October 2009 Issue

Sustainable Seafood — Tackle Overfishing by Making the Right Recommendations
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 10 P. 14

There is a great deal of chatter about overfishing today, but many people may not realize it’s an issue over which they can exert great influence. We often hear about overfishing and think of it as a distant problem caused by fishing boats in Alaska and faraway places. However, it is consumers’ appetite for seafood that is directly driving the overfishing problem. We’re eating more than can be replenished, and this overconsumption is leading to drastic changes in the world’s oceans. In fact, many marine ecologists believe overfishing poses the single biggest threat to marine ecosystems.

As dietitians, your knowledge and understanding of overfishing may be more important than you realize. Clients may look to you and expect knowledgeable information on sustainable seafood. “Dietitians can play a role in ending overfishing by creating a demand for seafood choices that are ocean friendly and abundant,” says Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director for the Blue Ocean Institute, an organization that supports the sustainable seafood movement. “By giving trusted advice to their clients on which fish come from well-managed populations with healthy numbers, dietitians can steer people to choices that are good for their diet and for the planet.”

Making a Difference
The Blue Ocean Institute has developed effective conservation solutions that are helping educate consumers to take action in an effort to restore living abundance to the ocean. The group believes dietitians play a critical role in these efforts, and McLaughlin recently gave an educational presentation to a group of RDs. They also believe restaurants can make a huge impact and recently developed an online course to educate chefs on seafood sustainability issues.

“While our target audience for this course is not dietitians, a lot of the information may be useful to them in learning about the issue and educating their clients,” says McLaughlin. The course is available on the institute’s Web site at www.blueocean.org/seafood.

Barton Seaver is one chef who grasps the importance of developing a responsible relationship with the world’s oceans. He says it’s important for dietitians, as well as others interested in sustainability, to educate people about what they can eat instead of what they can’t eat. Listing all of the items someone shouldn’t eat is likely to produce a negative response.

“People want to eat seafood, and they have to realize they can continue to do so—but responsibly,” he says. “Billions of people rely daily on the oceans for their protein, making this a humanitarian issue. Everyone deserves access to safe, quality seafood, but there are still ways to ensure we’re being environmentally responsible about it.”

Seaver says one of the quickest and easiest changes people can make—one that requires no knowledge about which fish are the most sustainable—is reducing portion size. “Right off the bat, reducing the portion size of the seafood eaten in a meal makes a big difference,” he says. “It automatically makes room for other foods to take the place and is less seafood that you’re consuming in a sitting.”

In addition, it’s important to ensure that the foods accompanying the seafood are so delicious that there’s no desire for seafood seconds. “If you only have 4 oz of shrimp on the plate, then the person is forced to fill up on broccoli,” says Seaver. “That’s great and that’s healthy, so let me show you how to make that broccoli so … delicious that you’ll honestly want it more than you want the shrimp!”

The key here is sending your clients away with tasty take-home recipes. Seaver recently joined forces with the Blue Ocean Institute and will provide printable recipes for ocean-friendly seafood along with helpful cooking tips on the institute’s Web site.

Seaver goes on to note a distinction between “seafood” and “fish.” He explains: “It’s important to understand there’s a big difference between ‘fish’ and ‘seafood.’ Fish is a living, breathing entity that has value to the ecosystem. Seafood is what fish become, and seafood is something that has value to us as part of our sustenance. Using the words fish and seafood interchangeably can be misleading and can truly impact whether or not people care about eating sustainably. The general public does not have a relationship with fish—they don’t really care about fish. People like Philippe Cousteau and other heroes of the deep have a relationship with fish, but the general public has a relationship with seafood.”

Anyone educating the general public about overfishing should be aware of this distinction, Seaver stresses. Seafood is what people interact with on a regular basis in grocery stores and their kitchens; they aren’t interacting with living fish. “So show them a picture of a filet when you’re talking about these issues,” he continues. “Don’t show them a photo of the fish. You need to make a connection with people on a level that makes them care, and then they’ll be more interested in eating sustainably.”

The Right Recommendations
Recommending sustainable seafood is important, especially to clients who eat it regularly. “Interestingly, a number of fish that people want to avoid for health reasons are the exact same ones we want to avoid for environmental reasons,” says McLaughlin. “Atlantic bluefin tuna, farmed Atlantic salmon, Chilean sea bass, groupers, orange roughy, and snappers all carry contaminant warnings from the Environmental Defense Fund. All of these fish also have environmental concerns, either due to low population levels or destructive fishing or farming practices.”

Smaller fish, which are lower on the food chain, are a win-win choice and ones that dietitians should recommend, says McLaughlin. “These fish tend to have lower levels of contaminants and reproduce more quickly, so they can withstand fishing pressure better than long-lived and slowly maturing species,” she adds.

Pink salmon from Alaska is a fantastic choice, suggests Seaver, as it’s also a wise pick economically. He also recommends farm-raised oysters, clams, and mussels, which are nutritious, accessible, and cheap.

When shopping for seafood, it’s important to ask a lot of questions, says McLaughlin. “You should know what type of fish you’re buying, where it came from, and how it was caught or farmed. This can all help you understand whether the fish is one you want to purchase,” she says.

Exactly how fish are caught is often as big an issue as how many are caught. Shrimp, for instance, is an abundant creature; however, how it is caught can be problematic. Shrimp boats that fish larger shrimp in tropical waters and the Gulf of Mexico typically use big nets called trawls that they drag along the ocean floor. The problem is that these nets catch more than shrimp and can harm bottom habitat. The Blue Ocean Institute reports that for each pound of shrimp caught, anywhere from 4 to 10 lb of unwanted marine life are also accidentally caught in the nets. These accidental catches are typically discarded and often die. The nets used to fish smaller shrimp in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Canada, however, tend not to cause as much habitat damage because the ocean bottoms in these locations are often muddy. U.S. farmed shrimp are an ocean-friendly choice. These farms tend to treat their water before discharging it, which decreases the environmental impact.

While this kind of information is important to know when shopping for seafood such as shrimp, what makes it difficult is that many seafood markets may not list specific details. Also, many markets and restaurants provide only the common name for the seafood they sell, leaving consumers unaware as to which ocean the species came from or how it was caught. McLaughlin says dietitians can encourage their clients to be diligent about the matter. People should ask waitstaff, chefs, and counter people questions when purchasing seafood and tell them why they’re asking. “Until there is more information, don’t be dismayed when you go to select seafood,” she adds. “Instead, just ask where it came from and if they don’t know, tell them why you care. It may take time, but the market will follow.”

The Blue Ocean Institute offers a variety of tools that make sustainable seafood consumption easier, including a wallet guide that features color-coded ranking information. “Or you can text FishPhone for sustainability information on the go,” says McLaughlin. “To use FishPhone, text the word FISH and the name of the species in question to 30644, and we’ll text you back with information on the fish in question, including environmental and health considerations.”

For more information on these reference guides, or for Blue Ocean Institute’s extensive online seafood guide, visit www.blueocean.org/seafood.

You Can Help
RDs need to realize that they can help correct today’s overfishing problem. Clients seek your trusted advice and will take your suggestions to heart. Perhaps the most important thing you can teach your clients is that the choices they make can make a difference, too. By choosing seafood wisely, consumers can help shift the demand away from seafood that is overfished or poorly managed. Seafood selections at the market and on restaurant menus are a direct result of consumer demand. Educating clients on how to eat seafood more sustainably is a necessary step toward change.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.