DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw

ResearchBlogging.orgTime: 9 PM, after a long day in the lab.
Place: Lucha Libre Taco Shop
Internal Monologue:
Bad Miriam: “If I do not have a Surf ‘n’ Turf burrito I will surely perish!”
Good Miriam: “No! Shrimp is bad! You know shrimp is bad! You are a goddamn marine biologist!”
Bad Miriam: “But it is sooooo delicious. Plus it tastes so good with the Super Secret Chipotle Sauce.”
Good Miriam: “Pollution! Bycatch! Habitat destruction! BAD! Bad naughty Miriam!”
Bad Miriam: “Shut the hell up while I eat this best of all possible burritos.”
The End.

As seen in this short glimpse into my psyche, I understand how hard it can be to eat sustainable seafood. I am fully informed as to the envioronmental cost, and yet I regularly lose my battle against that delicious burrito. It’s just really fun to rebel against a smug environmental scold, whether that scold is your annoying vegan cousin or, as in my case, just your own conscience.

The appeal of thumbing one’s nose at ever-present environmental guilt is why this “Outlawed Seafood” dinner from Boston restaurant Legal Sea Foods is both brilliant and insidious. Via Grubstreet & GG:

There might be a panic over seafood sustainability, but Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz isn’t taking the bait. Instead, he’s hosting a dinner on January 24 with the New England Culinary Guild to address “outdated” scientific findings that turn the dining public against certain species of fish. Behold, a special feast featuring items that people often think are outlawed or blacklisted.

To translate: if you eat this seafood, you are a rebel, an outlaw, going boldly against conventional wisdom. You, like Berkowitz, are not someone who engages in environmental “panic.” Leave that for those annoying the-sky-is-falling (or in this case the-fish-are-disapppearing) environmentalists.

So what is on this rebellious outlaw menu? According to Grub Street:

Black tiger shrimp, duck cracklings, smoked tomato, and avocado sauce

Cod Cheeks
Spaghetti squash, toasted pecans, melting marrow gremolata

Prosciutto Wrapped Hake
Braised escarole, Rancho Gordo beans, blood orange marmalade

Well, DAMN. That sounds great. Ever since I fell off the kosher wagon I would eat a shoe wrapped in prosciutto, never mind delicious fresh fish. And please sign me up for anything involving duck cracklings.

Except there’s one problem. Every single one of these items – black tiger shrimp, Atlantic cod, and Atlantic hake, are listed as AVOID on the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Guide. Black tiger shrimp is listed primarily for the incredible habitat destruction that farming it wreaks on mangrove forests and artisanal fisheries, and U.S. Atlantic cod and white hake* are listed due to severely depleted populations.

What does Legal Sea Food CEO Roger Berkowitz know that the researchers at Monterey Bay don’t? I called Legal Sea Food to find out. (I also contacted New England Culinary Guild, but they said I needed to attend the dinner to ask these questions, which I will totally do if someone wants to fly me out to Boston.)

I spoke to Rich Vellante, Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods, who designed the menu around these seafood items. Mr. Vellante said that seafood sustainability is a complex and confusing issue. “In my opinion there’s no right or wrong. This is about people trying to educate each other…we want to make decisions make decision based on sourcing and not broad brush everything.”

According to Vellante, the cod and hake are locally sourced from the Gloucester and Chatham MA and Portland ME fisheries, and are caught by day boats using hook and line, not trawls. Vellante also emphasized that in the case of the cod, they were featuring the cheek meat, a cut often overlooked by American consumers, so they were using a greater portion of the fish.

In regards to the shrimp, Vellante said that Legal Sea Food did send people to Vietnam to inspect the shrimp farming operations and that there were “certain stipulations” that had to be followed, but he was uncertain about the nature of those stipulations and referred me to the Legal Sea Food marketing department. I called twice but was unable to reach the person he referred me to. I will post an update if she gets back to me.

So what does the latest, non-outdated science say about Legal Sea Food’s claims? (You may also be interested in food writer Jacqueline Church’s post on this.)

Black Tiger Shrimp. According to Seafood Watch, these shrimp should be avoided due to habitat destruction and pollution. Conveniently, a study of the environmental consequences of shrimp aquaculture in Vietnam was published just this June. The province discussed in the paper, Can Gio, has undergone mangrove restoration after having been deforested in the 1960s-1970s, and a section is now a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. The area devoted to shrimp farms has leveled off over the past 6 years, which means that new mangroves are not currently being destroyed for shrimp farms.

