So when I was a kid ... this was my team.
I stunk at sports. I didn't like to play them, I didn't like to watch them. So this is what I did. I went fishing. And for all of my growing up I fished on the shores of Connecticut, and these are the creatures that I saw on a regular basis. But after I grew up and went to college, and I came home in the early 90's, this is what I found. My team had shrunk. It was like literally having your roster devastated. And as I sort of looked into that, from a very personal point of view as a fisherman, I started to kind of figure out, well, what was the rest of the world thinking about it?
First place I started to look was fish markets. And when I went to fish markets, in spite of where I was — whether I was in North Carolina, or Paris, or London, or wherever — I kept seeing this weirdly repeating trope of four creatures, again and again — on the menus, on ice — shrimp, tuna, salmon and cod. And I thought this was pretty strange, and as I looked at it, I was wondering, did anyone else notice this sort of shrinking of the market?
Well, when I looked into it, I realized that people didn't look at it as their team. Ordinary people, the way they looked at seafood was like this. It's not an unusual human characteristic to reduce the natural world down to very few elements. We did it before, 10,000 years ago, when we came out of our caves. If you look at fire pits from 10,000 years ago, you'll see raccoons, you'll see, you know, wolves, you'll see all kinds of different creatures. But if you telescope to the age of — you know, 2,000 years ago, you'll see these four mammals: pigs, cows, sheep and goats. It's true of birds, too. You look at the menus in New York City restaurants 150 years ago, 200 years ago, you'll see snipe, woodcock, grouse, dozens of ducks, dozens of geese. But telescope ahead to the age of modern animal husbandry, and you'll see four: turkeys, ducks, chicken and geese.
So it makes sense that we've headed in this direction. But how have we headed in this direction? Well ... first it's a very, very new problem. This is the way we've been fishing the oceans over the last 50 years. World War II was a tremendous incentive to arm ourselves in a war against fish. All of the technology that we perfected during World War II — sonar, lightweight polymers — all these things were redirected towards fish. And so you see this tremendous buildup in fishing capacity, quadrupling in the course of time, from the end of World War II to the present time. And right now that means we're taking between 80 and 90 million metric tons out of the sea every year. That's the equivalent of the human weight of China taken out of the sea every year. And it's no coincidence that I use China as the example because China is now the largest fishing nation in the world.
Well, that's only half the story. The other half of the story is this incredible boom in fish farming and aquaculture, which is now, only in the last year or two, starting to exceed the amount of wild fish that we produce. So that if you add wild fish and farmed fish together, you get the equivalent of two Chinas created from the ocean each and every year. And again, it's not a coincidence that I use China as the example, because China, in addition to being the biggest catcher of fish, is also the biggest farmer of fish.
So let's look though at the four choices we are making right now. The first one — by far the most consumed seafood in America and in much of the West, is shrimp. Shrimp in the wild — as a wild product — is a terrible product. 5, 10, 15 pounds of wild fish are regularly killed to bring one pound of shrimp to the market. They're also incredibly fuel inefficient to bring to the market. In a recent study that was produced out of Dalhousie University, it was found that dragging for shrimp is one of the most carbon-intensive ways of fishing that you can find.
So you can farm them, and people do farm them, and they farm them a lot in this very area. Problem is ... the place where you farm shrimp is in these wild habitats — in mangrove forests. Now look at those lovely roots coming down. Those are the things that hold soil together, protect coasts, create habitats for all sorts of young fish, young shrimp, all sorts of things that are important to this environment. Well, this is what happens to a lot of coastal mangrove forests. We've lost millions of acres of coastal mangroves over the last 30 or 40 years. That rate of destruction has slowed, but we're still in a major mangrove deficit.
The other thing that's going on here is a phenomenon that the filmmaker Mark Benjamin called "Grinding Nemo." This phenomenon is very, very relevant to anything that you've ever seen on a tropical reef. Because what's going on right now, we have shrimp draggers dragging for shrimp, catching a huge amount of bycatch, that bycatch in turn gets ground up and turned into shrimp food. And sometimes, many of these vessels — manned by slaves — are catching these so-called "trash fish," fish that we would love to see on a reef, grinding them up and turning them into shrimp feed — an ecosystem literally eating itself and spitting out shrimp.
