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Sarah Ettman-Sterner: In Search of Sustainable Seafood
In Santa Barbara, it’s easy to make good choices about fruits and veggies to eat at home or in a restaurant. So why are we so slow to get with the program when it comes to carefully selecting seafood, which is hailed as a key component of a healthy diet?
Being choosy about where your seafood comes from can have a positive impact on your health, your local fishing community and the oceans if you take the time to learn a few rules of thumb — ideally before it lands on your plate under that mango salsa, cocktail sauce or citrus beurre blanc. Learning some basic facts and guidelines helps us become better seafood consumers, improve our purchasing power, and can influence food service and restaurant industries. When people change their behavior, this action translates to doing more to improve our health and the health of our oceans.
It’s Good To Be Picky
So, what do you really need to know? If you dive a little deeper into this subject, you may be surprised and somewhat shocked to learn the murky details behind how some seafood is produced. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, there are some striking facts consumers need to know.
“Today, nearly half of our seafood comes from farms,” according to the site. “Many farmed fish, including most farmed salmon, are raised in net pens, like cattle in a feed lot. (Their feed includes artificial colorants to give them the pink color we associate with fresh salmon.) Thousands of fish concentrated in one area produce tons of feces, polluting the water. Diseases can spread from fish in the crowded pens to wild fish. Antibiotics and other drugs used to control those diseases leak out into the environment, creating drug-resistant disease organisms. And if farmed fish escape their pens, they can take over habitat from wild fish in the area.”
Salmon’s Dirty Secret
Watch this great video to learn more about farmed-raised Atlantic salmon and why wild fish salmon are the best choice.
Polluted Pond Prawns
Before taking your next bite of shrimp cocktail, consider what Seafood Watch has to say about how jumbo prawns and shrimp are produced: “In Thailand, Ecuador and many other tropical nations, coastal forests of mangroves once sheltered wild fish and shrimp, which local people caught to feed their families. Mangroves also filter water and protect the coast against storm waves. Many mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with shrimp farms that supply shrimp to Europe, Japan and America. After a few years, waste products build up in the farm ponds and the farmers have to move on. The local people are left with no shrimp farms — and no mangrove forest.”
Watch a video on shrimp farming and the problems associated with this unsustainable practice.
Waste Not, Want Not
Most consumers don’t realize that 25 percent of sea animals caught in commercial fish nets die as unwanted or unintentional by-catch. Seafood Watch states that “tons of fish are tossed out, dead or dying, because they’re not the kind the fishermen wanted to catch. The discarded animals may have no market value, or there may be no room on the boat to bring them to shore. Or the by-catch may be a marketable species, but too small to sell. Sometimes, fish are discarded because the fishermen lack the proper permits to land them. Dolphins, sea turtles, seals and whales all get caught by accident in fishing gear and drown. Seabirds, including endangered albatrosses, drown when they snatch baited hooks and are pulled under water.”
Watch the “Bycatch Movie”
More of a Good Thing Now Means Less in the Future
“One of the most sobering environmental issues of our time is the insatiable rise in the demand for seafood” says Kim Selkoe, Ph.D., a UCSB researcher with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Selkoe, co-director and founder of the Santa Barbara Sustainable Seafood Program goes on to point out that “a third of the world’s fisheries have already collapsed due to overharvest. The removal of so much of world’s marine life has already had a big impact on the health of oceans and their potential to continue feeding the world’s growing human population in the future. Most consumers are unaware that they may be supporting the decline of our seas and rarely understand the vast amount of by-catch, waste, and pollution generated to get one fresh-looking fish on their plate.”
Help for the “Seafood-Challenged”
So, what’s the solution? Don’t despair; there is help for the seafood-challenged! Thanks to the forward-thinking folks at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History/Ty Warner Sea Center, home of the Santa Barbara Sustainable Seafood Program, you can raise your seafood IQ in no time. Funded by Patagonia and the Hearst Foundation, the program features exhibits, free literature, cookbooks for sale, and tips that take out the guesswork about what to eat and where to dine when we want, locally caught sustainable seafood.
