Friday, October 28 , 2016, 1:51 am | Overcast 64º


Sarah Ettman-Sterner: In Search of Sustainable Seafood

Want to cast your net for some healthier food choices? Green Hawk can help

Sarah Ettman-Sterner
Sarah Ettman-Sterner (Nick Sterner photo)

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.

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“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.

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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!

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Red abalone aquaculture takes place locally at the Cultured Abalone facility on Dos Pueblos Ranch. The Santa Barbara Fish Market sells big “abs” by the pound; small ones are priced at $5.95 each. (Jim Knowlton photo /

» 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)

» Abalone (sustainably raised by the Cultured Abalone on Dos Pueblos Ranch, now available at the Santa Barbara Fish Market at the Harbor)

» 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)

A halibut blends in perfectly with the sandy bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel. The fish is a great sustainable seafood choice.
A halibut blends in perfectly with the sandy bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel. The fish is a great sustainable seafood choice. (Jim Knowlton photo /

» 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

» Elements Restaurant & Bar, 129 E. Anapamu St., 805.884.9218

» Epiphany, 21 W. Victoria St., 805.564.7100

» 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!

Quick Clicks

» 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.

Green Hawk interactive producer Sarah Ettman-Sterner focuses on current environmental trends and marine-related topics. A member of the Society for Environmental Journalists, she provided the “voice” for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society for more than a decade. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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» on 08.10.09 @ 07:39 PM

You are such a great writer, easy to read, interesting so I want to read more, & good tips that I write down for my wallet. I want to see that little green octopus on the doors of all our restaurants and I will mention him to my favorite stops.
Thank you for your efforts to spread the word about how we all can take steps to save our planet. We can do it!

» on 08.11.09 @ 01:04 AM

There’s nothing like elite American environmentalists lecturing other Elite Americans about what to eat or not to eat in a fancy restaurant that most of us can’t afford anyway, when the problem obviously lies with lack of environmental concern in third world countries where they are happy just to have a meal on their table. You think they care how many turtles get caught in their nets? How about just not going out for dinner if you’re so concerned. Like that will have such an impact on the guilty parties that over fish overgrow and overcatch. It isn’t the consumer it is the supplier! With all due respect it is a well researched and written article, but go lecture in Asia or South America if you really want to make a difference, instead of living the high life, going out for dinner and impressing your elite friends with how “greener than thou” you are and looking down your nose at those who aren’t!  We already understand the problem here, we never hear the end of it! But we are not the source of it.

» on 08.11.09 @ 01:26 PM

Thanks so much for this article.  Choosing sustainable seafood can be tricky - but you laid out some great guidelines.  One thing I would like to caution folks about, however, it the inclusion of U.S. Farmed Yellowtail on the Monterrey Bay Seafood Card.  This fish is farmed in open-ocean cages in Hawaii by a company called Kona Blue Water Farms, which is the ONLY producer of US Farmed Yellow Tail - which they sell under the brand of Kona Kampachi.  In addition to the environmental impacts of the farm, Native Hawaiian groups have been protesting the incursion of the farm on their land and the disregard for their religious rights. Kale Gumapac, a representative of the Kanaka Council from Hawaii went out to Monterey Bay Aquarium to speak with them about reconsidering US Farmed Yellowtail as a “Good Alternative” - which the aquarium seemed amenable to.  The Blue Ocean Institute also recommends this ocean-farmed fish.  More information is available on it at As the ocean-cage farming industry continues to expand and promote itself as “green and sustainable” people need to be educated about the real and potential impacts that it can have on our oceans and those who rely on them.

» on 08.11.09 @ 01:51 PM

To Cynic,

You state, “We are not the source of the problem.”  We buy the things that impact the environment all over the globe, so we ARE the source of the problem.

