Seaver casts sustainability net wide, calls for sea change in fish consumption

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Barton Seaver lectures on the seafood industry and its economic and ecological impact on the planet during his presentation Thursday in the Amphitheater.

Two billion people on this planet rely on the ocean for the majority of their protein consumption.

One in 10 people in the world is directly supported or employed by fisheries. Seafood is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the demand for it is expected to triple by the year 2025.

The sea sustains human life, but the future of marine ecosystems depends on the actions of human beings, according to chef and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver.

“The guiding hand of natural selection in our world is quite firmly holding a fork. And the way we eat largely describes how this world is used,” Seaver said to the Amphitheater audience Thursday, paraphrasing the poet Wendell Berry.

Seaver wrote the cookbooks For Cod and Country and Where There’s Smoke. He directs the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, and he is the New England Aquarium’s first Sustainability Fellow in Residence. His lecture was the fourth in this week’s lecture theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” presented in partnership with National Geographic.

Seaver is interested in rethinking sustainability when it comes to seafood, and he sees a number of problems in the way seafood is currently sourced. For example, the U.S. is the world’s third largest consumer of aquaculture products, but it imports 96 percent of what it eats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that people eat two servings of seafood per week, but the nation only produces enough seafood for 60 percent of its population to follow these guidelines. And yet there is plenty of seafood available here, Seaver pointed out, noting that more of the United States is underwater than above it.

“We’re not eating what we have,” he said. “We’re traveling the world over to get what we want, and in the process, we’ve been eating other people’s dinner.”

The issue, he said, is the demand for seafood high on the food chain. Most people don’t want to eat unfamiliar species, especially bottom feeders. Seaver turned this attitude upside down at his Washington, D.C., restaurant Hook, where he served 78 species of seafood over the course of a year, many of which were unfamiliar to customers.

He told his fish supplier that he would buy everything that he caught, eliminating any waste. On one occasion when the
fisherman did not catch anything, Seaver filleted 8,500 pounds of flying fish intended to be used as bait. He sold it for $24 a plate and it sold out by 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, nearly 40 million metric tons of bycatch — the term for species of seafood that are accidentally caught and discarded because they have less market value — are thrown out every year around the world.

“That’s a lot of mouths we could be feeding. That’s a lot of profit we could be reaping,” Seaver said.

That bycatch is no less edible, and in Seaver’s view, no less delicious, than the shrimp, tuna and salmon that dominate U.S. seafood consumption.

On average, Americans eat 15 pounds of seafood per year, including more than 4 pounds of shrimp, 2 1/2 pounds of canned tuna and nearly 2 pounds of

Seaver would like to see more bottom feeders on that list, noting that oysters are more than just sustainable to farm: they are restorative to the marine ecosystem.

Oysters, he said, filter nutrients from the water, and create habitats for fish. Farming oysters yields a net-positive result, not just a neutral one.

That proactive approach, Seaver said, is the future of environmentalism. Rather than telling a story of guilt in humanity’s failure to conserve the environment, the narrative should be one of optimism, creation and results.

“If, by our actions, we can make sick,” he said, “then through those very same actions — through the communion of dinner — we can heal and we can restore. If we are the problem, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day. Because that makes us the solution.”


Q: Could you talk about price? What the cost of [going to the grocer to get seafood] compared to, let’s say, going and getting a pound of ground beef?

A: There are sort of two ideas here: One is that seafood costs more because it is so perishable. So there are ways around that to get around the costs born of shrink. Just like we pay for shoplifting, we pay for all the food that goes bad. So eating frozen and canned seafood are some of the very best options that we have. Freezing technology used to go like this: I couldn’t sell my fish on Friday so I froze it on Saturday. Fish-freezing now goes like this: I caught it two hours ago and set it through the quick, 80-degree quick-chill freezer. It’s now frozen, perfectly pristine in a pre-rigored state, and now shipped all over the world at negligible carbon impact, and arrives fresh and in a pristine quality ready for me to take it out Tuesday morning to eat that night. Canned seafood, again. Talk about convenience seafood. Most of it comes in steel. 90 percent of steel is US made and recycled. It’s still a good quality product in a good convance. Plus, when you talk about access to seafood, the sustainability gets sort of mired in this social justice thing. I don’t know of many sustainable foods that I can’t point out to you that have been in almost every gas station that I’ve been in. But a can of pink salmon and a can of sardines? Almost always there. It’s pretty amazing. And the other way to combat price is to eat diversely. Something is going to be flush in the marketplace. Therefore it is going to be cheaper. But if you call up someone and ask for cod, then you’re going to have someone scurrying all over the planet for cod. If you call up and say, ‘Hey I want flaky white-flesh fish, what’s the best one you got today?’ Pollack, Haddock, Monk, Dog, Wolf, Ray – I can go on. There are like 10 others that come up in a net in New England. One of those is going to be cheaper, I promise you.