However, the study found that significant water pollution results from shrimp farming in Vietnam, and that many farms released wastewater and contaminated sediment that violated Vietnamese water quality standards. Not all farms did this, but on average, shrimp farms effluent had such high nutrient concentrations that it was similar to agricultural fertilizers. This level of pollution is extremely damaging to surrounding marine environments.

Therefore, while ongoing mangrove destruction may not be a current issue in Vietnam, severe pollution of the remaining and restored mangroves by shrimp farms is an ongoing problem.

Atlantic Cod: When I began researching this, I was surprised to learn that as of this year 2010, Gulf of Maine cod is no longer classified as “overfished” by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). This is because spawning biomass (basically the number of fish times their weight) is at half of target levels. This graph provided by NMFS looks pretty cheery, since it only looks at cod populations since 1982, but if cod stocks are compared to historical levels, current cod populations are truly pitiful.

This figure is from a paper by Rosenberg et al. 2005 (PDF), which used  historical research methods and population modeling to estimate the biomass of cod on Canada’s Scotian Shelf in 1852. The blue dot is estimated cod biomass on the Scotian shelf in 1852, and the red line is cod population today.

Looking at that, it’s pretty hard to argue that cod populations are just fine. Nonetheless, I commend Legal Sea Food for buying from local, hook-and-line fishers. Trawling is undeniably damaging to benthic ecosystems.

Hake. As of 2006, hake was in a pretty sad state. This graph of biomass is from the NOAA stock assessment, showing that hake populations are at less than half of what they were in the 1980s.

As of 2004, NOAA found that hake was overfished, and that overfishing was still occurring. I was unable to find a more recent assessment.

The Big Picture

The only case of “outdated scientific findings” I could find was that Gulf of Maine cod is no longer classified as “overfished.” I personally would not feel guilty about eating locally caught Gulf of Maine cod cheeks (yum!), but would continue to attempt to avoid black tiger prawn and hake.

And here’s the big picture, as presented in Myers and Worm 2003. This is biomass data from the beginning of large-scale industrialized fishing in the 1960s. (New England/Eastern Canada fisheries are excluded as they were already being exploited).

There are just less fish than there used to be. This means that we need pressure from consumers for effective management – people have to have the correct information about where their fish comes from, and to understand why they should care. Thumbing one’s nose at those no-fun fisheries scientists and environmentalists  is not going to change the fact that fisheries are in serious trouble.

In our conversation, Vellante summarized the purpose of the Legal Sea Food “Outlawed Fish” dinner by saying “I think there are a lot of questions and answers to be had. I don’t think there is one sweeping answer to everything. We want to create some dialogue around that.” Unfortunately, the data show that most fisheries worldwide do have one thing in common – a downward slide.

*Silver and red hake are listed as a “Good Alternatives,” but I think they are referring to white hake, since it is by far the most popular. I will be happy to make a correction if I am wrong.

Works Cited

Anh, P., Kroeze, C., Bush, S., & Mol, A. (2010). Water pollution by intensive brackish shrimp farming in south-east Vietnam: Causes and options for control Agricultural Water Management, 97 (6), 872-882 DOI: 10.1016/j.agwat.2010.01.018

Myers, R., & Worm, B. (2003). Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities Nature, 423 (6937), 280-283 DOI: 10.1038/nature01610

Rosenberg, A., Bolster, W., Alexander, K., Leavenworth, W., Cooper, A., & McKenzie, M. (2005). The history of ocean resources: modeling cod biomass using historical records. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 3 (2), 78-84 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295(2005)003[0078:THOORM]2.0.CO;2

39 Replies to “DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw”

  1. Thank you SO much for bringing a down-to-earth, science-backed, reasonable voice to this discussion. I’ve received only one response from Berkowitz via Legal’s Marketing Dir. He offered to answer any questions I might before the dinner, yet her response is “be our guest at the dinner.” Feeling a little like a setup. Maybe I’ll print copies of this post for all the guests.

    Very well done post. Thank you. I’d love a comment on my post and I’ll post a link there as well.


  2. Thanks Jacqueline! Yes, I was also referred to the marketing director for my questions about shrimp, but was unable to get in touch with her. (She may well be out of the office for the holidays.) Are you planning on attending the dinner? I am very curious about what the arguments will be!

  3. There may “just be less fish” now in certain populations that we happen to keep track of. But there most definitely is also less fishing pressure.

    Cod may be suffering a setback, but it is rebounding. It is being managed in such a way as to allow it to rebound. That means we are fishing for groundfish in New England (and they all swim together, so fishing for one means fishing for several species), but only to very strict limits.