The next most consumed seafood in America, and also throughout the West, is tuna. So tuna is this ultimate global fish. These huge management areas have to be observed in order for tuna to be well managed. Our own management area, called a Regional Fisheries Management Organization, is called ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The great naturalist Carl Safina once called it, "The International Conspiracy to Catch all the Tunas." Of course we've seen incredible improvement in ICCAT in the last few years, there is total room for improvement, but it remains to be said that tuna is a global fish, and to manage it, we have to manage the globe.
Well, we could also try to grow tuna but tuna is a spectacularly bad animal for aquaculture. Many people don't know this but tuna are warm-blooded. They can heat their bodies 20 degrees above ambient temperature, they can swim at over 40 miles an hour. So that pretty much eliminates all the advantages of farming a fish, right? A farmed fish is — or a fish is cold-blooded, it doesn't move too much. That's a great thing for growing protein. But if you've got this crazy, wild creature that swims at 40 miles an hour and heats its blood — not a great candidate for aquaculture.
The next creature — most consumed seafood in America and throughout the West — is salmon. Now salmon got its plundering, too, but it didn't really necessarily happen through fishing. This is my home state of Connecticut. Connecticut used to be home to a lot of wild salmon. But if you look at this map of Connecticut, every dot on that map is a dam. There are over 3,000 dams in the state of Connecticut. I often say this is why people in Connecticut are so uptight —
If somebody could just unblock Connecticut's chi, I feel that we could have an infinitely better world. But I made this particular comment at a convention once of national parks officers, and this guy from North Carolina sidled up to me, he says, "You know, you oughtn't be so hard on your Connecticut, cause we here in North Carolina, we got 35,000 dams." So it's a national epidemic, it's an international epidemic. And there are dams everywhere, and these are precisely the things that stop wild salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.
So as a result, we've turned to aquaculture, and salmon is one the most successful, at least from a numbers point of view. When they first started farming salmon, it could take as many as six pounds of wild fish to make a single pound of salmon. The industry has, to its credit, greatly improved. They've gotten it below two to one, although it's a little bit of a cheat because if you look at the way aquaculture feed is produced, they're measuring pellets — pounds of pellets per pound of salmon. Those pellets are in turn reduced fish. So the actual — what's called the FIFO, the fish in and the fish out — kind of hard to say. But in any case, credit to the industry, it has lowered the amount of fish per pound of salmon.
Problem is we've also gone crazy with the amount of salmon that we're producing. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food system on the planet. It's growing at something like seven percent per year. And so even though we're doing less per fish to bring it to the market, we're still killing a lot of these little fish.
And it's not just fish that we're feeding fish to, we're also feeding fish to chickens and pigs. So we've got chickens and they're eating fish, but weirdly, we also have fish that are eating chickens. Because the byproducts of chickens — feathers, blood, bone — get ground up and fed to fish. So I often wonder, is there a fish that ate a chicken that ate a fish? It's sort of a reworking of the chicken and egg thing. Anyway —
All together, though, it results in a terrible mess. What you're talking about is something between 20 and 30 million metric tons of wild creatures that are taken from the ocean and used and ground up. That's the equivalent of a third of a China, or of an entire United States of humans that's taken out of the sea each and every year.
The last of the four is a kind of amorphous thing. It's what the industry calls "whitefish." There are many fish that get cycled into this whitefish thing but the way to kind of tell the story, I think, is through that classic piece of American culinary innovation, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich. So the Filet-O-Fish sandwich actually started as halibut. And it started because a local franchise owner found that when he served his McDonald's on Friday, nobody came. Because it was a Catholic community, they needed fish. So he went to Ray Kroc and he said, "I'm going to bring you a fish sandwich, going to be made out of halibut." Ray Kroc said, "I don't think it's going to work. I want to do a Hula Burger, and there's going to be a slice of pineapple on a bun. But let's do this, let's have a bet. Whosever sandwich sells more, that will be the winning sandwich." Well, it's kind of sad for the ocean that the Hula Burger didn't win. So he made his halibut sandwich. Unfortunately though, the sandwich came in at 30 cents. Ray wanted the sandwich to come in at 25 cents, so he turned to Atlantic cod. We all know what happened to Atlantic cod in New England.
