I decided to stop eating seafood about 2 years ago, after attending a talk by The Black Fish early in Michaelmas term in my first year. Since then, I’ve eaten some fish occasionally: salmon in the couple of weeks after the talk, when I still hadn’t resolutely converted/told people, canned tuna in Ecuador, when I hadn’t reminded the cook at the station I was volunteering that I don’t take seafood, pacu in Peru cos it’s locally reared in fishponds and cod in Iceland cos it was freshly caught with pole-and-line during the whale-watching tour I was on. The decision to stop eating seafood was rather painful for me, for though I’m not a big fan of shellfish, my Teochew heritage features a lot of fish at meals. And I really like salmon and cod.
Since then, I have been asked occasionally (especially when there’s seafood on the menu), why I don’t eat seafood (I’m not a complete vegetarian, but I do try to reduce my meat consumption), and seeing a recent article, I thought perhaps it’ll be nice to do a blogpost on it.
1. Unsustainable fishing (overfishing)
Incredibly enough, we are running out of fish in the oceans. A couple of decades ago, few people would believe it – everyone seems to think that the ocean is a bottomless pit from which we can withdraw endless resources. But fact is, we have been commercially extracting so much fish especially in recent years, with new technology, that there is seriously a fish shortage. UN FAO’s 2012 report on the State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture states that about 80% of our fish catch come from fully exploited or depleted stocks. While not all fish we eat are being overfished, the populations that are most at risk of being depleted/overexploited are the ones that are popularly eaten. They also tend to be carnivorous, slow-maturing fish that can live up to 80, 100 years – if they manage to escape all our traps. 90% of large, predatory fish stocks have been wiped out, but what’s the worse that could happen if they disappear anyway? Well, they aren’t on earth solely to be on our plates, they have crucial roles in the ecosystem as well, especially as top predators, and when whole populations get wiped out, we will see catastrophic consequences rippling through the ecosystem.
2. Unethical methods
In recent years, fishing techniques have improved drastically. Seafood used to be pretty expensive, only for the elite, but it had gotten more affordable (though yes, that lobster salad you just had still cost you a bomb). Why? Because fishing fleets have been able to catch way more, and prices dropped. Terrible fishing techniques include: Bottom trawling (where they scour the seabed and completely wipe out everything that was on it), long-lining (where they put out 100kms of baited hooks to catch tuna, as well as sharks and seabirds), and gill netting (where they drag a net 100ms long through the ocean. Inappropriate mesh size and abandoned gill nets cause lots of accidental death).
The problem with many of these techniques is that they catch lots, and indiscriminately. Not everything that was caught is wanted/fetches a high price. In the end, lots of small fish, yet to reach maturation, end up as fishmeal (livestock food), and the by-catch, unwanted dolphins, albatrosses and turtles, gets thrown back into the deep, dead.
3. Distrust labelling
To totally stop eating seafood is of course, a lot to demand of someone, so there are labels to tell people what has been certified as sustainable and so is safe to consume. The labelling is done by the Marine Stewardship Council, but WWF, the Marine Conservation Society, and lots of other organisations have put out sustainable seafood guides. But I am skeptical. I don’t trust the labelling (cos of this and this article), and there are so many middleman involved from the time the fish is caught till it ends up on my plate, that I really can’t be sure of where the fish came from, how it was caught, and in some cases, what it is. And that uncertainty is enough to make me blanket ban eating fish.
Some of my friends ask how does it matter that I choose not to eat seafood – one person’s consumption isn’t going to save all the fish in the world. True, the few fishes that I don’t eat is still going to end up on someone else’s plate anyway. But collective actions end up, and I believe that if by my words and actions, someone else is convinced of this cause and also gives up seafood, the ripple effect comes into play and there will be a difference. Even if it’s just one person that I manage to convince, to me, that is worth giving up all the seafood in the world. It’s a lot of awareness creation, and anyone has sat next to me at mealtimes know that I can and will go on at length about it at the dinner table while everyone else enjoys their baked salmon. I won’t actively force anyone to share my beliefs, but I hope that passively I can convince them. Even if it’s just to reduce seafood consumption/to check that the seafood they eat has been sustainably sourced.
So those are the reasons why I stopped eating seafood. There is also the option of farmed fish (aquaculture) of course, and aquaculture has been on the rise in recent years (as wild catch decreased). However farmed fish isn’t much better, especially when the fish being reared are carnivorous, like salmon. You end up feeding 10 small fish from the wild to the 1 farmed salmon. It’s similar to the inefficiency of grain-to-beef conversion for cattle farming. Also, with open ocean pens, the waste, parasites, disease, antibiotics and all sorts of rubbish just gets washed out into the rest of the ocean, which already suffers the indignity of being the world’s trashcan. Aquaculture is not all doomed to failure though, there are some glimmers of hope.
I’m not expecting everyone to give up seafood (though Sylvia Earle has and she explains why here and here. They’re great articles.), and that alone isn’t going to solve the problem. But just giving eating seafood a second thought would help, and along with fishing bans, catch limits (that are enforced, though I have issues with the effectiveness of it as well) and having marine reserves/protected areas, there is hope that fish populations can bounce back. If we want to make this place a better one, we should do all we can in our own little ways, through the choices we make, and if we don’t demand for change, who will?