Q: If clams, mussels, oysters etc. are the toxin cleaners of the ocean, how can they be healthy to eat?

A: Clams, mussels and oysters are not actually toxin filters. They are actually filter feeders. There are areas in which toxicity can build up for certain. However, it is far easier to get illicit drugs on the street than it is getting clams, mussels and oysters in areas that are polluted. This is so highly regulated down to the point that they test by the hour concerning water quality. In the act of filtration, they are filtering out the zooplankton, phytoplankton that are in the water colony. These are in excess because of nutrient-rich runoff that’s coming because we are fertilizing our lawns. And excess nitrous, and excess phosphorus is coming from our cities and towns and flowing downstream. And what happens is this excess nutrients called algal blooms. They cause this ‘pop’ in the populations of phytoplankton. So there are more toxins for the phytoplankton to feed on. They’re not filtering out the toxicity but are filtering out the things that are born of the added inputs. And we need more oysters to fix this problem of runoff, as well as we need more runoff. But they are healthy for you. They are highly regulated. And I don’t know of many other fish that come to you alive. You want to know a quality of a product — is it closed? It’s good quality. Is it open? It is not. It’s a pretty easy lesson to teach. It’s pretty easy to see even through a case. You can look at a product and tell me the quality of it. By the way, there’s a card with it. By law it is legally mandated — when and where it was legally harvested and by whom. There’s a sustainability aspect to this inherent because the regulation of safety aspects are so strong.

Q: Isn’t the bycatch issue regulated? Aren’t fisherman not allowed to bring it into shore per laws and regulations?

A: There’s a difference in species that are bycatch. In this country, everything that is intended to be caught is regulated and managed. All [whitefish] have catch mandate laws written into them. What is different is the idea of discards. Discards is the idea that they throw them overboard because they won’t bring value. They actually are landed at lock at a loss to the fisherman. For fuel that it takes to ship them around. Ice. Labor. All of these things take up space in their hull. So, when we talk about bycatch, we are talking about utilizing existing opportunities that are already all managed in order to bring increased value to the fisherman. Every fish that I mentioned is equally valuable for the purpose of providing sustainability for our entire lives. And yet no fish is equally profitable to the fisherman. And that’s what the idea of these underutilized species are all about. It’s creating more value for existing managed product.

Q: You mentioned eating domestically-farmed seafood. How safe are foreign farms? Is there a hierarchy among countries? And how do we ascertain where the seafood came from?

A: That is a very difficult geopolitical question. Farm seafood carries with it some hideous burdens. Recently, there was an article and exposé in TheGuardian about the Thai shrimp trade. And that some even US retailers who are purveying this product against all international law. There are — as in industry — the best and worst in industry. We lack the ability to hold accountable the individual producer. And that’s a big problem in America, that we don’t know the source of our seafood. That’s another reason to eat domestically sourced. With about 90 percent of our seafood imported, less than four percent of that seafood is inspected by the FDA upon arrival. We don’t know what we’re eating. And this isn’t the FDA’s fault. They’re overburdened. There’s a huge amount of this product coming in. Seafood in America is the second largest contributor to our trade deficit. This is a huge opportunity that we have, when we look at domestic fisheries. Not just for safety and quality but for safety and ethics. That being said there are tools out there – the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies wild fisheries as being sustainable, but being more and more integrated into the aspect of social justice and worker treatment. The Agricultural Stewardship Council does the same thing for an emerging number of farm species. The best tool that you have is to find a retailer that you trust. And to tell them that you trust them, and to tell them what you expect of them. And to create the systems that will enable that product to get to you.

Q: How safe are freshwater fish in this country?

A: Again that is a very large question. What freshwater are we talking about? How big is that fish and how long has it been in that water is what I’m asking. It depends. If you’re near an industrial site or the Hudson River, where we’ve had a history of carcinogens, you might not want to eat this sturgeon, which spends its life all around on the bottom, mucking on the mud there. By and large, the carnivorous species, the long-lived species, they’re there longer. So they’re going to bioaccumulate a large amount of toxicity if there is any in that ecosystem.

Q: Could you talk about shoreline erosion and farmed fish?

