This Earth Day, think beyond green and include BLUE! Two thirds of this amazing planet of ours is covered in oceans but this fact may be undervalued when it comes to environmental stewardship. From radioactive Fukushima pollution, The BP oil spill, rising sea levels and the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, there are plenty of maritime issues to give you pause. One that I personally advocate for is raising awareness over-exploitation of marine resources from our oceans.
Over 2 billion people, that’s about a 1/3 of our global population, depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. And for good reason — fish protein is very healthy for people. Its consumption is a major source of critical omega 3’s and eating fish has been demonstrated to reduce cardiovascular disease, obesity and increase brain function. The diversity of fish species available on the menu of your favorite restaurant is actually quite remarkable — especially when you consider the homogeneity of the other items on the menu, like “chicken”.
The oceans in their vastness have long been bountiful, but that has been changing over the last four decades. Since the 1980’s, wild caught fish harvest have leveled off as ~80% of natural fisheries are now at full capacity or even in decline. During this time, the global population has jumped from ~4.5B to >7.3B today, with expectations climbing north of >9B in the next 2 decades. This year we experienced an intense El Niño event — something likely to occur more frequently in the wake of a changing climate. Sea water temperature anomalies made it nearly impossible to catch anchovies, a major fish meal input. The warmer waters brought to the western coast of South and Central America caused the fish to both disperse and go deeper to find cooler water. The era of choice between wild caught and farm-raised fish is likely to be an artifact of this moment in human history. The worldwide fishing fleet has twice the capacity versus actual fish left remaining in the ocean. While the planet is not getting bigger, sustainable fish farming has the ability to address global protein deficits.
Raising fish, shrimp or seaweeds on farms is collectively called aquaculture. Fish require 1/8 the amount of feed compared to cattle, making it the most Earth-friendly form of animal protein available. There have been terrible issues in the industry in terms of pollution, antibiotic over-use, even incredibly, ties to human slavery for the collection of fish meal in South East Asia. Raising fish on farms is still in its infancy, especially when you consider cattle or poultry with its millennial long head-start. There is great progress being made across all of these fronts, this industry is getting better. Deep water technologies are being developed to minimize waste accumulation. Permaculture practices are in development for nutrient absorption and increased productivity. Thailand has mandated the elimination of fish meal in shrimp feeds by 2020 largely due to the social injustice issues.
By 2030, it is expected that 2 out of 3 fish will be raised on farms. We are at a critical juncture now. To balance ecological sensitivity with safe, nutritious protein to keep up with population growth, sustainably sourced feeds is one of the keys to success. The debate of wild caught versus farm-raised fish needs to shift to sustainably raised fish, much like “grass-fed beef” or “free-range” has dominated the conversation for other animal proteins. It can be confusing enough to know which species are on the Monterey Bay Watch List but I encourage you to ask questions about how the fish were sustainably raised at your local grocer or restaurant. Growth conditions matter, as do the feeds the animals are raised on. Terrestrial proteins (i.e. soy) can be used to offset precious marine resources but do have land, water, environmental and nutritional concerns. The ideal feed for our farms would be low-cost, does not compete with the human food supply chain, produce healthy fish or shrimp and leading to delicious food. Several new ventures are exploring how to meet these most stringent requirements. From dedicated fermentation that produce single cell proteins (SCP) to insect larvae, the old adage of “you are what you eat” should expand to “and what they eat too”! As consumers, demand the perceived benefits of wild caught fish from sustainable aquaculture and this Earth Day, consider the planet’s most defining features — its oceans.