Friday, December 10, 2010

What seafood can I eat?

As someone who works at an ocean conservation-related organization, I am always wondering what seafood can I eat? I read a recent blog post related to this problem with interest. The author of the post was bothered that seafood experts don't want to eat seafood. I can understand his point. Bison populations in the United States are growing mostly because people want to eat them again. And it's true that it's probably an easier task to tell people which seafood to eat than to tell them not to eat any. However, I can sympathize with the people happy not to see fish on the menu. I still recall attending a reception a couple of years ago, with an empty stomach, only to find that they were serving mostly seafood that, as a conservationist, I didn't feel right about eating. I would have been happier had there been no fish. Of course, meat and dairy have their own problems, but there are fewer variables - for example, a fish population could be currently healthy, but fished in a destructive way. At least I know the basics of farming and what it's doing to the environment - it's more difficult to learn that for seafood. The debate over the right approach, whether the environmental movement creates too much guilt, is one I can't resolve. But a couple of recent stories bring home just how complicated it is for even the highly motivated to figure out which fish they should seek out.

First up is Food and Water Watch's report on seafood eco-labels. As the report points out, the desire to raise awareness and promote sustainable seafood is admirable, but the proof is in the pudding, and eco-labels have plenty of room for improvement. MSC comes under reasonable criticism. The best advice is still to check out Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium - they can give you the best information, and by text to help you figure out those tough restaurant/grocery store decisions. Eco-labels may look authoritative, and certainly are accurate some of the time, but seafood sustainability is hotly contested enough that you'll probably never be able to turn off your critical thinking skills when examining various claims.

Next is this great story about one retailer's quest to continually improve its sustainability. Wegmans is a pretty famous grocery store, with many dedicated fans - and it also has a forward-thinking seafood management team. Wegmans has made some tough decisions over the years, and their commitment to sustainability is admirable. In particular, their decision not to sell any fish from the pristine Ross Sea demonstrates that they are concerned about the overall health of the ocean, not just about the long-term viability of their seafood department.

For my part, I try to learn as much as I can, and make as many smart seafood and food decisions as I can. One decision everyone can make is to support companies that, like Wegmans, have a thoughtful approach to seafood. If you find a restaurant or store that has a good overall philosophy, you might be able to save yourself some research. A great example is the San Francisco sushi restaurant Tataki. The menu was created with the help of Greenpeace campaigner Casson Trenor. The seafood's fantastic, and you can rest assured that everything on the menu is a good choice. Let's face it, the average person will never be able to keep up with all the information needed to select environmentally friendly seafood, but if we support the businesses that put the effort into doing the work for us, we can help make sustainability automatic.

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