A: Shoreline erosion is a major consequence. Almost all the shrimp we eat are coming from the Asian tropics. Countries — Malaysia, Philippines — all over. The problem is that where shrimped are farmed is where shrimp should be growing. The mangrove swamps which have been for centuries and millions of years the coastal protection and the buffer zone of these areas. When you remove the mangrove swamps in order to put shrimp farms, not only are you decreasing the amount of detritus, thus causing these harmful, toxic algal blooms, but also you are taking away the natural protections of an area. Now we’ve seen this manifest in horrible tragedies. Hurricane Katrina. And many of the storms that have been so devastating in our recent history have been so because of the natural protections that were so important to us have been eroded away or dredged out to create shipping channels. It’s not the full and total blame. But nature has protective barriers. I mean, New Orleans is still there as a land mass because there are protections there to block storm surges. The tsunami. I’ve seen estimates that have been widely accepted that say the death toll would have been exponentially less had those mangroves be in place. Those mangroves, acres upon acres, miles of land, act as a block and buffer to these tragic events. So it’s not just for the safety and the protection of our ecosystem but for the protection on the coast.

Q: How to we get Americans to stop being afraid of small fish like sardines so that the demand is high enough to bring diversity to seafood counters in grocery stores?

A: The easy answer is to come on over my house for dinner. Two generations ago sardines were the most popular seafood in America. Now they’re one of the most reviled.  If our taste preferences can change that dramatically in two generations, then why can’t we change them back? This is simply what we’ve been taught. This is simply the system in which we’ve been raised. I think it’s more so surrounding this community value system that we call family dinner. And the opportunities that we have to introduce children to quality products — quality not only in terms of health, but quality in the form of sustainability. It’s tough to change preferences, to change behaviors, but we’ve seen it happen. We can take things and make them popular, and we can take things and make them very unpopular. So there’s a giant cycle to this that we should be able to take advantage of.

Q: International marine fisher industries are beginning to focus on krill. What might be the future demand for krill, for what purposes, and what are the socio-ecological consequences?

A: Krill, a little bit larger than zooplankton, are a copepod that grows prolifically in the southern oceans. It forms the basis of the marine sea creatures there. They are little sea creatures that form in such abundance that it is estimated that it might actually represent at least 30 percent of the living biomass that we know of. Unfortunately, that these krill, which are the primary food source for almost all of the major fisheries in the southern ocean that are major food source for whales, penguins, dolphins, seabirds — you name it, this is the major target for food chains. These have now been targeted by humans because the anchovies have been thought to be too expensive. And these krill have been caught in untold numbers in order to do into little pills that we take for our Omega-3s, or our cardioprotective, or neurological developmental benefits. We’re turning them into moisturizers, we’re feeding them to pigs, chicken, and cattle all the same, salmon as well. So my response to this then is, why do we need this? Why do we need Omega-3 laced chickens? Why do we need fish pills for Omega-3s? I have a really awesome delivery mechanism for Omega-3s — you might have heard of it. It’s called a fish filet. But you’re getting fat, magnesium  and a whole lot of other ingredients that we don’t know how they even react with our body. So we are targeting these things for the reactions of Omega-3s, but we don’t really understand how Omega-3s interact with our physiological system. So my advice to you on krill is please avoid it. There’s really no reason why we should be going after it. We don’t need to use it to feed ourselves. It’s not being used for human consumption.

Q: Are there legitimate concerns about food coloring dyes, etc. to be added to diets of farmed fish?

A: The answer is no. The only seafood that I know that has any coloring added to it is farmed salmon and sometimes farmed trout. And that is to make it orange so that we recognize it as farmed salmon. Salmon have an enzyme in it that helps them break down a chemical called astaxanthin that is present in the shell of copepods, of squid, of some seafood species. This is what makes a salmon orange: the ability to absorb most of these carotenoids basically. When the farmed salmon industry was beginning to gain incredible market share in this country, there was a legal suit added that asked the government to file to mandate to require that this farmed fish be labeled as ‘color added.’ This case won in court, and now it has been labeled as ‘color added.’ My problem with this is that the ‘color added’ is extracted by the very same things that the salmon eat in the wild. It’s an extracted natural coloration. This is the same thing as dying something with beet juice.  It already happens. I mean, we’re not creating Red Lake 5712-9. We’re using a natural product that’s already part of the salmon’s natural diet. Is it a little wonky here? Are we sort of skipping some steps here? The chemical composition of that color is not an issue, especially in the better countries to farm salmon — Chile, Scotland, Canada — where things have really been done to a higher level.