The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Famed Chef Mark Bittman Writes our Favorite, Flawed Sustainable Seafood Guide

Last month GQ published a sustainable seafood guide written by acclaimed food writer Mark Bittman, entitled, “How to to Eat Fish and Still Save the Earth.” Bittman makes accurate suggestions for the casual consumer, applauds rising players in the sustainable seafood space like Sea to Table, and even calls for readers to eat more invasive lionfish.

However, sometimes Bittman dilutes his overall message with loose facts and hyperbole.

Mussels are certainly more sustainable than shrimp, and as the most consumed seafood item in the US by far, we can agree that Americans should probably be eating less shrimp and more bivalves. But to say that, “an awful lot [of shrimp] is farmed under repellant conditions,” and to associate all shrimp with the darkest reports of human rights violations in the Southeast Asian shrimp industry is too general. On wild shrimp Bittman said, “the wild stocks of the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico are mostly trawled, [which is] a destructive method.” Aside from the fact that there is a diversity of “trawls” used in shrimping (Bittman does not specify bottom, midwater, skimmer, etc), US Shrimp fisheries should not be grouped with these extreme cases of malpractice. US Gulf of Mexico (GOM) shrimp vessels are required to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), and their bycatch is closely monitored. Yes, shrimping is not a highly selective operation, but if the Monterrey Bay Aquarium can classify US-caught GOM and Pacific coast pink shrimp as “Good Alternatives,” Bittman needs to distance these industries from allegations of Southeast Asian shrimp captains holding men “in cages between shifts.”

Eating lower trophic level species is a sound sustainable seafood suggestion, but European anchovies should not be included in that recommendation. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch only recommends European anchovies caught in the Adriatic Sea as a “Good Alternative”, and all the others Mediterranean-caught forage fish are labelled “Avoid”. This exemplifies the over-simplification of Bittman’s recommendations – not all fish that, “come in rectangular tins” are from sustainable fisheries. Similarly it is not fair to say all, “Bluefin tuna is brought to you by the devil.” Yes, there are some Bluefin populations that are highly depleted, however some are doing just fine and will continue to be sustainable; Eastern Atlantic Bluefin stock is already high and has been increasing in abundance recently.

It was totally wrong to say the world is, “quickly running out of fish,” and, “nearly half the world’s marine life has been wiped out in the past 50 years.” Only one marine fish has ever gone extinct, and the abundance of harvested fish in the ocean appears to be stable. Fish stocks are increasing in much of the developed world.

But CFoodUW’s takeaway from this piece was not the misinformation. Bittman did a great job of turning the attention of the average GQ reader towards sustainable alternatives.

Lionfish has been a damaging invasive nuisance in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, but only recently has it been made accessible. Bittman introduced the complicated topic of invasive species concisely, in layman’s terms, and without false facts.

Mackerel is often still associated in a canned, pickled and generally unappetizing schema for most Americans. But modern supply chains can deliver mackerel to market sooner, and when fresh, any mackerel species is indeed, “crave-worthy”, and empirically more abundant than Bluefin Tuna. Mackerel and Bluefin aren’t exactly substitutes, but both should be equally respected at the sushi bar.

Bittman even provides cooking tips and a new and easy way to purchase sustainable seafood which is critical for many Americans that are nervous to cook fish at home, and is an extra step not usually taken by sustainable seafood guides.

But perhaps the most important message is Bittman’s answer to why fish is worth all the trouble:

If you’re already thinking that all this is too complicated and you’d rather just have a burger, hang on. From a nutritional perspective, almost everyone agrees fish is better for you than most meat: higher in beneficial fats and lower in trouble-making ones. Its “conversion ratio”—the amount of food it takes to produce edible protein—is far superior. It’s easy and fast to cook. Some of it, at least, is wild, and you don’t get more organic than that. Yes, there are issues with fish; there are issues with all food. But unless you’re vegetarian, it should be a major—and majorly healthy—part of your diet.

We understand that alarmist language attracts more attention. If the goal was simply to raise the low bar – get eyes on this article and the correct solutions, despite perpetuating a few sustainable fishery myths, then mission accomplished. But if Bittman wanted to use the best available science, the two aims should not be mutually exclusive. For the next article, we hope Bittman will limit the hyperbolic claims of fishery failures and instead focus on sustainable alternatives, and how to make them both accessible and delicious.

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One Response

  1. This is a nice and charitable, balanced evaluation of Mark Bittman’s article. I hope the authors submit a letter to GQ making some of these same points.

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