By CSULB Senior Seminar Reporter Cole Hughey
It’s not everyday you get to eat fresh seafood caught along the coast. In fact, unless you caught it yourself, chances are, you’ve never eaten fresh seafood caught off the California coast.
That’s because 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from other countries, due to the dangerously low amounts of seafood in American waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The seafood-trading deficit is an astonishing $10.4 billion per year—second only to oil. If we don’t learn to collectively start varying our seafood choices, the chances of our favorite fish staying abundant are getting bleaker by the day, say advocates.
Seafood for the Future (SFF), a non-profit seafood advisory program based out of Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, has made it their goal to promote healthy and responsible seafood choices so that we can continue to enjoy it for generations to come.
Locally, SFF has partnered with many coastal restaurants, including Gladstone’s Long Beach, Parkers’ Lighthouse, Bluewater Grill and Market Broiler, to bolster seafood options that are sustainable and currently in season and to help promote the healthy eating choices that contribute to the preservation of a healthy ecosystem.
SFF evaluates their partner restaurants’ menus quarterly, and they also require copies of the restaurants recent invoices to improve transparency and accountability.
“We need the consumer’s help,” says Kim Thompson, program manager of Seafood for the Future. “Ask the question: Is this sustainable and where did it come from?”
Sustainable seafood comes from sources, whether it be wild or farmed, that are healthy for the planet. It is produced without the fear of spoiling the species’ long-term sustainability, the environment or the communities whose general prosperity depends on such production.
Salmon, for example, one of the most popular dinnertime choices, is severely overfished and can also require up to 3 pounds of fish-based feed to put on a pound of meat. Compare this to Barramundi, known as the sustainable sea bass, which needs only a half-pound—of vegetarian feed.
While seafood favorites like salmon, tilapia, and sea bass can be oh-so-appealing to fish-lovers looking at the menu, advocates encourage consumers to try a sustainable fish instead. You may be surprised what you like, they say.
“Before my father started Fish Bonz, I had always eaten the same, basic types of fish,” says Taylor Taguchi, 24, whose father owns Fish Bonz Grill in Torrance. “Then after trying the Barramundi I realized that other fish can be just as good, if not better.”
Barramundi is known for its comparably sweet flavor to other popular sea bass.
It can also be farmed in a healthier, more environmentally friendly way than is traditionally used for commonly consumed fish.
For example, when farming salmon, they are often submerged in nets in the open ocean, which can lead to pollution-causing feces and waste accumulation that contributes to the spreading of diseases and parasites to other, wild fish.
In comparison, one of America’s biggest Barramundi farms, Australis Aquaculture, located in Turner Falls, Massachusetts, uses a recirculating system that draws in water from the Connecticut River, which is then recycled and cleaned after it has flowed through the fish tanks. Any solid waste is separated and sent as a fertilizer to other farms.
While U.S. fisheries are among the best managed in the world, according to a 2009 study by the World Wildlife Fund, imported seafood, which relies on foreign raising and shipping practices, doesn’t always fit the bill.
According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the FDA has rejected 1,380 loads of seafood from Vietnam for filth and salmonella, since 2007. Still, contaminated shrimp from Vietnam’s south coast fall through cracks in the FDA regulations and make their way to U.S. supermarkets unimpeded.
The FDA is only able to check less than 3 percent of imported food.
These shrimp, shipped in dirty plastic tubs, are covered in ice that has been made from tap water known to contain harmful bacteria that can contaminate the shrimp, according to microbiologist Mansour Samadpour.
Vietnam ships 100 million pounds of shrimp a year to the U.S.—8 percent of the shrimp consumed by Americans.
At a tilapia farm in China’s Guangdong province, reports are even worse. There, growing fish are fed feces from pigs and geese.
With roughly 27 percent of American-consumed seafood coming from China, the FDA has frequently found shipments to be contaminated. FDA inspectors have found 820 Chinese seafood shipments to be contaminated since 2007, according to the Bloomberg report.
Not even fresh-caught fish along the shores of Long Beach are sure to be safe.
Orange County’s Joe Mendoza, 82, has been fishing off the Belmont Memorial Pier for over 30 years, often as many as three times a week. While he fishes mainly for mackerel and halibut, he has to be aware of the fish that he can’t eat—due to its possible contamination. Upon entering the historic pier, a warning sign, written in multiple languages, clearly indicates what fish to be wary of: white croaker, barred sand bass, black croaker, topsmelt and barracuda.
While Mendoza claims he has never been made sick from any of the fish he has caught, he admits he occasionally catches and eats the topsmelt and barracuda. But for the less experienced fishers who don’t know the difference between safe and unsafe fish—dangerous bacteria could be making their way through the stomachs of local fishermen at a much higher rate.
There is much that is still left unsaid about fish when it comes to reading the menus, labels, and warning signs at the pier’s premier fishing locations. As long as this is the case, SFF vows to increase transparency and consumer awareness about where and how seafood was caught, so as to diversify our culture’s seafood-eating choices and to reduce the demand for contaminated and overfished products.
For now, Thompson’s biggest hope is for more people to join the conversation about seafood and its sustainability.
“I want to reach the people who couldn’t care less,” she said.
For more information on sustainable seafood, check out seafoodforthefuture.org, pvsfish.org, and worldwildlife.org
Kim Thompson, Program Manager for Seafood for the Future: KThompson@lbaop.org; (562) 951-5388