Fishy Business – the environmental cost of seafood

Seafood is an integral part of many cultures. Foods like salmon, crab and shrimp are the backbone of many meals that we eat, and for good reason. Producing it is less carbon-intensive than land-based meats, which is good. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it tastes good. The production of seafood, however, is not all well and good – there are drawbacks to the commercial fishing tactics utilized to get seafood from the ocean to our plates.

First of all, the largest problem with seafood is the inherent one – a lack of fish. The oceans are big, but they aren’t that big. The introduction of technologies like deep-water nets and radar allow fishermen to scrape ever more from the sea, but you can only catch so many fish before there will be irreparable ecological damage to the oceans. 

The amount of fish that can be safely extracted before ecosystem failure is known to most governments/fishing agencies. Unfortunately, over a third of the world’s fishery stocks have been overfished (i.e. damaged) anyways, with some fish populations being so depleted entire ecosystems have been irreparably damaged. 

Worse yet, certain fish aquacultures, or fish farms, also contribute to this problem in a significant manner. Salmon, a fish prized for both its taste and its health benefits, are carnivorous. This poses a problem for one big reason: it is standard practice to feed farmed salmon fish meal harvested from wild-caught fish. As a result, in the wild, more and more fish are being harvested in order to feed farmed salmon. 

This means that more and more fish are being caught not to feed people directly, but to feed salmon. Energy is lost from this transfer of nutrients, as not all of the feed-fish nutrients make it into the salmon. This means that we end up wasting a lot of energy feeding salmon when we could eat the feed-fish ourselves.

As such, you can see the problems inherent in the large scale fishing and aquaculture industries upon which we rely on for our seafood. Short of 3D printing fish fillets or inventing new aquaculture methods, there is not much you as an individual can do to help solve this problem. 

What we can do, however, is check to make sure the fish we are buying is caught without damage to the ecosystem). For example, Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch is a great way to check. All it takes is a couple seconds to go online and make sure that your fish is sustainably sourced. While it may not seem like much to just check online for things like this, it can have a tremendous effect on fish populations. So, the next time you might be out grocery shopping with your family, take the time to ensure your fish is sustainably sourced. All it takes is a small check to make a big difference.