    The U.S. fishery management system does not respond to market demand. Your purchase of that cod will not affect how many cod fishermen are allowed to land next year. Those numbers are determined by the biomass. Cod may never again reach historic levels, but it will also never be fished out of existence by American fishermen.

    I fully support voting with your fork and consumer education. But these lists become outdated easily and often miss the point altogether.

    You might suggest that your local taqueria use U.S. or Canadian shrimp in their tacos. More than one cold-water shrimp fishery is certified as sustainable by the MSC.

  4. Good research. This information is not easy to keep up with. You mention silver and red hake. They are not white hake. Silver is much smaller and more streamlined. It’s commonly referred to as whiting or as ‘lake trout’ here in Baltimore. Red hake is similar to white in appearance, but generally smaller.

    Another resource for future research is Up to date sustainability information on most whitefish species and many others.

  5. I’ve been following this thread of conversation across the few blogs involved, and am amazed at how the authors can proclaim there are no absolutes in these incredibly complex issues and then follow it with something like this:
    “Trawling is undeniably damaging to benthic ecosystems.”

    Actually, there is some room for dispute here, as there is on all of these issues.

    So keep reading. You’re allowing yourself to come to a conclusion WELL before you have a complete picture. My guess is that you’d find that if you really dove beneath the surface, you’d come to the conclusion most of us have who work in this arena–that there are no easy answers available to fit on a pocket card. Fisheries management is way more complex than a few graphs and charts pulled off the internet.

  6. Kevin,
    Thanks for your completely dismissive and snarky reply. You’ll notice I didn’t claim that the TNC project was conclusive evidence of anything, only that Miriam had said there were no absolutes and then made a sweeping statement, without clarifying that different types of trawls may have different impact and what type of bottom is being trawled also comes into play, along with myriad other factors. If you were being honest with your readers instead of trying to sway there, you’d let them know that nowhere does the article in New Scientist state that bottom trawling was “AWSUM,” only that there may be some new information to contribute to a thoughtful debate about the impact of trawling on benthic habitat in various types of bottom, and in fact concludes on a much more skeptical note by saying that it is way too soon to say what the impact is long-term. To actually engage this isn’t exactly like denying climate change is happening, though to investigate it would probably go against your ethos. I read your article and was amused to see more dismissive, know-it-all commentary, exemplified by the “fairy tale” title. Obviously you all enjoy batting things around in your echo chamber rather than engaging in the “open, thoughtful” debate.

  7. This is great…mainly due to the use of the word ‘snarky’. However, I wonder how many of you sustainable folks have fallen victim to the information cascade created by like minded independent ‘researchers’? Does anyone else think that the idea of using population modeling to make assumptions about cod populations from 1852 is just a little retarded? I am a fisherman, and while I can’t speak to the tiger shrimp, I have seen first hand the ‘scientists’ responsible for projecting the cod populations. And correct me if I am out of line, but is it so far fetched to suggest that some of you really need to question your sources of information? Fishermen are an easy scapegoat…and with everyone wanting to do what is ‘right’ U.S. fishermen will surely suffer at the hands of different media outlets with the money to market their suggestions. And when the most responsible, highly regulated fishermen in the world suffer, it opens the market to foreign product which is all caught (by my understanding) using cyanide and dynamite.

  8. P.S. your citing myers & worm 2003 may be a perfect example of out-dated science labeling the entire industry. They did, however, use some really big words.

  9. Meredith, I don’t think Kevin was being dismissive – we covered the press release that you linked to before, and he provided that link.

    Anyway, to respond to your original point, yes indeed, the entire field of fisheries management is more complicated than I can cover in one blog post! This blog post is about whether the science on the particular fishes served at the Legal Seafood dinner was outdated, not a referendum on whether pocket cards are the solution to fisheries woes.

    To answer your question on trawling – well, plenty of studies have found that trawling decreases diversity, damages bottom-dwelling invertebrates, and catches non-target organisms.

    I am happy to look at any sources you choose to provide, but I don’t think that popular science articles based off press releases will settle the issue.

  10. Well, lets start with the name of the study. Myers and Worm 2003. That, Miriam, is why the study is outdated in a discussion about sustainable fisheries as it pertains to groundfish with a government mandated hard tac.

  11. Ok, I am not willing to dismiss a study based on the fact that you don’t like the authors. Can you tell me specifically what about the study is incorrect, based on the data that they present? I am happy to send you a PDF if you like – just email deepseanews.

