Searching for Sustainable Seafood

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In his in-depth interview on Fresh Air earlier this month, seafood expert Paul Greenberg explained how and why 91% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported while one-third of seafood caught in the U.S. gets exported.

Whoa. You read that correctly. Promoting his new book, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Greenberg discusses how the American palette's discomfort for ‘taste’ drives seafood overseas; how local fishery economies are on the decline; how slave labor is used to harvest the majority of shrimp that gets shipped to the U.S.; and a whole lot more. Suddenly that shrimp cocktail just got a lot more complicated.  

Last week, Greenberg shared even more supporting evidence with us in his Civil Eats article, explaining 10 important things for us to know about the U.S. seafood supply.

  1. Some Alaska salmon make a trip to China...and back again!

  2. A portion of the bay scallops we import from China originally came from Martha’s Vineyard as the genetic basis for China’s emerging scallop fisheries.

  3. The sixth most popular seafood in America is a fish that can breathe air and that you’ve probably never heard of.

  4. Thailand, the largest producer of shrimp for export to the United States, has some serious shrimp-disease and slave-labor problems.

  5. The crab in crab cake isn’t necessarily from Maryland.

  6. Asian carp, perhaps our worst invasive species, was introduced to America by American catfish farmers and wastewater treatment plants.

  7. Most mussels are imported.

  8. A large portion of the wild seafood we import comes to us illegally...as much as 30 percent.

  9. Most tuna consumed in the U.S. are imported and often caught with the aid of a controversial technique called “Floating Aggregating Devices.”

  10. The U.S. exports as much wild salmon as it imports.

Whoa again!

Greenberg’s research may be enough to make you swear off of seafood for life, but for those of us who enjoy our seafaring protein sources, there are some hopeful options. For instance, this week on Grist, Amelia Urry gives an excellent assessment of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the largest third party labeling group for sustainable seafood whose mission is  “to use our ecolabel and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans. . .” (read the full version here). Though they are not perfect, Urry explains:

These third-party groups may offer the best hope for ocean-loving fish eaters like myself, so it’s worth paying attention to how they operate. And while these certification programs are very much a work in progress, they’re getting better.”

And, if you are looking for a place to get MSC certified seafood, there was a great write up this week in Food Tank on how Whole Foods and MSC have worked together over the past 15 years to cultivate a grocery chain that is cognizant of sustainable seas.  

It’s clear that we are going to have to do some serious research and work if we want to make seafood a sustainable and ethical protein source for everyone. For now at least, there are a few options pointing us in the right direction.

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