Ask the Ethicurean: Ethical, environmental and health issues regarding seafood

Chipotle Gloria requested by email: “Can you point me to any resources that will help me learn more about the ethical and environmental considerations surrounding fish as food?”

The approach depends on which of us you ask. The Butter Bitch loathes all foodstuffs that come from water, with the exception of seaweed. She dislikes the texture, taste, and smell of everything else that comes from the sea. “It’s all wrong,” she will say, meaning the consumption and not the production. Regarding production, she favors line-caught salmon from healthy runs, a true product of the Northwest – both the fish and the woman.

I sometimes listen with amusement as friends offer alternatives when she says, “I don’t eat seafood.” River fish are proposed, as are freshwater crustaceans, until the matter is clarified.

The Butter Bitch aside, the rest of us enjoy tucking into an aquatic meal.

King salmon image from the USGS via Wikipedia

At first, I thought we could get away with a reference to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which rates seafood based on the ethical and environmental issues involved in the capture or farming of specific species. A pointer to The Observer’s article on the future of fishing would provide additional background. Surely, that should be enough?

Like her namesake, Chipotle Gloria is hot on the topic and turns out to be familiar with Monterey Bay’s program. Information on fish-eating ethics is complex and occasionally, well, fishy – like the Soil Association of Britain’s endorsement of organic fisheries. That decision led to the resignation of one of their directors.

After a day of trawling the Web, I still haven’t decided what to keep and what to throw back among all of the information I’ve found. I feel storm-tossed as I read through the British report that fish stocks will be depleted by mid-century, the ongoing debate about the environmental impact of organic fish farms, and Marine Conservation Society (MCS) certification – which rewards sustainable fishing but ignores the issue of food miles.

MCS-certified fish are sourced from Alaska, Antarctica, the South Pacific and elsewhere, and shipped to various locations by sea and by air freight. What percentage of the fish travel by sea versus by air? The MCS doesn’t know.

Those are just a few of the spiny issues.

Health-wise, it is true that fish are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, and that eating fish is one way to obtain certain health benefits. There are other sources for Omega-3s, including grass-fed meat and poultry and flax seeds. What does one do with flax seed? Cook it in oatmeal or mix it in smoothies. We have a pound bag of the stuff that we are working through.

The increasing promotion of the health benefits of fish reminds me of the efforts to advertise the health benefits of milk. The campaign has the interests of the industry in mind as much as – or more than – the interests of the consumer. I can’t imagine following the government recommendation to drink 3 cups of milk per day, even if I weren’t a lactard. Unlike with cows, there is a real danger that fish will disappear, taking their Omega-3 benefits with them.

Which fish to eat? Should we join the Butter Bitch and stop eating fish entirely? The answer is twofold. First, educate yourself by reading the information provided in the links below. Of the links, the UK’s Marine Conservation Society provides an easy interface and a wealth of information, but don’t skip Siegle’s article or the ICTSD paper. Second, consider whether there are enough fish in the sea, and whether the food-miles involved outweigh the benefits of MCS certified production.

The issue seems as unsettled as a heavy meal, swimming uneasily in my stomach. I am certain that we will revisit this issue for as long as there are fish in the sea. Which may not be long.

Resources and readings:
- Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates the sustainability of various fish
- The UK’s Marine Conservation Society project FishOnline also rates seafood, with a focus on UK and European species
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations includes a section on Fisheries
- The International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the High Seas Task Force have published a paper by University of Rhode Island researchers Cathy Roheim and Jon G. Sutinen entitled “Trade and Marketplace Measures to Promote Sustainable Fishing Practices.” The paper examines the practices of a handful of major retailers including Whole Foods and the UK’s Sainsbury.
- provides news alerts regarding fishing and the fishing industry, covering a lot of territory. A publication of Scotland’s The Oban Times, the site appears to have heavy ties to the fishing industry, but it covers global fishing news and include information about organic fish farming and sustainability.
- Greenpeace’s Save Our Seas campaign reports on recent developments related to the health of the oceans and chronicles their global expedition to protect the oceanic environment.
- Australia’s Marine Conservation Society, which focuses on Australia’s coasts and seas.
- The journal Science published a paper that points to a collapse in global fish stocks by the middle of this decade, unless reversed. The article requires a login to Science, but check your local library for a copy or for online access to articles.
- Lucy Siegle’s fine article on current fishing practices and overfishing. Despite the teaser at the top of the article, it is scientists, not just activists, who say that global fish stocks will collapse in less than 50 years.

3 Responsesto “Ask the Ethicurean: Ethical, environmental and health issues regarding seafood”

  1. Chipotle Gloria says:

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my question and provide so many great resources. I truly appreciate your efforts. Seems I have some reading to do.

  2. Marc says:

    An item that SF Bay Area residents (and others, probably) should consider reading is Save the Bay’s “Keep It Clean” page. They write: “Pollution from our own homes, cars and neighborhoods is one of the greatest threats to the Bay. When motor oil, pet waste, trash and other pollutants are not properly disposed of, they are washed by the rain into storm drains and flow directly into the Bay. Pharmaceuticals and mercury put down the drain also lead to Bay pollution.” What we do on land can affect the fish in the streams, rivers, bays and oceans. Check it out here:

    Other regions (Puget Sound, Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay) probably have similar educational sites.

  3. bibliochef says:

    See also my entry on fishing (which is actually a book review but has some good links) at Cookng with Ideas —