Stewardship, consumer support keys to sustainable seafood

Shellfish from Walking Fish. Photo courtesy of Debbie Callaway, Walking Fish.

For Debbie Callaway, life is inextricable from the seafood industry. Her grandfather was a clammer on the North River and a cook for a menhaden operation. But throughout her life, she’s watched the environment and landscape be altered by forces such as population changes, development and pollution. It feels as though access to fishable waters has become increasingly encroached upon.

“I’ve lived here in Beaufort my whole life,” Callaway said. “And the changes are just unbelievable.”

Callaway is on the board of directors for Walking Fish, a wild-caught, community-supported fishery that distributes in Raleigh and Durham. This cooperative model is based on a common concept from land-based farming called “community supported agriculture.” The idea is that consumers buy shares of a seasonal harvest, which they pick up weekly or biweekly from a designated location.

People who sign up get whatever is seasonally available that the fishermen catch that week — clams, oysters, flounder, shrimp, monkfish and more.

“We’re increasing the availability of seafood to people living in the Triangle, who have limited access to fresh, local seafood — delivering the seafood directly from the fishermen to the consumer,” Callaway said.

The idea behind Walking Fish is the “triple-bottom line” — that in order for something to be sustainable, it must recognize the interconnected nature of sociocultural, economic and ecological systems. The goal is to harvest only what is available seasonally, to protect the environment and use an economic model that makes the business viable for the fishermen and worthwhile for the consumer.

The environmental impact of the seafood industry is a complex issue. Overfishing has been recognized as a problem associated with large-scale commercial fishing. National Geographic reports that it emerged as an issue for the first time in the late 1800s, and through the mid-1900s affected regional fisheries poignantly. But by the end of the 20th century it was clear that the ocean, not the unlimited food resource some had thought, was approaching its breaking point. Many species, such as Atlantic cod and herring had been pushed to the edge of extinction. The pressure on biodiversity and ecosystem function grew and kept growing.

Aquaculture — the practice of farming seafood in the ocean as an alternative to fishing — has been offered up as a partial solution to the problem. Aquaculture is not new, but has been practiced sustainably in various forms for thousands of years. But if not scaled correctly, aquaculture faces many of the same obstacles as does land-based agriculture — pollution, ecosystem disturbance, and landscape degradation — making it hardly a panacea solution.

Ryan Nebeker is a research and policy analyst at Foodprint. Foodprint is an organization dedicated to helping people learn where their food comes from and how it impacts both social and environmental systems. One of Nebeker’s recent reports for Foodprint was a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of aquaculture — particularly the large-scale enterprises that he calls “Big Aquaculture.”

Aquaculture has been around for a long time, Nebeker said, and comes in many forms. But when it comes to the idea that aquaculture is a blanket solution for feeding the world, Nebeker has serious doubts.

“When you peel back the hood on how aquaculture really runs, you really run into this idea that it faces a lot of limits,” Nebeker said. “The idea that the ocean is kind of this magical freebie where you can just grow fish doesn’t really work.”

A lot of this has to do with understanding that aquaculture is not a uniform practice — there are a lot of different ways to farm seafood, and it’s important to differentiate among them. According to Nebeker, many of the species that consumers demand are considered “high input” and therefore “high impact.”

These terms refer to where a fish is in the food web. For example, Atlantic salmon is a highly valued commercial fish. But it’s high up in the food chain, meaning that in order to farm it, you have to feed it other fish. The production of fish food is something that drastically increases the environmental impact of farming Atlantic salmon.

“As a result, you end up feeding them quite a bit more than you get back in terms of usable meat,” Nebeker said.

Consuming wild-caught fish that are lower on the food chain, like sardines and anchovies, can help reduce impact. As can farming other species that have positive environmental impacts, such as seaweed and bivalves. Oysters, with their natural capacity for water filtration, give something back to the environment they grow in.

“Just get friendlier with clams, mussels, oysters — they’re so easy to cook,” Nebeker said. “Most people don’t realize they have that really light impact on the environment. And they are delicious.”

Supporting local fishing operations is another good way to reduce impact, Nebeker said, but he also recognizes that for most of the country, there’s no such thing as “local” seafood. In lieu of this, traceability is of high importance.

“One thing that has become a lot easier in the last few years is direct sales from fishermen and fishing cooperatives. Not everybody can walk down to the fish market, per se, but it’s gotten a lot easier to buy direct from fishermen. There’s a verified supply chain, you know they caught it, you know where they caught it.”

Some, like North Carolina’s Walking Fish, serve inland communities in their state. But others flash-freeze their supply and ship it to other parts of the country.

Thanks to the internet, that option is available to more of the country than it used to be. The downside, said Nebeker, is often the cost. But when the cost is low, he said, it may mean someone is cutting corners. Therefore, that cost may not manifestly economically, but environmentally or socially.

In his report, Nebeker underscores the importance of viewing the ocean as a shared resource.

“This is a resource that everyone should be able to use and access,” Nebeker said. “But they should not be able to use it in a way that damages it for other people.”

For regional fishing operations like Walking Fish, the understanding that environmental health is bound up in economic and social welfare is the basis of their business. After running for about 13 years, Walking Fish has a consistent member base that also shares these values.

“We have persevered, and have maintained a member base that benefits from the availability of fresh seafood in Raleigh-Durham but also provides a market for commercial fishermen,” said Callaway. “And for this, I’m very thankful.”

This is third in a series examining the role and sustainability of seafood in a healthy diet and is published in collaboration with North Carolina Health News.

Next in the series: What’s the economic cost of seafood and who can pay it?