We have a problem in the global seafood community: a rampant “us vs. them” mentality.
Given seafood’s critical role in feeding the world’s rising population – which could reach 10 billion people by 2050 – we need to take a step back and address the common divides in our industry (and if you’re a retailer, a chef, a home cook, or an activist – you have as much of a role to play too).
To feed this many people, we will need to produce record quantities of food. No one resource will be enough to take care of all that we will need, and we must evolve past our “us vs. them” belief system.
Let’s engage in an open conversation about the frequent divides that we see and how we can overcome them.
Farmed vs. Wild
There are many reasons for this division. The reality is that bad aquaculture practices did not help. In the early days, fin-fish production caused many environmental issues. We could argue that bad fishing practices have also done the same. Aquacultures’s negative reputation was amplified by the fact that several NGOs lead targeted campaigns against aquaculture without showing what a positive path might look like.
However, the reality is that one-third of wild stocks are overfished and another 60% is fished at maximum sustainable levels. Catches need to be reduced today to allow wild fisheries to recover in order to maintain the 2010 fish-catch level – forty years later in 2050.
As wild catches decline, aquaculture production needs to more than double to meet a projected 58% increase that is needed for the food supply. This requires improving aquaculture productivity and addressing fish farms’ current environmental challenges, including conversion of wetlands, use of wild-caught fish in feeds, the high freshwater demand, and water pollution. Actions to take include selective breeding to improve growth rates of fish, improving feeds and disease control, adopting water recirculation and other pollution controls, and innovating in spatial planning to guide new farms and expansion of marine-based fish farms.
Ethical aquaculture done right will allow sustainable fisheries to continue their important work and the fishing heritage that is critical to so many communities.
Offshore Aquaculture vs. Land-Based Aquaculture
While many ocean conservationists may wish that we could simply leave the ocean alone, a sustainable blue economy can be realistically built. If we farm on the sea in waters the size of Lake Michigan, we can meet the demand of fish and seafood without hurting wild stocks.
Land-based aquaculture systems, like recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), will also play a huge role in reducing demand. These systems must have sustainable clean water sources, be powered by renewable energy, and breed species of fish that can be reared in these systems healthfully, producing delicious, nutritious fish.
Caught & Raised vs. Lab-Grown
At this point, the forward thinkers believe that lab-based meats will have a place at our dinner table. Investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into cultured-meat research in the past few years, bringing hype to an agricultural revolution that could bypass the environmental and animal-welfare issues of conventional meat production.
Although it seems like a viable way to solve the world’s food security issues and the environmental challenges of meat production, it still has a long way to go to become scaleable.
“Real” vs. Plant-Based
Plant-based foods such as the Impossible Burger showed us that we can produce a delicious substitute product that much of the population will accept. What’s often discussed are the nutritional values of these foods and whether or not we can feed everyone on a plant-based diet. I believe that the solution will be a combination of plant-based and “real” food-based, primarily on a “Seagan” diet. The carbon footprint for sustainably-raised or caught seafood is much lower than most other protein sources. There is no doubt that “real” fish and seafood will continue to have a significant spot at the table.
In a seafood dialogue, it is my opinion that we all need to sit together to understand that everything is a matter of TASTE. We want to create a table that includes everyone. In the future, this means that it will take every stakeholder rising to the challenge to meet demand. Lab-grown seafood and plant-based can ease the burden on our oceans and farms.
Just imagine a sushi board that includes delicious bites of ALL of these – from farmed to wild, from plant-based to lab-grown, from fresh to tinned. More importantly, we have to provide nutritious, healthy protein to ALL. Expensive and unique species will not go away, but we are obligated to create a landscape that includes fish and seafood in the fish against nutritional injustice. Reared, harvested, lab-grown and plant-based will all need to come together in order to do this.
Fresh vs. Frozen vs. Canned
When it comes to fish and seafood, the high level of waste is unacceptable. Whether it’s discarded trim or fish that has simply gone bad, we have to do better at consuming all of the food that we have.
In the United States, 30-40% of food is estimated to be wasted. If we were to freeze or creatively use more of our foods, we can lower waste significantly.
