A focus on fish meal and subsidies can help the oceans

This is part 3 of a series on improving market-based seafood sustainability initiatives, inspired by a recent article published by an international team of researchers in "Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation." (See Oryx volume 44, pp. 45-56 doi:10.1017/S0030605309990470. Summaries available from Science Daily, AFP.) Part 1, "Why seafood wallet cards can be the wrong bait for consumers," looked at the shortcomings of consumer-based campaigns. Part 2, "Here's the catch: More sustainable seafood requires exerting pressure up the supply chain," examined the authors' suggestions about the supply chain. This final part will look at two few big-picture ideas: fish meal and subsidies.

Burgers and bacon help empty the oceans
Among humanity's many crimes against the ocean, the reduction of millions of tons of fresh fish into fish meal and fish oil receives insufficient attention. Over one-third of what fishing fleets catch – about 30 million metric tons annually – isn't directly eaten by people, but instead is reduced to fish meal and fish oil, then fed to farmed fish or livestock, used as fertilizer, or as nutritional supplements. The Oryx authors estimate that pigs and chickens worldwide consume six times as much seafood as U.S. consumers and two times the amount consumed by the Japanese.

The bulk of these "reduction fish" or "forage fish" are caught specifically for processing into fish meal and include anchovies, sardines, mackerels, and menhaden. These fish play an important part in aquatic ecosystems, feeding marine mammals and other fish (including ones that humans love to eat like salmon, tuna and sea bass) and maintaining water quality by consuming algae. (For more background on forage fish, see a review in Annual Review of Environment and Resources; the story of menhaden can found in an Ethicurean guest post by Alice Friedemann, a New York Times op ed by Paul Greenberg, and the Save the Bunker blog.)

L'Escala Anchovies by Carlos_Lorenzo on Flickr

L'Escala Anchovies by Carlos_Lorenzo on Flickr

Eat the whole thing
Here's an idea: Let's stop feeding so many fish to animals and start eating more of them ourselves. The authors present Peru as an example of how this can work. The Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) fishery has been active on a large scale since early 1950s and currently produces half of the world's fish meal. Five to ten million metric tons of the small, silvery fish are caught each year, with much of the catch processed and exported as meal. At the same time, half of Peru's population is poor and 25% of infants are malnourished. In 2006, Peruvian scientists, chefs and politicians began a campaign to improve the image of the anchoveta, help the public develop an appreciation for its flavor, create local markets, build local canning plants, and develop export markets for locally canned fish. Besides providing nutritional food to locals, selling the fish directly to humans offers economic benefits to the fishing industry: one ton of fillets sells for five times the price of a ton of fish meal, but requires only half the quantity of fish. By late 2007, demand for fresh anchovies in Peru was up by 46% and demand for canned was up by 85%. (London also seems to have a thing for anchovies, with a correspondent for the Bitten blog at the New York Times reporting that at least four of the six restaurants visited had anchovies on the menu.)

In the United States, we're seeing a bit of a resurgence of a fish that is usually a raw material for reduction plants: the sardine. During the short boom of the Monterey sardine fishery, the catch was heavily used as fertilizer and animal feed. These days, however, sardines are getting serious attention in the popular press as a tasty and nutritious fish, as explained in a recent post and digest item. At the same time, companies like the Cannery Row Sardine Co. and Wild Planet are trying to rebuild a local taste for canned sardines, while chefs are featuring fresh sardines on their menus. In January, the sardine got a boost when Sunset magazine and O magazine included the fish on lists of extra-healthy foods.

Prospective label designed by the author using an image from kristina-s on iStockPhoto

Prospective label designed by the author using an image from kristina-s on iStockPhoto

Although individual eaters can have some impact by buying their meat from farmers who will tell them what the animals ate, this is another place where real change will require collective action. For example, it could include organized campaigns focused on big meat buyers and sellers – fast-food empires like McDonald's and Burger King; institutional providers like Sodexho, Inc.; grocery stores; and other major meat sellers – demanding that they stop buying from producers that use wild-caught fish in the feed.

To help consumers find these products, Monterey Bay Aquarium or other organizations could create a new label – “wild fish free” or something similar – to go with the current collection of meat-related labels that assist conscientious consumers.

Farmers and gardeners can play a role here too. Farmers should look for alternatives to fertilizers made from whole fish, seeking instead products made from the fish trimmings generated by large processing plants (if they actually exist).  Gardeners, who buy far smaller quantities, might have a hard time finding "all trimmings" fertilizer, but there are indications that such a product could appear. During a recent visit to a gardening store, I spotted "vegan plant food" (it was Berkeley, after all), a fertilizer that is free of animal products like bone meal, blood meal, and fish. That's a sign of manufacturers responding to market demand. I'd like to see similar response from the makers of fish emulsion fertilizers. The fish offerings at that store were vague about what was in bottle and where it came from. It's a small factor in the big picture, to be sure, but giving gardeners and farmers the option of buying fish-fertilizer products that are made without whole wild-caught fish would be a positive change.

fishing trawlerReduce or change subsidies
The fishing industry receives $30-34 billion each year in subsidies from taxpayers around the world. Much of the money goes to building new ships, buying fuel, or other things that increase fishing capacity or effectiveness. Because of the attraction between political power and financial power, the subsidies often favor industrial fishing interests, which can then overrun small-scale local fishers. Taras Grescoe’s superb Bottomfeeder spends some time explaining how European governments provide subsidies that help huge factory ships pillage the waters off the western coast of Africa (with help, to be sure, from corrupt African governments), leaving little for the local fishers to catch. When locals pull up empty nets, they can be driven to hunt primates and other animals in the rain forest (i.e., "bush meat"), as an episode of Strange Days on Planet Earth explained.

