One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish

I was recently at a friend’s house having a discussion about food.  This is surprising because I never do this.  And by never I of course mean this is the only thing I do with friends.  But either way, we were talking about vegetarian diets, and the subject of fish came up, and I said “well technically I still eat fish so I am not a full vegetarian,” to which she replied, “oh but fish are the worst!  You of all people should know that.”  This comment certainly got me thinking, and I figured this issue should be addressed.  Are fish really the worst for the environment?  That is a bold claim.

To me, determining what is the worst for the environment when it comes to food depends a lot on your criteria.  The first and foremost of the criteria, for me, is greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).  Climate change is problem numero uno, and is the most common motivator for a reduction in diet impact.  I think it is reasonable then to look at the GHG impact of our food first.  According to a study done at Carnegie Mellon, fish gets lumped into the same category as chicken and eggs when it comes to climate impact.  I have included a graph from that study below that summarizes the GHG impact of various food categories.  (For purposes of this discussion, I will use fish to mean all seafood)

The first thing one notices on this graph is that red meat is just atrocious.  Interestingly enough, however, because of the sheer impact of cows, dairy actually is a very close second place.  After that we have produce, cereals, and chicken/fish/eggs, all right around the same level.  Technically, then, cutting out dairy is a more important step than cutting out chicken.  However, while I find it hard to cut out some dairy (cheese) I don’t see myself going back to eating chicken regardless.  But anyway, back to my main point.  Fish.

Based on this study, the GHG impact of seafood is relatively low.  This makes sense.  Most of the impact of cow production comes from methane emitted from the animal itself, and the vast quantities of corn we need to grow to feed such large animals.  Fish are (for the most part) wild caught, meaning they are out there in the oceans living their lives as they are supposed to, eating food naturally occurring in their ecosystem.  No human input.  The only climate impact of that food, then, comes from fuel burned on the ships, and transportation, which is no more intensive than any other food.  Once the food gets on the truck, its all the same.  A truck is a truck, and miles are miles; doesn’t matter what it is carrying.  So, from a GHG, climate perspective, fish are actually a relatively good choice.

Now, I am not naive, and I know that this is not what my friend was speaking of.  Fish have huge problems of their own.  Those problems come into play when one considers sustainability.  While there are many benefits to an animal that is caught in the wild, including health benefits, there are also many potential drawbacks.  A farmer raising cattle for beef will never drive that population to extinction, because if demand increases he will simply clear more land, and raise more cattle.  However, when demand increases on a natural population of animals, as is happening with seafood, due to rising human populations, nature can’t find more ocean or create more food.  There is a limit.  And, for the VAST majority of fisheries, we are harvesting far more animals than nature is putting back.  This is unsustainable.  It is the definition of unsustainable.

Likewise, many fishing techniques have other negative environmental impacts.  Shrimp are either farmed or wild caught, both of which have immense problems.  With farmed shrimp, large mangrove forests are cleared to make room, decimating local ecosystems.  Wild caught shrimp are captured by scraping the ocean floor, producing an immense amount of bycatch, and leveling everything in the path of the net.  The practice of catching tuna often produces bycatch that includes dolphins and sea turtles.  Salmon are now farmed in Chile, where again local aquatic ecosystems are decimated to make room for these farms, and the fish are being taught to eat corn, of all things.  And these are just a few of the many examples.

So there are many reasons to avoid seafood, and reasons to believe it is the worst for the environment.  I try to eat only sustainable fish, but even that has issues.  I carry in my wallet a guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that lists various fisheries in three categories: green list (most sustainable), yellow, and red.  Yet the other day I examined the card in more detail and found that only five of the 21 fisheries on the “good” list were certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.  FIVE.  And there are 21 fish on the good list, and equal numbers on the yellow and red lists.  That means that even the best fisheries are still not harvesting sustainably.  There was a report that came out a few years ago that found that at current rates of consumption, ALL seafood would go commercially extinct by the year 2054.  That means NO seafood that we know today would be left.  Some people took that to mean “eat it while you can.”  I take that to mean stop eating it as much as we do.

I don’t feel that I will stop eating fish all together.  I really love sushi, and get a hankering every once in awhile.  And the past three summers working on Cape Cod have been impossible to avoid seafood.  It provides me with a good alternative if I am out to eat and there are no good vegetarian options.  And, like it or not, seafood is quite healthy.  However, I have stopped buying and preparing it at home, and will continue with that.  And I am now probably only eating seafood once a month.  And of course, any time I do choose to eat seafood, I do my best to at least use the green list, or even better to use the 5 sustainable fisheries I know of.

So, worst for the environment?  It depends on your priorities.  However, it can be agreed that like everything else we eat, there are complex issues involved, and the impact is greater than zero.  And equally true, understanding the production of this food only helps inform and guide us to better, more sustainable choices.  But I want to know what you think.  Do you eat fish?  What do you feel about their environmental impact?  Are they the worst in your book?