  12. Ahhhh, like a soothing scientific panacea for all that ails me after the daily barrage of hyper inflated eco clap trap that comes unbidden like an ill wind into my email box each and every morning.

    1. If we kill all the sharks WE WILL run out of oxygen to breathe!

    2. There are no more whales left in the Pacific, Atlantic, etc!

    3. Sardines are E-V-I-L!

    Thanks for a little sanity in an overheated, bad news cycle that never ends. We NEED more of this to counter the crazies out there who would have us all wearing scratchy hemp undergarments, not having children, and eating a green algae soup 24/7.

    Cold green algae soup.

    Here’s to Surf ‘n’ Turf Burritos!

    Everything in moderation, and yes, dammit, shrimps are tasty!

  13. Maybe Doug is looking for the more nuanced view presented in Worm et al. 2009? IIRC, that paper came about as a result of the massive criticism to the (nonscientific) predictions of doom and gloom from Worm et al. 2006…

    Anyway, the 2 main points that I wanted to make were that:
    (1) In general, fish (here including invertebrates that are harvested in “fisheries”) populations have declined severely since the onset of industrialized fishing.
    (2) In general, US fisheries are still the best managed / most heavily regulated fisheries in the world.

    This doesn’t mean that all fisheries are declining, nor that all US fisheries are “clean”. Yes, there are some cod stocks in the Northeast that are recovering / have recovered, but I believe the scientific consensus is that they will not all recover due to changes in the ecosystem (i.e. trophic cascade and all that).

    I also think it’s unrealistic to claim that the US Fishery Management Councils do not take into account economics when setting TAC and rely solely upon scientific estimates of sustainable take. Until recently (2006?), it was not even required that the Councils heed the advice of the Statistical and Scientific Committees assigned to them! (Still, contrast this with ICCAT’s blatant defiance of what their scientists recommend for bluefin tuna…)

  14. The authors? C’mon Miriam…you’re better than that. The year that the study was accepted leads me to believe that it was conducted prior? I would suggest you look at the regulations passed since.

  15. Hi Miriam,
    Thank you for your reply. I happened to read Kevin’s twitter feed, and while I suppose it’s possible that the time of his reply to me (Jan 7th, 11:35 pm) and then these two comments aren’t connected and I’m simply being paranoid, it seems unlikely.

    # I mean seriously. People like me think about marine science and conservation EVERY FUCKING SECOND OF THE DAY, not gonna win, ever 11:40 PM Jan 7th via TweetDeck

    # I love how stupid asses sound so goddamn smug when they’re absolutely wrong. “oh i gotcha, bang!” Um… no, you don’t but thanks for trying 11:39 PM Jan 7th via TweetDeck

    Honestly, I haven’t done a lit review on benefits on trawling on benthic habitat and I don’t plan to do so. Let’s put that aside. I wasn’t trying to “get” anyone, and I really never claimed trawling was great for the benthos. I was only trying to underscore the complexity and disagreement among reasonable people on a variety of fisheries issues, and got rubbed the wrong way by your use of the word “undeniably.” For my part, I’m more interested in supporting the fishing industry’s efforts to improve gear selectivity and reward the conservation efforts they initiate (in the case of alot of conservation engineering research) and endure (in the case of many regulatory measures) by eating their catch, rather than bashing a sector of the fleet wholesale. But I come at this from a different perspective….which brings me back to the original issue.

    To Kevin’s point about how he’s thinking about this stuff all the time, in the off chance it’s related to his comment to me: I have been involved with fisheries management for several years, first in an extension role at a research institute, and now as a manager of one of the new groundfish sectors. As such, I have spent my fair share of time sitting in fishery management council and committee meetings watching managers struggle to define effective management strategies with stock assessments that may be several years old (which yes, is the most current, so I guess it depends on how you define “outdated…”) when every fisherman in the room is telling them that the reality on the water is very different these 3-4 years later. This is our reality in fisheries management, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon given the funding climate and the relatively unsexy nature of stock assessment. I suspect that is part of Berkowitz’s point and the one being made by other comments here.

    We all have a bias in some direction or another. I don’t ignore the science behind these issues, nor do I want to settle these issues. I’d actually like to see alot more discussion and critical thinking about seafood cards, “blacklist” dinners and whether or not it’s reasonable to expect successful multi-species fisheries management with information that is, for all intents and purposes, “outdated,” even if it’s the most current data we have. I wish more scientists would push for increased research funding so we’d know more about the health of cod stocks instead of encouraging people to avoid eating cod.

