That has been the essential question I have been asking myself for the last decade during the writing of what is now a trilogy of books about seafood and the ocean. Each of my books has examined this same question from a different angle and along the way my thinking has evolved considerably as I’ve come to know people on the cutting edge of fishing, marine conservation and aquaculture.
In my first book, Four Fish: the future of the last wild food I decided to look at the split between wild fish and farmed fish. 100 years ago, nearly everything we ate from the sea was wild. Today we are just crossing the point where more seafood is coming to us from the farm than from the wild. What does this mean for the future of the ocean? This dilemma hit me especially hard because I grew up as a fisherman and have always treasured the wild ocean. The idea that suddenly we were farming some of the very species I pursued as a hunter seemed distasteful. And indeed many of the early practices of aquaculture were shoddy at best. In the early days of salmon aquaculture it could take as many as six pounds of wild forage fish to grow a single pound of farmed salmon. Where was the logic in that? But what I also found in Four Fish was that aquaculture has the potential to give humans a second chance at animal husbandry. People in the paleo community know very well the abuses of animal rights and ecological welfare that are committed every day through confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s). Does the culture of fish and shellfish have to go down the same industrial road? I am hopeful that it does not.
Americans, though, remain deeply suspicious of aquaculture. Even the growing of ecologically advantageous creatures like oysters, mussels and clams makes eyebrows go up. This inability to parse good from bad in marine farming has contributed to turning the United States into a seafood debtor nation. Even though the US controls more ocean than any country on earth, we import up to 90% of our seafood from abroad. This question of domestic versus imported fish ended up being the essential dilemma of my second book, American Catch, The Fight for Our Local Seafood. Along the way I saw two things going on. One was the aforementioned aversion to aquaculture. The other was the carelessness we displayed in taking care of our estuaries, rivers, and coastal areas; nursery ecosystems that could generate much more wild seafood for us if they were healthier. Because we Americans eat only 15 pounds of seafood per person per year (compared with 200 pounds of landfood meat) we don’t think of our coasts as food systems. Since colonization we have lost 70 percent of our salt marshes and put in over a million dams around the country. My tiny home state of Connecticut has over 3000 dams, most of which were built to grind wheat. This map of Connecticut shows you the extent of the problem. Every dot on the map below is a dam.
As I wrote American Catch I found myself increasingly bumping against much of the great work Michael Pollan has done in his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. In particular what I saw was a growing conflict between seafood and land food. A conflict that degrades our environment even as it affects the quality of our food supply. But how to get at this in a book? I realized there was another intersection with Pollan around that question:
the American obsession we have with nutrients rather than food. In the case of terrestrial agriculture that has led us down the road of processed food; foods that try to reassemble what the world gives us naturally. And in seafood, I realized it was all boiling down, quite literally into the question of omega-3 dietary supplements.
All this led me to the third book in my marine trilogy, The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet. The book is an exploration of the marine creatures that underlie the dietary supplement industry and the marine aquaculture industry. These “forage fish” like anchovies, sardines and herring are keystone species that support many of the large fish we like to eat. To understand how those creatures work I traveled to Peru, Antarctica, Norway and the Mediterranean and saw how they are “reduced” by the billions into fish meal and oil. I came away from my exploration feeling like we needed a major realignment. I still believe that aquaculture is an important way to get seafood into the American diet. But I don’t believe we need to rob Peter to pay Paul. There is really exciting cutting-edge technology that can cut wild forage fish out of the aquaculture food chain. Technology that does not require GMO and which would also dramatically reduce food waste. And if we were to do this we could end up with animal protein that is a good deal less damaging to the planet than landfood meat. Because fish are cold blooded and because they float, their energy requirements are generally a good deal lower than say cattle or pigs. The equation is even better when we look at growing thing like clams, mussels and oysters. Those organisms don’t need to be fed anything at all. They get plump and nutritious by filtering the ocean of microalgae and often improve the marine environment in the process.
Along with fixing aquaculture, we also need to fix our land food issues. We need to come up with ways to farm animals that lessens the pressure on estuaries, rivers and other key coastal ecosystems. We need to work on things like perennial grains that keep soils in place and lock in fertility and limit the spread of coastal dead zones. In short, we need to understand what wild systems historically brought us and emulate those systems. It’s my hope that with that kind of thinking in our minds we can bring the land and sea into balance and make for a healthier and more ecologically robust world.
Are fish good for us and for the planet? Yes. They can be. But we need to use all the power of hearts and minds to do it right.