Too often, humans take their food for granted. It's easy to forget to take the time to think about where the food on your plate comes from; it's so readily available that we don't have to. The pressure that we are putting on our planet and natural resources, however, begs us to think twice about what's for dinner.
A few years ago I had a bit of a revelation: I had been eating food my whole life, and never thought twice about where it came from. Ever since, I've become increasingly aware of my food sources, and try to eat as earth-friendly as I can, as often as I can.
I stopped eating meat that is not local (and I rarely eat it at all). I try to eat organic and local vegetables whenever possible. My food revelation, however, only pertained to food sources from land. Until recently, I hadn't thought much about food that come from the sea.
I'm not a huge fan of seafood, but I don't think that's why I never gave much thought to it the times that I ate it. I knew the general ideas: farmed fish is usually bad for the environment, so don't eat it; tuna has a lot of mercury, so don't eat it; overfishing of certain species is a problem, so be careful which species you eat. I even have a magnet on my fridge, categorizing the "Best Seafood Choices" (if you're going to eat seafood, eat these) and the "Dirty Dozen" (be sure to stay away from those). Like I said, I seldom eat seafood so I really hadn't put much thought beyond my magnet into food sourced from the sea.
All of that changed on a recent trip I took to the Caribbean. Trying to stick to my locavore food rules, I decided that I would eat whatever local fish was available, that way I would be supporting local fishermen and eating whatever fish was freshly available — eliminating any types that had to be flown in (which would rack up food miles) and avoiding any species that are commercially overfished.
To my surprise, I found local fish in the Caribbean to be extremely scarce. Not a single restaurant I went to had locally-sourced fish on hand. One told me that they sometimes have regionally-sourced snapper and mahi mahi. I learned that lobster could also be procured from local sources, caught by local fishermen, but for some reason, even though it was in season, I could not find it on any menu. In fact, in place of these local options, many restaurants that catered to tourists offered tuna, sea bass, salmon and cod.
Four fish to avoid
It just so happened that I brought a new book with me on my trip: "Four Fish" by Paul Greenberg. In reading it, I hoped to broaden my knowledge about what is happening with our food sources in the water. I wanted to know more about the impact humans' appetites are having on fish. Guess what the four fish are in Greenberg's book? Tuna, sea bass, salmon and cod. He states that these four fish are the four fish that are consumed the most heavily by people, and because of that they are all in peril.
So on my dinner menu in the Caribbean were all four fish species that Greenberg was telling me not to eat. All of these varieties are imported from all over the world. If they are wild then their presence on my dinner menu is contributing to their vast decline in numbers. Take bluefin tuna for instance: there are only 9,000 left in the whole world. That's it. At the current rate of demand, the bluefin tuna will soon cease to exist.
Farmed vs. Wild
If the fish is farmed instead of wild, it is most likely still contributing to the decline of the wild species (and of other wild fish varieties) while at the same time endangering the surrounding marine ecosystems. Take a look at salmon for example: farmed salmon are fed food pellets made up of ground fish. The fish used in these pellets come from smaller wild fish. It takes a lot of small fish to feed the salmon enough to bring them to market weight, depleting the wild fish species. Offshore farmed salmon are kept in penned areas in the ocean. Excrement from the condensed salmon causes huge algae blooms to occur, killing off any nearby marine life, and decimating the ecosystem.
Not all farmed fish are this harmful. Some aquaculture productions have worked hard to find sustainable ways to farm the fish. The hard part for consumers is figuring out if the fish on their menu comes from one of these sustainable fish farms or from a harmful one.
Clearly, it is hard to know if it's better to eat wild fish or farmed fish. And the whole time I was in the Caribbean, I was thinking "why can't I just eat the fish that is swimming in that ocean right there?" I couldn't have cared less about the type of fish; I just wanted it to be local. But apparently, whether or not a species is local is not enough when it comes to eating food from the sea.
We need to take into account so many things when eating seafood: what type of food it is; where it comes from; if it is wild or farmed (if the former, how was it caught; if the latter, what type of farm). We also need to readily know our facts about the species we are thinking about eating: is this type of fish battling with overfishing (chances are always yes); does the U.S. government allow fishing during its spawning season (if the answer is yes, then that is bad); how prevalent is this type of fish (if it is more obscure, that is probably better because it means it isn't as widely eaten as other types) ... the list of questions goes on.
Now, I'm not advocating that everyone should immediately quit eating all types of seafood (that would be incredibly unrealistic, I know ... though I do believe we need to drastically lessen the amounts of fish we eat, and learn to be OK not eating certain things). But I am urging people, at the least, to become more conscious of what ends up on their plate. Eating with a conscience should be a priority. And maybe even more importantly people should adapt to not eating with a conscience. It's very important to be aware of what we are eating, and it's equally imperative, if not more so, to be conscious of what we choose to not eat.
Big corporations and governments more often than not fail to protect those that need protecting. In this case, it is the diverse marine life starting with the fish that we buy at the grocery store or at restaurants. I truly believe that individuals can make a difference as consumers if we work together, and can send a message to the corporations and the government by not purchasing certain foods.
As humans, we must be very careful of how we treat the other species that cohabit the earth with us. It is our duty, and in our best interest, to ensure that a balance is maintained. We have the power to extirpate an ecosystem, but we also have the power to save it. It's up to us which way the future goes.