October 30, 2013

We Need to Talk About the Fish You Eat

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

canned-sardines-norway-1896Move over, salmon. Make way for sardines.

That’s the gist of the message from two CLF researchers to consumers and the agencies that publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The next set of guidelines are due out in 2015 from USDA and HHS, and an essential part of their advice to Americans should be this: if you eat seafood, eat seafood that’s lower on the food chain.

The current guidelines (issued in 2010) recommended doubling our seafood intake. That may be fine for our individual health, but it’s not feasible or realistic—there simply aren’t enough fish in the sea.

In recent years, Americans and the rest of the world have developed a yen for big fish high on the food chain, such as salmon and tuna. And yes, eating seafood is a good way to increase our intake of marine omega-3 fatty acids (like DHA and EPA), which seem to be important for our personal health. But there are big problems with eating high on the food chain. The first is that we’re running out of big fish. The second is that we’re in danger of running out of small fish trying to feed big fish. The third is that big fish bioaccumulate contaminants more than smaller fish do, so, for example, the tuna you eat is more likely to serve you a dose of mercury than the pickled herring.

Last month, CLF researchers Jillian Fry and David Love submitted a public comment to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), encouraging the committee to make some new recommendations in the 2015 Guidelines, which the USDA refers to as the “cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and nutrition education.” In the comment, Fry and Love acknowledge individual health benefits from increased intake of the fatty acids found in seafood, but they emphasize the bigger picture, beyond personal health. The seafood we eat as a population has huge implications for the Earth’s ecosystems and for the food security of future generations. Agencies like USDA, they argue, should make their recommendations with the planet’s health in mind.

Wild fisheries are in big trouble.

Our hunger for big fish harvested from the wild (as opposed to raised on farms), does the oceans of the world no favors. Nearly 85 percent of all fisheries on the planet are either depleted, overexploited, or fully tapped out. If we continue with business as usual, we could completely overfish the oceans in 35 years.

In fact, our appetite for the sushi-popular Bluefin tuna, which always turns a pretty penny for those who catch it, has dire consequences. “Bluefin tuna could be extinct soon, due to extreme overfishing,” says Fry.

The sad state of our fisheries is driving commercial fishers farther and farther off-shore to make their catch. In their desperation to catch fish, they do more bottom trawling and dredging—destructive fishing methods that upset entire habitats and therefore threaten future food security.

Fish farms are borrowing trouble.

Unfortunately, aquaculture (or fish farming) is not necessarily the answer, either. A farm that raises large finfish, like salmon, depletes the ocean’s wild fisheries, too. Big fish high on the food chain need to eat—a lot. So standard operating procedure for salmon farms is to harvest vast amounts of fish lower on the food chain, turn it into fish meal and fish oil, and feed it to the salmon. And this is how the wild fisheries of smaller fish are being depleted.  (For a sobering read about farmed salmon, check out this blopost , The Big, Fat Salmon Industry.)

Disturbing small fish fisheries in this way could be even more catastrophic than messing with big fish fisheries. In essence, by overfishing the middle, we are breaking the chain. An additional peril with fish farms is that they tend to breed disease, in much the same way that overcrowded livestock facilities do. To manage disease on these factory farms, fish are treated with drugs, which make their way into the oceans, along with the waste and pollution from the farms.

On the other hand, not all fish farms do bad things. For example, shellfish raised on farms don’t require any feed and do a pretty good job of filtering the surrounding water—so an oyster farm might be providing ecosystem services for the oceans.

USDA should give us new advice: eat lower on the food chain.

In their comment, Fry and Love request that the USDA urge us all to change our eating habits and develop a preference for smaller fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring or responsibly farmed seafood. They go so far as to suggest that in years to come, as the larger fish populations continue to decline, it may be that these smaller fish are our only options. (While it may seem counterintuitive at first to recommend an increased consumption of fish in the middle of the food chain, stick with me for a moment.  Let’s say you have a ton of anchovies. That ton of anchovies might produce 2,000 servings of Bagna Calda, a Sicilian pasta dish. But that same ton of anchovies, converted into fish meal and fish oil, will feed nowhere near 2,000 meals’ worth of salmon. I’m estimating wildly and irresponsibly, of course, but the concept is scientifically sound.)

Fry and Love also ask the USDA to recommend that we eat fewer shrimp unless it is responsibly produced, because the business of farming and harvesting shrimp is harming ocean ecosystems around the world.

The last thing that the CLF researchers ask of the DGAC is to find ways to educate American consumers about the differences between farmed fish and wild-caught fish and the best options from both. Consumers, they say, should be able to easily find information about the farming and wild-fishing practices that could harm their own health or the health of the planet.

The Italians are on it.

Want to get in front of the trend? Here’s a recipe for Sardines Scapece (ska-PETCH-ay), a recipe for Bagna Calda (which contains both sardines and anchovies), and one for Sicilian-style sardines with pasta. I think we can trust the Italians on this.

Photo: National Library of Norway.

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