For the most part, the Oryx authors write, fishing subsidies have been not been on the radar of most conservation organizations: they estimate that less than 4% of budget of conservation community has gone to fight fishing subsidies. That fraction needs to increase.

Another approach is to redesign government subsidies so that they serve the cause of sustainability instead of fishing companies in industrialized nations. ScienceDaily reported on an article in Science magazine (sub. req'd) by a team of twenty authors from a variety of disciplines — including economics, marine science and public policy. Their analysis found that the best way to improve sustainability of fisheries in the developing world is to provide foreign aid that builds the right kind of infrastructure (e.g., low-impact aquaculture) and restores ecosystems (like coastal mangrove forests).

Summing Up
The inspiration for these three posts — the Oryx article “Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts” — diagnosed what is hampering effective action and offered a long list of practical remedies. Because of the scope of the article, it took three posts to do it justice. In Part 1, I examined the authors' findings about seafood lists, noting that although lists have some inherent problems -- mislabeling and confusion being among the biggest -- they still serve an important role. In Part 2, I looked at the seafood supply chain and examined how big buyers and sellers can be a linchpin for positive change. In this final part, I concentrated on two fairly large-scale solutions, reducing the use of fish meal and changing subsidies for the fishing industry.

At times, it can seem that creating a sustainable seafood system could be as difficult as parting the ocean's waters. But there is room for individuals and groups to help make some of the solutions from the Oryx authors a reality:

  • Give: Donate funds or time to groups that are working to improve the health of the oceans through habitat protection/restoration, consumer education, or research.
  • Get social: Use your social networking tools — Twitter, Facebook, blogging — to spread the word about good and bad behavior from retailers and restaurants.
  • Learn: Teach yourself the basics of fishing. The Good Catch Manual, a guide for chefs, restaurateurs and caterers from the Seafood Choices Alliance (PDF) is an especially good primer.
  • Mind your own ordering: Despite the shortcomings of seafood lists detailed in the previous posts, it is still worthwhile to consult seafood lists and avoid red-listed species. After all, do you want to be directly responsible for the extinction of the bluefin tuna?
  • Patronize the pioneers: If you can, visit sustainable sushi places like Miya’s in New Haven, Conn., Tataki in San Francisco, Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Or., or Mashiko in Seattle — or any of the highly rated restaurants on fish2fork — and be sure to tell them that you came because of their sourcing.
  • Ask questions: Quiz your fish seller and restaurant server about the seafood they are selling. What exactly is it? It is wild or farmed? Where was it caught or farmed? If it was wild, how was it caught?
  • Contract for good: If you have purchasing authority for an institution or restaurant, be sure to be responsible with your seafood purchases. Food and Water Watch has a "smart seafood" guide of fish wholesalers that might be useful (PDF). And don't stop with seafood: start asking your meat and egg suppliers about their use of fish meal and fish oil, and explain why it is a troublesome practice.

To improve our ocean stewardship, it's going to take efforts from all sectors of society — including government, a topic not addressed in the Oryx article or my posts — and there is a role for each of us, even those who don't directly eat seafood.

Reference: Jennifer Jacquet, John Hocevar, Sherman Lai, Patricia Majluf, Nathan Pelletier, Tony Pitcher, Enric Sala, Rashid Sumaila and Daniel Pauly, “Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts.” Oryx, 44:45-56 (January 2010) doi:10.1017/S0030605309990470

Image credits: Jars of L'Escala Anchovies from Carlos_Lorenzo's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License. Prospective "Wild Fish Free" label designed by the author (who is not a graphic artist or marketing expert) using an illustration from kristina-s at iStockPhoto as background.

3 Responsesto “A focus on fish meal and subsidies can help the oceans”

  1. Emily says:

    Here's an idea: make fish meal out of Asian carp that are crowding out native species in the Midwest!

  2. Using invasives like Asian carp as a fish meal stock is a great idea, but might have some practicality issues because you'll need a reduction plant nearby. During the 1930s and 40s there were floating reduction plants off the Monterey Coast that processed sardines and anchovies at sea (so that California laws restricting fish reduction could be skirted), so perhaps someone could design a freshwater model for Midwestern waterways.

    There might be other problem creatures that could serve as fishmeal source, like jellyfish, which are becoming increasingly numerous (a story in the S.F. Chronicle explains why and what trouble they are causing). One expert I consulted said she hasn't ever heard of anyone formally proposing jellyfish as a feedstock (but had seen discussion of using Asian carp).

  3. Emily says:

    Turns out there is at least one fish processing plant in Illinois making fish oil and meal: http://www.heartlandprocessing.com/ They've developed a no-smell, low-water usage method for processing the fish that reduces the "NIMBY" problem.