Fish in Pittsburgh?
Let me start by discussing where we’re located: Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is amazing in that we have many beautiful farms just miles away from the city, and abundant farmers’ markets with bounties of fresh produce… at least during the summer months. We are also lucky that great work raising sustainable meat is being done in Pennsylvania. However, there’s one kind of meat that might be harder to source in our lovely inland city: fish. We’re not coastal. We’re not lakefront. We have rivers, yes, but I don’t think I’d eat any fish that were caught in them—at least not in the water around the city. So where does our fish come from? How do you, as a consumer, make sure that you buy it sustainably? And what does “sustainable fish” really mean?
I had the opportunity this semester to take a class on Sustainable Meat Production, and became fascinated by the question of fish in Pittsburgh. In this post, I want to talk a bit about what I’ve found in my research, directed toward consumers who want to learn more about this.
What is Sustainable Fish?
In searching for an easily-digestible meaning for sustainable fish and shellfish, I came across this mantra in Andy Sharpless’ book, The Perfect Protein. Riffing off of Michael Pollan (who famously wrote: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), Sharpless says: “Eat wild seafood. Not too much of the big fish. Mostly local.”
This isn’t a comprehensive rule, but in my research, I’ve found it to be a pretty good proxy for seafood sustainability, in addition to other metrics and tools that consumers can use. Let me break this down a little bit for you:
- Why wild? There is a compelling argument that wild domestic fisheries are rebounding, because U.S. laws have been put into place to prevent overfishing and reduce bycatch. Although some wild fishing can be hard on ocean ecosystems due to destructive fishing methods, farming marine fish nearly always represents a net loss of protein, because farmed fish are often fed wild fish and other animal proteins. Farming fish also usually represents an even greater disturbance to the ecosystem, and more waste. However, this rule doesn’t extend to shellfish farming, which is nearly always sustainable (as is some smaller, freshwater fish aquaculture).
- Why not big fish? This one is easy: A bigger fish means a longer food chain. Large fish are “heavily exploited and slow to recover,” according to Sharpless, so it’s more sustainable to diversify our fish consumption among many species of fish that are lower on the food chain and quick to reproduce. Consider things like anchovies and sardines, for example—super nutritious, easy on the wallet, and low on the food chain.
- Why local? Buying local fish seems like a weird rule, especially in Pittsburgh. BUT, this rule is mostly about buying domestic fish, so that fisheries are protected by U.S. law. If it’s U.S. fish, you also don’t have to fly it as far, reducing the carbon footprint of the fish. In Pittsburgh, try to buy U.S. Atlantic fish and shellfish, or freshwater fish in the Northeast Region of the country.
Another important thing to know about sustainable seafood is that sustainability isn’t static. There is no single fish that we can be certain is the answer to seafood sustainability over time. Because we have historically fished our oceans, lakes, and rivers so heavily that populations can’t recover from year to year, different fish will be abundant or scarce in different years. This is primarily due to overfishing which is when “more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction” (World Wildlife Fund). When overfishing continues, a fishery will experience a fishery collapse, which is when there is less than 10% of a historic fish population left. The Monterey Bay Aquarium states that “Today, 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed.”
Atlantic Salmon, for example, are commercially extinct because the fishery has collapsed from overfishing. So, any type of “Atlantic Salmon” you see in the store has been farmed. To make sure we’re not overfishing, we use something called MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield) as a scientific measure of sustainability, which is the maximum amount of fish you can take out of a population, over a period of time. Beyond MSY there are aspects of sustainable seafood, like limiting bycatch and negative impacts on the environment, sustainable labor, the source of your fish, fisheries limits and regulations, and more. So what can you do?
As I said above—eat wild seafood, not too much of the big fish, mostly local. In addition to that, the following section includes a few rules for Pittsburgh fish consumers.
Tools To Use: One great tool to use to better understand the status of the fish you’re eating is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website, which is also a Smartphone app, or a card that you can keep in your wallet, re-published each year. The Seafood Watch app also offers a “Seafood Near You” section, where you can find local purveyors of sustainable seafood. This is the best, most user-friendly, and most reliable public guide for fish sustainability in terms of overfishing, among any I’ve found. It’s linked here: http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations
The EDF Seafood Selector website has a great list of species as well: http://seafood.edf.org/
When you’re buying shellfish: Buy Atlantic wild or farmed—but farmed (or “shellfish culture”) in this case can often by the more sustainable choice. Oysters, mussels, scallops, and clams don’t require additional feed, so the input requirements for farming them are very low—they’re filter feeders. Also, since shellfish don’t move around like fish do, the quality of the meat will be the same in farmed shellfish. Many shellfish species filter the water, which can actually be beneficial for the marine environment.
When you’re buying farmed fish: The Global Aquaculture Alliance certifies for Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), which you should look for when you’re buying farmed fish. They assess environmental responsibility, social responsibility, food safety, animal health and welfare, and traceability. They certify for the whole chain of production, including farms, processing plants, and hatcheries.
When you’re buying wild-caught fish: Look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification on your fish. The MSC issues certifications annually to fisheries based on three core principles, including sustainable fish stocks, minimal environmental impact, and effective management. They also require that fish be traceable and segregated from non-certified products.