This article was originally written for Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations digital magazine.
In February 2015, 49 health and environmental advocacy groups in the United States urged the federal government to incorporate environmental sustainability into the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Included in their letter was an emphasis on sustainable seafood. They wrote: "Often ignored, seafood consumption is another key dietary component in which health and sustainability go hand in hand. Aquatic animals lower on the food chain have lower levels of bioaccumulated contaminants and are a more sustainable choice than larger aquatic animals, which have undergone drastic population decline. The next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines should therefore advise consumers to eat products lower on the aquatic food chain and to choose species that are not associated with harmful fishing or farming practices."
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's recommendations—and those made by the advocacy groups—to include sustainability were eventually sidestepped in the final version of the guidelines, but they succeeded in bringing the discussion about diet and the environment to the fore.
As it stands, however, Americans still prefer fish that's at the top of the food chain. Based on NOAA's latest available statistics, tuna and salmon comprise nearly 30 percent of the 15.8 lbs of seafood consumed per person each year. The unrelenting demand for these species has led to overfishing, rapidly diminishing global wild catches. Populations of Atlantic salmon and blue fin tuna have been decimated nearly to the point of extinction. And farmed fish come with their own set of concerns, such as the overuse of antibiotics and feed that in turn depletes other fish stocks. "It's just not a balanced approach," said Sean Barrett, a fisherman and conservationist in New York. "Our current demand-based fishery system isn't sustainable—it will affect future generations."
Recently, when Aquabounty's GM salmon made headlines by gaining (and then effectively losing) FDA approval, the company made the point that genetically modified salmon would be a sustainable alternative to wild-caught and conventional farm-raised salmon. However, the most sustainable alternative would be just to eat less salmon. "We need to eat more of what is naturally abundant, and less of what is not," said Barrett. "Right now it's totally upside down."
U.S. coastlines are not short on abundance. Local waters are teeming with hundreds of delicious and sustainable fish species like mullet, dogfish, and scup, species often referred to as "trash fish." Consuming these underappreciated species would certainly put less pressure on the ecosystem. "The ideal scenario would be to reverse how we eat on the trophic scale: with really tiny morsels of apex predators like shark, swordfish, tuna, smaller amounts of species like butterfish and sea robin, more kelp, phytoplankton, clams, oysters," said Barrett.
Efforts are being made to raise consumer awareness about underutilized varieties like these. The Natural Resources Defense Council has published a handy Smart Seafood Buying Guide for consumers to better understand which varieties of fish are good for them, and the environment. NOAA's Fishwatch is an easy-to-reference online database of sustainable fish, where people can get to know their Gray Triggerfish from their Greater Amberjack.
Restaurateurs too are trying to do their bit to bring more diversity from the oceans onto our plates. Yuji Haraguchi, the owner of Japanese restaurant Okonomi in Brooklyn, New York, thinks a different kind of market might address this issue. This summer, he has plans to set up a space to sell varieties of domestic fish. His market would be structured around a strong focus on education, too. Haraguchi intends to hold demonstrations and workshops there to show people how to cook fish they may not be familiar with. "There is no such place right now. In a supermarket, people just buy what they already know," he says. For the most part, he says, even if people know where their fish comes from, it's equally important that they know what they can do with it.
But the impetus to diversify the seafood in our diets is probably driven most strongly by community-supported fisheries. Taking after the community-supported agriculture model, CSFs require members to pay up front for a season's worth of catch. The first CSF was started in Maine, in 2007, but since then, more than 50 such fisheries have sprung up across the country. Barrett, who founded a CSF-turned RSF (restaurant-supported fishery) called Dock to Dish, said that organizations like his have developed a reputation for supplying underutilized species. "You get only what is local, what is seasonal." Dock to Dish supplies Dan Barber's restaurants, the Eataly chain, and Google's New York offices, among other establishments. "We bring in Atlantic butterfish, winter skate—fish species that people hadn't heard of before and chefs hadn't traditionally put on menus," said Barrett.
In fact, one of the key characteristics of a CSF is that it is supply-driven. Sean Dixon, co-founder of another CSF in New York called Village Fishmonger, said, "It's completely unlike the industrialized demand-based market we've built, where we decide we want tuna or salmon, and demand that from the market." Members of a community-supported fishery have to agree to surrender their rights to demand and accept what the ocean is providing them.
Barrett explained that these models take a lot of pressure off species at higher trophic levels, which helps stocks to rebound. "When you create a market for fish that would otherwise have been considered by-catch with no market value, that incentivizes fisherman," he pointed out. They won't feel as compelled to target tuna and swordfish and salmon if they know they'll be able to sell other species. "This creates a light harvest pressure on the whole broad ecosystem rather than targeted heavy pressure on the apex predators," he said.
But Dixon, who co-founded Village Fishmonger, points out that when it comes to fish, best practices are a lot more complicated. "For some fish lower down in the food web, like sea robin and sculpin, we don't yet have a fishery management plan so it might not be a responsible choice if we don't know the stocks. And you can't discount higher seafood webs that are currently sustainable and well managed. In that case it becomes the responsible choice."
Another complication is that the CSF model, while based on environmentally sustainable principles, isn't necessarily financially sustainable, so it's unlikely that CSFs as they exist today will be able to change the current economy of seafood. Matt Gove, who co-founded Big City Fish Share, a CSF in New York, explained: "Most people don't want to be in a system where they can't choose what fish they get, and they don't want to have to pick it up at a certain time." When it comes down to it, in Gove's view, people still want salmon no matter what time of year it is.
For CSFs to be viable, they would have to scale up quite substantially. That's a tricky proposition as well, says Dixon—especially when scale is relative. "If I reach 15,000 people in New York City that's just two city blocks. The rest of the people aren't eating better seafood," he says. And how big is big enough to make a difference? "We could change the purchasing habits of a million New Yorkers and still have 7 million New Yorkers doing the wrong thing. Even if a big city is doing great, it can be still be doing very poorly. There's a lot of work to be done."