  16. I think your point that even the most current scientific information can be outdated is an excellent one. In the post, I made the point that the most recent information I could find on the white hake stock was from 2006 – 5 years ago.

    Some of the most valuable basic science that we have has come out of fisheries stock assessment – for example, the CalCOFI program in California, which came out of the need to know where all the sardine went. I wonder if there’s a way to create more of these type of programs, where both basic science & applied science can be addressed?

    Seafood cards as they exist now are too complicated for most people – not even kidding. I doubt most people are going to do any critical thinking about this issue if they can’t even pick between green, yellow, and red. Perhaps another direction that would reward sustainable fisheries would be the Community-Supported Fisheries shares? Community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes seem very successful.

  17. Doug – Well, I’m touched you think I’m better than that. I did misunderstand your point.

    The reason I picked Myers & Worm 2003 is because it has an easily understood figure (which I posted) that demonstrates fish stock decline over 30-40 years, all over the world. I was making the point that overall, there are far less fish than there used to be, and that Legal Seafood CEO Berkowitz’s response is basically to pretend that nothing is wrong. I am not claiming that I can assess the entire New England fisheries history, policy, and current status in one blog post.

    However, I think Hao’s suggestion of more recent information from Worm et al. 2009 is a good one – University of Washington fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn is the second author, and he is usually thought of as the “fishermen’s scientist.” They say: “Management actions have achieved measurable reductions in exploitation rates in some regions, but a significant fraction of stocks will remain collapsed unless there are further reductions in exploitation rates.” In other words, all the management changes have achieved results, and in some stocks (Gulf of Maine cod, as I describe in the post) this has worked. In other stocks, this has not worked.

    One of the advantages of Seafood Watch is that they do distinguish between stocks. So Gulf of Maine cod fisherman can be rewarded for rebuilding their stocks, while people can still refrain from buying Georges Banks cod, which have not recovered.

  18. What exactly is “retarded” about using population models to estimate the 1852 population? These models have a long and successful history of use in resource management and stock assessment. There are hardly any fisheries with better data than Atlantic Cod, which makes it pretty easy to plug that info into an off-the-shelf model and run it in reverse. There’s a long history of landing reports, the life history is well documented, we know what type of gear is being used, and for recent decades we have good population estimates and demographics.

    Yes, there is uncertainty in the estimate from the model, but not so much that the conclusion is in question.

    And when the most responsible, highly regulated fishermen in the world suffer, it opens the market to foreign product which is all caught (by my understanding) using cyanide and dynamite.

    None of the foreign seafood in the US is being caught with dynamite or cyanide and these are only small parts of the fisheries of foreign countries.

    Dynamite fishing is mostly subsistence fishing. The catch is mostly eaten by the fishermen themselves, but what isn’t only makes it as far as local markets. There’s essentially no export market anywhere for dynamite fish, for a variety of reasons.

    Cyanide is used to capture fish for live export and is used almost exclusively in reef fisheries (which are only a small fraction of the world’s fisheries). We do get a large number of cyanide-caught fish in the US, but only as ornamental species- never as seafood. China and a few other SE Asian countries are the only markets for cyanide-caught food fish and even there it’s a high-end, niche market.

  19. C’mon champ. A little sarcasm was due. But thanks for showing everyone how smart you are. And anyone looking at landings to make suggestions as to biomass is in the wrong field. I know I’m not going to make any progress in an argument on this site, but I can assure you that fisherman’s sacrifices over the last ten years have paid off. Between the recent catch allocations put in place by the EDF…I mean NOAA, and constant mis-information crammed down peoples throats by countless intellectuals who never spend any time on the water the fishermen don’t have a chance. and make no mistake, consolidation of the fleet into fewer large vessels will not benefit anything or anyone except for the owners of said fewer large vessels.

  20. Berkowitz is not pretended that nothing is wrong. He is questioning the list that can’t seem to keep up with the populations. It’s a ballsy move for a man in his position in an era where terms like ‘collapsed stocks’ are thrown around. Bad press is throwing a lot of good, honest law abiding people under the bus for no reason. Not to mention creating a lot of pseudo-intellectuals who love to pass judgment with no first hand knowledge of anything. there is a tone in all of these discussions implying that fishermen do not want any regulations. That we are blind, money hungry killers just itching to empty the ocean. The recent desperation is due to the fact that there seems to be no end to the attacks on our industry…regardless of the fish populations.

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