For those who are seafood lovers (or at least seafood consumers) the last few years have either seemed like bountiful buffet (of the $6.99 all-you-can-eat variety) or a veritable nightmare on a platter smothered in environmental guilt and contamination panic. Shrimp have become ridiculously cheap and plentiful for Americans (remember back in the 80s, shrimp used to be a luxury item, not something you used as garnish for a steak) as nearly 80 percent of the shrimp consumed in this country originates from shrimp farms in South Asia that are notoriously dirty, teeming with pesticides and antibiotics, and have done untold ecological damage to the surrounding environment. But man, are they cheap! More or less, the same can be said for much of the farmed catfish, tilapia and salmon. Exploring the wild seafood option has not been much more encouraging, as the sustainable and “healthy” choices are a moving target, at best.
In light of the recent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with BP dumping countless gallons (make that barrels) of oil onto the seafloor and all over the aquatic flora and fauna in the immediate area (as I write this, reports say the damage is likely far greater than expected) the idea of eating wild gulf seafood (one of the United States main sources of domestic seafood) is unappetizing at best. Granted, our main concern in this catastrophe should not be about filling our plates with scampi, but how the hell can we bring the gulf back from environmental ruin. Still, with Gulf residents stockpiling shrimp, fisheries closing down, and general seafood panic spreading through the area like free flowing crude oil, it is a practical question to address. Should we abandon our more sustainable, more local, seafood reserves in favor of farmed and imported seafood?
The simple answer is likely no. While the environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill has yet to be seen, and is not likely to conveniently disappear like the smoke plume from an Icelandic volcano, the fishing boats in the area have yet to be enormously impacted (at this moment, only about 30 percent of gulf shrimping waters are closed due to the spill) and (whether you trust this or not) all US seafood is subject to fairly rigorous inspections by food scientists before it can be sold (the same cannot be said for Asian imports).
The gulf fishing boats are in relatively the same holding pattern and situation, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has restricted fishing from the Mississippi River east to the waters off Pensacola Bay in Florida to make sure that we can maintain the public confidence in the safety of the food supply and made sure that members of the public aren’t at risk, as reported by The New York Times. Shellfish and many species of commercially harvested fish are dependent on the fragile estuaries and wetlands that are an integral part of the ecosystems that could be devastated by an advancing tide of crude (it is spawning season right now, and the water is filled with the larvae of fish, shrimp, oysters and crab which can be highly impacted by oil and chemical remnants left behind from the spill).
While not ideal, this is assuredly preferable to all around raw deal that is imported and farmed seafood. The cheapest and most abundant seafood on the market is also the most environmentally destructive as well potentially toxic. Waste from these farms is often pumped into the ocean, and pesticides and antibiotics are both in heavy use as the aquaculture necessitates close quarters for the farm stock. Sometimes these contaminants leave the farm with the seafood, and make it all the way to your plate.
Admittedly, none of this is good news for those of us who consume seafood (I saw a news report with a woman driven to tears because she would not be able to eat nearly as much Gulf shrimp as she was accustomed to) and you would be advised to practice caution and (at risk of raising the ire of Gulf fisherman) you might want to hold off on that shrimp fest you were planning. I urge everyone to use caution, be moderate in your consumption, and utilize the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for guidance.
Any thoughts on consuming seafood with a shred of confidence during these uncertain times? Should we be supporting our local Gulf fishing boats through this calamity? Would abstaining be a smarter road to take? Is all of this talk of sea animals as “food” worthless in light of the ecological devastation set before us?