Selkoe explains how the works: “All restaurants and markets that serve seafood in Santa Barbara are encouraged to set up a personal on-site meeting to get a crash course in sustainable seafood that is tailored to their menus. They are invited to join; membership is free. However, these establishments must demonstrate their commitment by pledging to take steps to increase the sustainable seafood choices on their menu.”
Seafood Watch research is used to guide the menu evaluation process. What makes the program unique is the collaborative effort between the program and local chefs to modify menus to include local, environmentally friendly offerings. The program also trains wait staff, chefs and market employees, to educate them on the difference between sustainable and unsustainable seafood.
With 13 local restaurants in the program, diners just have to look for the Sustainable Seafood Program’s green and blue octopus decal in the storefront to know that anything on the menu is ocean-friendly. Wherever you go, you can use you newfound knowledge to ask your server before you order:
» Is this a local and/or wild-caught item? If yes, great!
» How was it caught? (avoid bottom trawled fish)
» Where was it caught? (Think carbon footprint)
» Is this farm-raised Atlantic salmon? If yes, don’t order!
» Is this shrimp farm-raised or caught in Asia? If yes, avoid. Farming and trawling in Asia tend to be the most polluted and the most environmentally damaging, respectively. Note that California shrimpers are now using less damaging traps and trawls to harvest shrimp sustainably, so you owe it to yourself to find out.
» Does the restaurant offer rock shrimp instead of prawns or other types of shrimp? Rock shrimp are wild caught in deep water where trawling doesn’t cause much environmental damage.
To make it easier to select seafood from the menu, check out these green and good choices:
» White sea bass (in season June-March)
» Spiny lobster (in season October-May)
» Oysters and Mussels (line-grown offshore)
» Rock crab (trap caught year round)
» Spot Prawns (trap caught, February-October)
» Ridgeback Shrimp (caught by low-impact trawling, October-May)
» Halibut (gillnet, trawl or hook and line, year round)
An exchange of information about seafood with restaurant and grocery servers adds value to your dining/shopping experience. Remember to be patient if they can’t answer all questions. You can be a leader in this issue by sharing with others what you know about seafood and suggest they give the Sustainable Seafood Program a call about training and membership.
The following restaurants are members of Santa Barbara’s Sustainable Seafood Program. Look for the octopus emblem, which signifies their adherence to high standards and environmentally friendly seafood. Please reward these trailblazing venues with your business!
» Aldo’s, 1031 State St., 805.963.6687
» Arts & Letters Café, 7 E. Anapamu St., 805.730.1463
» Blue Agave, 20 E. Cota St., 805.899.4694
» Bouchon, 9 W. Victoria St., 805.730.1160
» Brophy Bros., 119 Harbor Way, 805.966.4418
» Coast, 31 W. Carrillo St., 805.884.0300
» Downey’s, 1305 State St., 805.966.5006
» Fresco Café, 3987-B State St., 805.967.6037
» Julienne, 138 E. Canon Perdido, 805.845.6488
» Seagrass Restaurant, 30 E. Ortega St., 805.963.1012
» State & A Bar & Grill, 1201 State St., 805.966.1010
Finally, if you are looking for fresh seafood right off the boat, please go down to the Santa Barbara Harbor. You’ll get to see the day’s catch unloaded by our local, hard-working fishing fleet. Every Saturday there’s a fisherman’s market set up right on the docks. Or, make your way over to the bustling Santa Barbara Fish Market. Check out the interesting pictures of local big, bad, white sea bass and pick some up for dinner. Let them know that Sarah at Green Hawk sent you!
» iPhone App: Click here to download Seafood Watch’s iPhone App.
» Use your phone to get fish tips from Blue Ocean Institute: To find out about your seafood choice, text 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish in question. Blue Ocean institute will text you back with our assessment and better alternatives to fish with significant environmental concerns. Click on the Seafood Widget below to get started:
» Seafood Watch Pocket Guide: Click here to download a handy pocket guide pdf.
» Cool Sushi Guide: Click here to download a Seafood Watch Sushi Guide.
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