Voting with our dollars is one of the most important ways to make change.  Have you noticed that the farmer’s market now has many more offerings of fish, meat, bread, fresh pasta, etc. in addition to an ever increasing supply of fresh fruit and veggies?  Because we support these more sustainable, local producers, our environment and local community is sustained.

I personally would rather pay more to only occasionally eat meat or seafood than eat more cheap, environmentally destructive food.

» on 08.11.09 @ 02:20 PM

The issue of sustainability and environmentally acceptable sea food is being dominated by “advocacy science”.  It is a PR campaign.  For example, you state that local trawler caught shrimp and halibut are fine by saying that low impact trawl gear is being used or the water is deep, therefore the environmental impact is small (because it is hard to see?).  Dragging a 3/8 chain across the bottom being held apart by “doors” that are plowing into the bottom is only low impact via PR.  In reality, this is clear cutting the ocean bottom. If you don’t value deep water organisms or things like sea pens, sponges, etc., just say that their ecology doesn’t count.

» on 08.11.09 @ 03:47 PM

If another eco-elite “green” PR campaign means I can get more yummy local critters to eat from the Farmer’s Market I’m all for it! It’s always funny/disturbing to see the eco-yuppie yoga moms in places like Lazy Acres buying up farm-raised salmon and other nasty seafood. We are lucky to live in a place with easy access to fresh, tasty seafood, pulled out of the water by local people. Purchasing local seafood is a win/win whether you believe in the “green” conspiracy or not.

» on 08.11.09 @ 05:44 PM

Dear Dallas,

Its true that there are cases when companies see the benefit of “green washing” without a substantive commitment to improved environmental practices.

BUT, in the two examples you cite, this is not just PR (and in fact, this article is the only thing that qualifies as “PR” for these topics).

Both the ridgeback prawn and California hablibut caught locally live in muddy seafloor which is considered resilient to the type of trawling that goes on (e.g., the sea pen populations are doing fine). In addition, trawling is limited to designated areas so that other habitat is left completely alone.

In addition, the trawl nets for the ridgebacks are not dragged along the seafloor. The trawl gear is kept above the seafloor (“semi-pelagic”) and there are lightweight chains (“tickler chains”) that hang down vertically from it. These chains make contact with the bottom, “scaring up” the shrimp into the nets without bulldozing the habitat.  There is very low bycatch, and my understanding is that almost all of it is fish that are consumed.

These are examples of the types of important distinctions that must be made to determine which seafood is environmentally sustainable.  It is not “advocacy science”! It hurts the cause of the environmental movement when broad brush statements lump those that are doing alright with those that aren’t. Almost any seafood harvest can qualify as sustainable IF managed and audited properly. The problem is that it is so hard to figure out which ones qualify, and the list is always changing. Its a tough problem.

» on 08.12.09 @ 01:08 PM

seems like the same people pushing for the local caught seafood are the same people who are pushing for the closures in the ocean.

» on 08.12.09 @ 02:27 PM

Hate to be the cynical cynic but the world’s population is not sustainable by the means you report. We passed that bar about 4.5 billion souls ago. In order to sustain higher human populations we will need to exploit vastly larger energy sources (geothermal) in order to manufacture food and goods outside of the realm of our biosphere’s ability to do it on its own (the solar paradigm). If you do not start to look into that new paradigm right now and begin to develop it, billions (not millions) of humans will starve to death with un-repairable damage to the ecosphere. I am not one of those “gloom and doom, end of the world types”, just one who looks at the numbers and sees it does not pencil out. Get your warm fuzzies where ever you want, I don’t care, but don’t peddle solutions which will not work and only delay the inevitable. If you want to keep human activity from wrecking the biosphere you have to look at the global physics involved in feeding, clothing and housing an ever increasing human population that has far out stripped the biosphere’s ability to maintain it naturally. Take the good from your sustainability philosophy, using your wallet, rather than legislation, being conservative in your consumption, respecting ecosystems as a steward would, then get busy figuring out how to grow more food from non solar supported systems (i.e. naturally).

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