So now the Filet-O-Fish sandwich is made out of Alaska pollock, it's the largest fin fish fishery in the United States, 2 to 3 billion pounds of fish taken out of the sea every single year. If we go through the pollock, the next choice is probably going to be tilapia. Tilapia is one of those fish nobody ever heard of 20 years ago. It's actually a very efficient converter of plant protein into animal protein, and it's been a godsend to the third world. It's actually a tremendously sustainable solution, it goes from an egg to an adult in nine months. The problem is that when you look about the West, it doesn't do what the West wants it to do. It really doesn't have what's called an oily fish profile. It doesn't have the EPA and DHA omega-3s that we all think are going to make us live forever.
So what do we do? I mean, first of all, what about this poor fish, the clupeids? The fish that represent a huge part of that 20 to 30 million metric tons. Well, one possibility that a lot of conservationists have raised is could we eat them? Could we eat them directly instead of feeding them to salmon? There are arguments for it. They are tremendously fuel efficient to bring to market, a fraction of the fuel cost of say, shrimp, and at the very top of the carbon efficiency scale. They also are omega-3 rich, a great source for EPA and DHA. So that is a potential. And if we were to go down that route what I would say is, instead of paying a few bucks a pound — or a few bucks a ton, really — and making it into aquafeed, could we halve the catch and double the price for the fishermen and make that our way of treating these particular fish?
Other possibility though, which is much more interesting, is looking at bivalves, particularly mussels. Now, mussels are very high in EPA and DHA, they're similar to canned tuna. They're also extremely fuel efficient. To bring a pound of mussels to market is about a thirtieth of the carbon as required to bring beef to market. They require no forage fish, they actually get their omega-3s by filtering the water of microalgae. In fact, that's where omega-3s come from, they don't come from fish. Microalgae make the omega-3s, they're only bioconcentrated in fish.
Mussels and other bivalves do tremendous amounts of water filtration. A single mussel can filter dozens of gallons every single day. And this is incredibly important when we look at the world. Right now, nitrification, overuse of phosphates in our waterways are causing tremendous algal blooms. Over 400 new dead zones have been created in the last 20 years, tremendous sources of marine life death.
We also could look at not a fish at all. We could look at a vegetable. We could look at seaweed, the kelps, all these different varieties of things that can be high in omega-3s, can be high in proteins, tremendously good things. They filter the water just like mussels do. And weirdly enough, it turns out that you can actually feed this to cows. Now, I'm not a big fan of cattle. But if you wanted to keep growing cattle in a time and place where water resources are limited, you're growing seaweed in the water, you don't have to water it — major consideration.
And the last fish is a question mark. We have the ability to create aquacultured fish that creates a net gain of marine protein for us. This creature would have to be vegetarian, it would have to be fast growing, it would have to be adaptable to a changing climate and it would have to have that oily fish profile, that EPA, DHA, omega-3 fatty acid profile that we're looking for.
This exists kind of on paper. I have been reporting on these subjects for 15 years. Every time I do a new story, somebody tells me, "We can do all that. We can do it. We've figured it all out. We can produce a fish that's a net gain of marine protein and has omega-3s." Great. It doesn't seem to be getting scaled up. It is time to scale this up. If we do, 30 million metric tons of seafood, a third of the world catch, stays in the water.
So I guess what I'm saying is this is what we've been going with. We tend to go with our appetites rather than our minds. But if we went with this, or some configuration of it, we might have a little more of this.
The way we fish for popular seafood such as salmon, tuna and shrimp is threatening to ruin our oceans. Paul Greenberg explores the sheer size and irrationality of the seafood economy, and suggests a few specific ways we can change it, to benefit both the natural world and the people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
Paul Greenberg researches and writes about fish, aquaculture and the future of the ocean.
Paul Greenberg researches and writes about fish, aquaculture and the future of the ocean.