The Science of Sustainability

Seafood choices? You, too, can use this cool tool

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Last summer, while visiting family in Charlevoix, Michigan, I found myself with a crew of relatives at a stylish seafood restaurant on the lake. I was craving fresh seafood, so I pulled out my handy Seafood Watch Card (www.seafoodwatch.org) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and prepared to order.

"What’s that? What are you doing?" asked a nervous looking anonymous parent figure.

"People outside of California don’t know about such things. You will embarrass our poor waiter."

Instead of backing down, I tried to educate. I told Anonymous Parent Figure that Seafood Watch Cards are the greatest things since sliced tofu when it comes to choosing sustainable seafood. The guides are pocket sized and fit in your wallet. They have three columns: The green column offers "best choices", listing fish that are abundant, well managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. The yellow column offers "good alternatives", fish that may or may not be well farmed or caught. The red column states "avoid" and lists fish that are currently farmed or caught in ways that are harmful to marine life and the marine environment. Fish with a red asterisk are of concern due to mercury. Fish with a blue asterisk are certified as sustainable to the Marine Stewardship Council standard (www.msc.org).

I told her that with salmon, you should aim for Alaska wild-caught because wild Pacific salmon are among the most intensely managed species in the world. Salmon fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington are also well managed. Farmed Salmon, however, can escape from their ocean pens and threaten the wild salmon by competing for food and spawning grounds, and spreading parasites and diseases.

"Hmmmmm," said Anonymous Parent Figure.

The waiter approached. I asked if the salmon in the evening’s special was farmed or wild- caught. He stared at me, puzzled, and somewhat embarrassed.

Score one for Annoynomous Parent Figure.

However, he was sweet, open and willing to listen. I told him a bit about the different fishing methods and how some were environmentally friendly and some were not. I explained that dredging is a rake-like method that damages habitat and results in significant bycatch (caught, but unwanted marine life). Hook and lining is the old fashioned rod and line method and is mostly environmentally friendly. Purse seining is a popular method for catching tuna. This is where a boat releases a wall of netting that encircles a school of fish, herding them into the center. This method is one that often catches dolphin in the process. Public outcry has forced innovations in the method, but dolphin populations have yet to recover, and not all tuna is "dolphin safe". I also told him about salmon.

The waiter listened intently, nodding then shaking his head. He promised to tell his boss that we were concerned. He promised to ask the chef about the salmon and be more informed next time.

Score one for me.

Being informed about seafood, as a waiter, chef, restaurant owner or consumer is vital to the future of our waters. Fish populations in our oceans, lakes and rivers are diminishing, due in part to non-sustainable fishing. More than 75% of the world's fisheries are either fully fished or over-fished. With certain fishing practices, habitats suffer immense damage, as well. Consumers drive this industry, and therefore MUST make good decisions.

The Seafood Watch program helps make these decisions easier. The cards can be printed off the aquarium website and are varied for different regions. Other tools are available, such as cards you can leave at restaurants to thank them or cards you can leave that request that they become more informed. One hundred partner groups help to distribute the Seafood Watch cards, as well as educate the public about their choices. The Oakland Zoo is proudly one of them.

Recently, Anonymous Parent Figure visited me in Oakland and we found ourselves out to dinner again. As the waitress waited for us to peruse the menu, Anonymous Parent Figure took a deep breath and asked, "Is this salmon wild-caught or farmed?"

"Gee, I don’t know."

"Hmmm. Well, you should."

Score one for fish.

And if Mom can do it, can’t we all?

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Cooordinator at The Oakland Zoo.

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Category: Blog, Climate, Sustainable Food

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Amy Gotliffe

About the Author ()

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at the Oakland Zoo. She is a Detroit transplant, enjoying the good Bay Area life for 17 years. She has a degree in communications, holds several teaching credentials and has a Masters Degree in Environmental Education. She has worked at various Bay Area educational and environmental institutions, teaching second grade, working on campaigns, planting pollinator gardens, producing earth day events and generally spreading the word about wildlife and green living. She currently works at The Oakland Zoo where she serves as the Conservation Manager. There, she coordinates support for international, national and local conservation efforts, produces a Conservation Speaker Series, produces the zoo's Earth Day event, leads eco-trips, teaches the various educational programs and heads up an on-site Green Team. On her list of other passions are travel, photography, music and the lindy hop. :-)