’s fisheries agency. Or, you can invest in organizations like Bridge Environment by donating, or even by simply liking or sharing this blog.

Next week, we will switch gears temporarily and talk about pollution. Today, I visited an elementary school my son may attend next year and saw a collection of kids’ science posters about the effects of pollution on Puget Sound. All seemed to echo the message “pollution is bad.” Can you guess my response? Tune in next week to find out.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.


  1. To eat healthy and stay active is essential for a hearty lifestyle. Riding your bike 30min per day is good for you and helps prevent pollution.

  2. Thanks, Brad. To encourage further comments I will leave yours. In the future, though, I will not be so tolerant of promotion of products. I will, however, support posts that share ideas via sources such as academic papers, news items, or other blogs.

  3. I agree, eat more seafood! -Mark Powell

  4. Mark, it's good to see you are still active in fisheries. Thanks for the comment!