Know Your Seafood
Why choosing local matters
Here’s a widely cited statistic: 90% of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported.
But the statistic requires context. The reality behind it is still shocking and shameful, and it points to the need for seafood consumers in Maine to know their seafood. That means learning more about what’s locally available and when, asking questions, and trying new things, like scup, mackerel, and even dogfish.
What’s in a number?
Some researchers believe the eye-popping stat evolved in the early 2000s at a time of fast-moving international seafood trade, when the internet became a driver for distributing seafood globally, allowing some producers to capitalize on lucrative foreign markets.
Since then, the media, researchers, and several regulatory agencies have regularly cited this statistic.
But global seafood trade markets are complex. Tracking billions of dollars of product around the world is difficult, particularly when shipments pass through stopover countries, or when countries export products to be processed elsewhere and shipped back.
For example, the United States exports more than half a billion dollars’ worth of lobster every year (the bulk of that being from Maine) to Asia, Europe, and elsewhere. One of its most important trade partners is Canada. However, some of that lobster goes to Canada for processing and then is re-imported for sale here.
Why would lobster originally harvested here count toward imports?
A recent study suggests that the 90% figure should be reduced to only 65% to account for this re-import of seafood, including lobster, cod, wild Pacific salmon, shrimp, etc. The authors claim that the remaining 35% or so was originally harvested here, regardless of where it was processed.
Sixty-five percent seafood imports is still too high, and more importantly, that number is a bit misleading because it disregards seafood that was actually caught here, processed elsewhere, and re-imported as a fundamentally changed/new product.
Know your seafood
Everyone should know some of the risks that come with eating cheap, imported seafood (i.e., antibiotic use, overall quality, health safety, slave trade, and carbon footprint). Ask the following questions the next time you’re at a store or restaurant (regardless of whether or not you eat seafood):
- Where was it harvested? Buying local seafood supports local fish harvesters and their communities, and it generally ensures high-quality product. If you can’t get local, get regional; and if you can’t get regional, at least get domestic because the United States has some of the world’s highest seafood safety and quality standards.
- When was it harvested? Buying local can also help ensure freshness. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell by looking at filets. However, domestically harvested, properly frozen seafood can be as good as, if not better than, never-frozen product that has been in transit for a couple days.
- Who harvested it? You may not get the answer, but the point is to support local, small-scale fishermen who often take better care of the resource than huge operations. And if you don’t know your fisherman, try to befriend your fishmonger so you can trust the sourcing.
- Was it farmed, and if so, did they use antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says globally, we are now growing more seafood for human consumption than we’re capturing in the wild. That said, there are many questions about the health, quality, and safety of imported farmed seafood.
Lastly, try new species! We can support healthy marine ecosystems by diversifying our palettes and eating some under-utilized species. Here in Maine, hake and pollock make excellent fish tacos, as does cusk, which is also great in seafood stew. Grilled mackerel is excellent, and wait until you try butterfish!
The 7 Cs of Sustainable Seafood (see sidebar) is a reference point for conscientious seafood decisions that emerged from the sustainable seafood KNOW Fish Dinner collaboration as well as the broader Slow Fish movement toward providing good, clean, and fair seafood for all.
Together, conscientious seafood eaters can help reduce the percentage of imports, whether that’s 90% or 65%.
Seven C’s of Sustainable Seafood
- Curiosity: Ask where, when and how your fish was caught, and by whom.
- Community-Based: Choose local seafood harvested by community-based fishermen who care about the resource.
- Supply Chain: Patronize local seafood stores (or subscribe to Community Supported Fisheries) that ensure transparency back to the boat and pay a fair price to fishermen.
- Change It Up: Try underutilized species. (ex. pollock, hake, scup, cusk, Acadian redfish, etc.).
- Cycles: Eat within the ecosystem, (ie, local seafood available during different seasons).
- Cultivate an understanding of sustainable shellfish aquaculture practices and avoid industrial aquaculture products.
- Connect the Dots: Learn how our choices on land affect ocean health. Climate change, natural resource extraction and chemical run-off are just some manmade byproducts impacting overall marine ecosystem balance.
Colles Stowell is president of One Fish Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings the sustainable seafood message into classrooms (from elementary through college) and communities.