Do You Know Where Your Seafood Comes From?

Do You Know Where Your Seafood Comes From?

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LONG BEACH -- It’s not everyday that Californians get to eat fresh, local seafood caught off their own shores. In fact, unless you caught it yourself, there’s a good chance you never have.

That’s because 91 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from other countries, due to the dangerously low amounts of seafood now found in American waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The seafood trade deficit is an astonishing $10.4 billion per year—second only to oil. And if we don’t learn to collectively start varying our seafood choices, say advocates, the chances of our favorite fish staying on the menu will only get bleaker by the day.

For that reason, Seafood for the Future (SFF), a non-profit seafood advisory program based out of Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, has made it their goal to promote healthy and responsible seafood choices.

In Long Beach, SFF is working with a number of coastal restaurants -- including Gladstone’s Long Beach, Parkers’ Lighthouse, Bluewater Grill and Market Broiler – to bolster the number of seafood offerings that are sustainable and in-season, and to promote healthy eating choices that contribute to the preservation of the ecosystem.

SFF evaluates their partner restaurants’ menus quarterly, and they even review seafood purchase invoices to ensure transparency and accountability.

“We need the consumer’s help,” says Kim Thompson, program manager of Seafood for the Future. “Ask the question: Is this sustainable and where did it come from?”

Seafood is considered sustainable when it can be produced without the fear of spoiling the species’ long-term sustainability, the environment that supports its life, or the communities whose general prosperity depends on its production.

Salmon, for example, one of the most popular dinnertime choices, is severely overfished and the farmed variety can also require up to 3 pounds of fish-based feed, per pound of meat. Compare that to Barramundi, also known as the “sustainable sea bass,” which needs only a half-pound—of vegetarian feed – per pound of meat.

While seafood favorites like salmon, tilapia, and sea bass can be oh-so-appealing to fish-lovers looking at the menu, advocates encourage consumers to try a sustainable fish instead. You may be surprised what you like, they say.

“Before my father started Fish Bonz, I had always eaten the same, basic types of fish,” says Taylor Taguchi, 24, whose father owns Fish Bonz Grill in Torrance. “Then after trying the Barramundi I realized that other fish can be just as good, if not better.”

Barramundi is known for its comparably sweet flavor to other popular sea bass.

It can also be farmed in a healthier, more environmentally friendly way than is traditionally used for commonly consumed fish.

For example, when farming salmon, they are often submerged in nets in the open ocean, which can lead to pollution-causing feces and waste accumulation that contributes to the spreading of diseases and parasites to other, wild fish.

In comparison, one of America’s biggest Barramundi farms, Australis Aquaculture, located in Turner Falls, Massachusetts, uses a recirculating system that draws in water from the Connecticut River, which is then recycled and cleaned after it has flowed through the fish tanks. Any solid waste is separated and sent as a fertilizer to other farms.

While U.S. fisheries are among the best managed in the world, according to a 2009 study by the World Wildlife Fund, imported seafood, which relies on foreign farming and shipping practices, doesn’t always fit the bill.

According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the FDA has rejected 1,380 loads of seafood from Vietnam for filth and salmonella, since 2007. Still, contaminated shrimp from Vietnam’s south coast fall through cracks in the FDA regulations and make their way to U.S. supermarkets unimpeded.

The FDA is only able to check less than 3 percent of imported food.

These shrimp, shipped in dirty plastic tubs, are covered in ice that has been made from tap water known to contain harmful bacteria that can contaminate the shrimp, according to microbiologist Mansour Samadpour.

Vietnam ships 100 million pounds of shrimp a year to the U.S.—8 percent of the shrimp consumed by Americans.

At a tilapia farm in China’s Guangdong province, reports are even worse. There, growing fish are fed feces from pigs and geese.

With roughly 27 percent of American-consumed seafood coming from China, the FDA has frequently found shipments to be contaminated. FDA inspectors have found 820 Chinese seafood shipments to be contaminated since 2007, according to the Bloomberg report.

Not even fresh-caught fish along the shores of Long Beach are sure to be safe.

Orange County’s Joe Mendoza, 82, has been fishing off the Belmont Memorial Pier for over 30 years, often as many as three times a week. While he fishes mainly for mackerel and halibut, he has to be aware of the fish that he can’t eat—due to its possible contamination.

Upon entering the historic pier, a warning sign, written in multiple languages, clearly indicates what fish to be wary of: white croaker, barred sand bass, black croaker, topsmelt and barracuda.

While Mendoza claims he has never been made sick from any of the fish he has caught, he admits he occasionally catches and eats the topsmelt and barracuda. But for the less experienced fishers who don’t know the difference between safe and unsafe fish—dangerous bacteria could be making their way through the stomachs of local fishermen at a much higher rate.

There is much that is still left unsaid about fish when it comes to reading the menus, labels, and warning signs at the pier’s premier fishing locations. As long as this is the case, SFF vows to increase transparency and consumer awareness about where and how seafood was caught, so as to diversify our culture’s seafood-eating choices and to reduce the demand for contaminated and overfished products.

For now, Thompson’s biggest hope is for more people to join the conversation about seafood and its sustainability.

“I want to reach the people who couldn’t care less,” she said.

For more information on sustainable seafood, check out seafoodforthefuture.org, pvsfish.org, and worldwildlife.org

Cole Hughey is a student in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Cal State Long Beach and a contributor to VoiceWaves, a youth and community journalism platform established by New America Media and supported by The California Endowment and the Long Beach Community Foundation.