When it comes to eating seafood, our dining habits have serious impacts. For example, it has been estimated that industrial fishing has reduced the number of large ocean fish to just 10 percent of their pre-industrial population.
Some people choose to give up fish entirely. Ocean expert Sylvia Earle is a great example of an environmental advocate who has chosen to stop eating fish.
But if you do choose to eat fish, what should you be eating? If it’s the environmental impact of seafood that you’re worried about, then there’s a clear choice: small fatty fish. We’re talking mackerel, sardines and anchovies.
What’s so good about these small fatty fish? A new analysis of fishing industry fuel use shows that these fish are “among the most energy and carbon-efficient forms of protein production.”
As the researchers write in the abstract, “Compared to a century ago, the world’s fishing fleets are larger and more powerful, are travelling further and are producing higher quality products. These developments come largely at a cost of high-fossil fuel energy inputs. Rising energy prices, climate change and consumer demand for ‘green’ products have placed energy use and emissions among the sustainability criteria of food production systems.”
According to the analysis, to catch a metric ton (about 2,200 pounds) of sardines or anchovies, you need about 5 gallons of fuel. Compare this to lobster or shrimp, where to get the same amount it takes around 2,100 to 2,600 gallons of fuel.
While they’re common in places like the Nordic countries, in the United States these small fatty fish don’t even make it into the top ten of the most consumed seafoods. We’re big lovers of shrimp and tuna, and given their environmental and social impacts, we’d be smart to think about changing what we eat.
Not that these small fatty fish don’t come with their own problems. Last year mackerel was downgraded on the Marine Conservation Society list of sustainable seafood. And the problem with these smaller fish is that they’re often the food for larger sea organisms, which means if we overfish, other animals in the ocean don’t have enough to eat.
It’s a complex issue, as it’s not our direct consumption of these fish that’s necessarily the problem. These forage fish are more often used as food for farmed fish like salmon, and even industrial animals than they are for direct consumption. According to the New York Times, “The consumer market for forage fish is relatively small; most of the fish are ground and processed for use as animal feed and nutritional supplements and, increasingly, as feed for the aquaculture industry, which now produces about half of all the fish and shellfish that people eat.”
Given the amount of fish it takes to feed a farmed salmon, we would be better off eating the forage fish directly, and overall these small fatty fish win out over most of our other seafood choices. Whether you eat fish or not is up to you, but if you do it’s important to know what you’re eating and the real impacts that your dining choices have.
Photo Credit: Jeanne Menj