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The Green Life: Sustainable Meat: 6 Secrets for Seafood Lovers

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November 06, 2012

Sustainable Meat: 6 Secrets for Seafood Lovers

Seafood FishThis week on the Green Life, we're offering hints for finding sustainable meat.

 6 Secrets for Seafood Lovers

Most of the food we eat is farmed, but the ocean is still a huge source of nutrition for billions of people. Overfishing puts immense pressure on ecosystems, especially since the biggest fish tend to get caught first. Aquaculture isn't always the answer either, as fish farms suffer from many of the same pollution problems as land-based farms.

So what is a piscivore to do? The Marine Stewardship Council certifies specific, place-based fisheries as sustainable, and maintains a list of certified products. In addition, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch offers printable pocket guides to sustainable seafood. Sounds good, right? But in practice, many species of fish are sold under the same name ("snapper" could be just about anything), one fish species is sold under many names (toothfish or sea bass are the same), and in many cases, the individual species of fish matters less than where or how it is caught. The facts are hard to unearth when all you know about the fish you're buying is that it comes in a "stick."

To help you navigate the waters of the sustainable seafood trade, here are six rules to follow:

1.) Freshwater Farms

Fish farms in coastal ocean pens can spread disease to wild fish, and release tons of pollution into surrounding water, in the form of dung, antibiotics, and leftover food. This can cause harmful algal blooms in the local environment. But freshwater species can be farmed in inland ponds, where the pollution can be cleaned up and the farmed fish won't come into contact with wild ones. Freshwater farmed fish include farmed rainbow trout, tilapia, catfish, and arctic char.

2.) All-American Seafood

Generally speaking, fisheries and fish farms in the U.S.A. are better regulated than those in South America or Asia. If there's a choice, go for the in-country barramundi, lobster, shrimp, and catfish.

3.) Don't Eat Predators

Does fillet of Lion sound good to you? Top predator fish live a long time and breed slowly, so they can't take much fishing pressure before their populations collapse, causing perturbations all the way down the food web. And when they're farmed, people need to catch tons of smaller fish just to feed them! Not to mention that these are the fish that accumulate mercury in their bodies. Yuck! So stay away from sharks, bluefin tuna, groupers, and marlin.

4.) Swell Shells

When it comes to bivalves (shellfish with two shells, like mussels, oysters, clams and scallops), look for ones that are farmed, not caught in the wild. Most (though not all) wild bivalves are caught in the wild with huge dredges that tear up the sea floor. But farmed bivalves eat plankton, so they don't even need to be fed! These are a great sustainable choice.

5.) Traps, not Trawls

Bottom-dwelling species are sometimes caught with trawls and dredges, which capture everything and can damage coral beds. Try for trap-caught instead. Trap-caught species are hauled up alive, so the fishermen can throw them back if they're not what they're fishing for.

6.) Troll lines, not Longlines

'Trolling' is a scaled-up version of what recreational fishermen do: put in a bunch of lines and haul them up when you get a bite. This way, if the fish isn't one that the fisherman wants, they can go back with little harm. Longlines, on the other hand, roll out for miles and catch everything that bites, including birds and endangered species. Guess which method is more sustainable?

 --image courtesy iStockphoto/gregsi

--Rachael Monosson is an editorial intern for Sierra and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems. She lives in San Mateo.

Read More:

Sustainable Seafood Quiz

Mislabeled Seafood

Sustainable Sardines

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