Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Not-So-SHRIMP-y Environmental Dilemma

So unassuming, yet so destructive.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about food. I work with it most of the day; I ponder recipes and ingredients while running, swimming, and biking (I should do a triathlon!); I devote my day off to baking; and to cap it all off, I fritter away hours posting about all of this (though, I like to think it keeps my research and writing skills somewhat sharp)! So, it was while biking back from the bus stop that I had plenty of time to ruminate on the talks I attended at Green Festival. After work, I hopped on a bus downtown to wander the booths set up in the Convention Center, sampling too much fair-trade chocolate (as is my style), and learning about Seattle green initiatives.

However, the speakers on aquaculture quite captured my attention. While mostly focused on the destructive practices of shellfish aquaculture in the Pacific Northwest, a gentleman from the Mangrove Action Project also spoke. Our oceans are our planet’s last frontier for human exploitation, and as such, present the potential for as severe a degradation as terrestrial ecosystems have faced. And it is not just the big blue waters that feel the impacts of our seafood choices.

So what is this ever-so-pressing dilemma one faces at the grocer’s seafood counter? Why, as in your other food decisions, it is one of origin and practices. There are a couple of factors to take into consideration: (1) the sustainability of the fishery – if fishing methods lead to over-exploitation and habitat destruction, and (2) the livelihoods of those fishing or affected by the industry – are we talking big-business or local families?

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have great seafood resources, with access to relatively healthy salmon populations. And though farm-raised salmon are often touted as the savior of our wild stocks, they are also comparable to the terrestrial industrial livestock trade. Aquaculture, even seemingly benign deep-water fish pens, leads to concentration of waste, contamination of coastal areas by antibiotics and hormones, and the spread of diseases, parasites, and even escaped non-native species of fish. Furthermore, it requires considerably more fish in the form of food (as salmon are carnivorous) to produce one edible salmon!

But, I am more concerned at the moment with our country’s obsession with those little cocktail delicacies: shrimp. Not all shrimp are evil, mind you. But the cheap bounty comes at a high cost to people and the planet. Today’s last panelist reminded me of the grave threat posed by the widespread prawn farms in Southeast Asia. Shrimp ponds take the place of Mangrove forests along the coastlines of countries like Thailand. Not only does this practice remove an important nursery for fish-stock and a buffer against the tropical storms (remember the destruction of the Indonesian Tsunami?), but it also comes at the expense of local fishermen who can no longer make their living in the traditional manner. The polluting, forest-destroying, shrimp factories churn out cheap shellfish for three to five years before turning into a deadzone of unproductivity. Thinking of this, and the wanton destruction of beautiful mangrove ecosystems, often makes me want to cry, but I will refrain.

Luckily, you have considerable control over your seafood purchases. I have provided several resources below to better inform your decision and tailor your diet to fit locally available and sustainable options.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program – provides regional information on sustainable marine species available for consumption

Marine Stewardship Council – a well-respected certification of sustainable fisheries, with the regional US office located in Seattle, WA. Woot.

Food and Water Watch – their Fish program has lots of information about fisheries in general, aquaculture, and seafood selection.

Environmental Defense Fund – also outlines the challenges facing our oceans and provides assistance in consumer seafood choices.

Well, I hope this post was at least enlightening if not Earth-shattering. I apologize for the length of my treatise, and hope I have not bored anyone with my blathering. To come – my SEEDy experience at Green Fest and my impending foraging expedition.

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