When foods are frozen or canned/tinned, the added benefit is that we lower the carbon footprint of these as they can be shipped via container rather than airfreight.
In order to combat the perspective that “frozen” or “canned” is subpar to “fresh,” we need to begin to develop a greater understanding for these items, explore all the ways to use them, and educate the public on components like sustainability, traceability, and ease of cooking – especially if everyone has a “Sea Pantry,” full of these items, ready to go.
Advanced freezing techniques also means that one cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen. Plus with the wide variety of conservas available now, we can all definitely find something for every taste.
How Do We Unify the Seafood World?
It all starts by being willing to sit at the table together – to share all of the facts and the concerns in a neutral room. Pure emotion has lead this narrative for far too long.
The question that needs to be asked is, “What do we define as our why?” If it is to create a sustainable food system, which we can all agree is necessary, how do we all play a role? Each of our roles must not target or endanger the other, but rather work in harmony to create a sustainable food system that delivers on our mission and our why.
Once we see that we all have the same overarching goal, there is usually a path to understanding a way in which we all can swim in the same waters.
What Would a “United Seafood World” Look Like?
A unified seafood world is one that has clear standards. We need to be able to easily identify what is sustainable and what is not. It must be a single track that has been collectively developed, agreed upon, and supported by the NGOs and agencies that determine these standards. Furthermore, we need it to fund education campaigns and provide information in clear, convenient ways for buyers, chefs, AND contributors (a much better word for “consumers” coined by ocean activist Alexandra Cousteau) can follow. For fishers, for farmers, and for so many, there is too much division.
If this can be lead by an overall governing body, funded in an agnostic way so that we can better support the entire industry globally, it could drive research projects, help fishers and farmers invest in better, more sustainable equipment, and much more.
What Role Must Fishers, Seafood Producers, Retailers, NGOs & Activists, Chefs, and Home Cooks Take to Create This United World?
All Seafood Producers:
We need to be developing a market that embraces change instead of pushing the same old agenda from the past. It is time that we look at the world in a unified way and build fish and seafood in the same manners that great brands have been built. The “Got Milk” campaign was a clever strategy that unified milk producers and changed the way the market looked at milk. The Avocado Board did the same thing, growing avocado consumption to 3 times what it was 10 years ago.
All of those involved in fish and seafood must allow experts in the branding and marketing space to help us do the same. If you look at the total amount of fish and seafood sold yearly, estimated at $401B, we can afford to take a small percentage of that to invest in education and unification.
We have to have everyone at the table in order to ensure that we are considering every input as we move forward. The experts in the NGO/activist space ensure that we are considering all sides of the issues. Someone has to be in the room advocating for the ocean and its ecosystems. For example, marine mammals need the resources of the seas and have a right to them as much as humans do.
The one caveat with all of the stakeholders is that we have to agree on why we are there. If someone, for example, doesn’t believe in the development of sustainable, ethical aquaculture as part of the solution, it won’t work. We need to be open-minded about the innovations within these various seafood markets and look to the scientific community for their research in these areas.
Retailers MUST be transparent about where their fish and seafood comes from. More sourcing information needs to be available, as well as a commitment to training staff.
Every single farmer should be called out in the fish case, and more investments should be made in the freezer case and tin and canned fish education.
Finally, build a program that includes all inputs of fish and seafood – ending the argument of what is technically defined as “fish.”
Chefs are having such a difficult time right now. The easiest starting point is to be transparent with sourcing. Actively engage with purveyors to clearly understand where the fish and seafood comes from.
AND then, add more fish and seafood to the menu. We need more real estate to make the truest impact for the environment, the industry, and the nutritional value for food-service patrons.
Cook MORE seafood. Do not be afraid of it. Ask questions. Buy from reputable places that you know are sourcing sustainably and look for certifications from organizations like BAP and ASC. Serve more to your family, and raise a generation of fish and seafood lovers.
It is at this level that the more impactful change can happen. Home cooks can move from consumers to contributors by supporting true, restorative ingredients in their everyday foods.