Maryn McKenna of National Geographic’s “The Plate” served up her New Year’s resolutions in a 2 January blog post titled “Buy the Change You Want to See in the World.” Generally speaking, I agree whole-heartedly with McKenna that taking action on food–using one’s purchasing power to help affect the changes we may like to see in the food system–is a worthwhile resolution. Certainly it beats, as she puts it, phrasing resolutions as denial.
“[I]nstead of phrasing my resolutions as denial,” she writes, “this year I’m framing them as actions I can take on behalf of my health and the food shed’s health as well. And because the biggest way I interact with the food system is to spend money to purchase its products, I’m choosing five categories of foods to buy that I believe can make a difference, and that I want to see thrive.”
As a journalist, McKenna’s beat is public health, global health and food policy. In 2014, I found my writing wandering more than usual into the realm of public health and food policy insofar as it relates to my beat of fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. As such, I’ve been reading McKenna’s blog posts, and I want to take a moment while we can still commit to New Year’s resolutions to share two of her fisheriescentric ones with you here.
Eat U.S. Shrimp (Almost) Always!
McKenna’s Resolution #2 is “Purchase only US-produced shrimp.” With one notable exception, this is something our family has been embracing for years now, and I’d encourage more people to join McKenna in adopting this one. As she points out, “Academic reviews and government audits have consistently shown that foreign-farmed shrimp contain high levels of antibiotics and banned chemicals, including carcinogens, and investigations by nonprofit organizations have demonstrated that shrimp farming is hugely destructive to coast environments.”
Bravo! In many parts of the world where I’ve travelled on assignment, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of coastal shrimp farming on marine ecosystems. What happens too often is that the shrimp ponds are built directly on the coast necessitating the removal of mangroves. Without the mangroves, the shoreline becomes far more susceptible to storm surges and, of course, the all-important nursery habitat for so many marine species disappears. Further, terrestrial runoff, no longer mitigated by mangrove forest buffers, travels unabated into lagoons, estuaries and bays. Often this runoff is polluted and has a high nutrient content because of land-based agriculture that then wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems from seagrass beds to coral reefs.
Another problem with many of these coastal shrimp farms is that the ponds themselves are often treated with pesticides to get rid of unwanted organisms (including pest shrimp!). In the worst cases I have observed, the ponds are “nuked” with pesticides when other organisms reach a biomass that eats into the target species, and then the toxic water is drained out into the ocean where it can have devastating effects on both seagrass beds and coral reefs.
The one notable exception to only eating U.S. shrimp? Our local fish monger (shout out to Jess’s Market in Rockland, Maine) carries farmed shrimp from Ecuador. Based on my knowledge of shrimp farming, I initially steered clear of these shrimp, but then one day I asked the question. These so-called “blue foot white shrimp” come from Ecuador shrimp farms and are the product of Vermont-based Tropical Aquaculture Products, Inc. The company has a strong commitment to both socio-economic and environmental sustainability, and while these aquacultured shrimp are regularly on our table (we live in Maine, where fantastic local seafood options abound!), they are frequently the best shrimp option we have. This is sadly especially the case with the northern shrimp (aka Maine shrimp) fishery closed for the second year in a row.
McKenna also directs readers to U.S. farmed shrimp “which is produced without antibiotics, fungicides or hormones either in inland ponds, such as Alabama’s Greene Prairie Shrimp, or completely indoors like Massachusetts’ Sky 8 Shrimp.”
Choose Trash Fish (Wisely)!
Resolution #3 on McKenna’s five is “Choose trash fish.” Again, I generally agree with her that we need to be both talking about and choosing so-called “trash fish” more often, and I’m all for her specific recommendations of herring, sablefish, mackerel and lingcod. Where McKenna and I may part company a bit is in the oft unintentional slight-of-hand that equates what’s good for the environment with what’s good for you. The sustainability of seafood is generally judged on its environmental and socio-economic value, and it’s critically important to remember that the sustainable choice isn’t always the healthy choice when it comes to your body.
The trouble with some trash fish is that these may be species about which we know relatively little regarding their nutritional value and possible health risks. Because there are not large commercial markets for many of these species, they may not have been studied as intensively. While most people should certainly eat more fish for the health benefits, it’s also important people understand the risk. For example, I spent more time than I’d expected covering spiny dogfish last year.
What started as an innocent story on trash fish and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute‘s (GMRI) Out of the Blue program and a separate initiative to get the USDA to make a Section 32 surplus purchase of the small shark species took a surprising turn when I met Dr. David Taylor (Roger Williams University) and learned about his research regarding mercury in dogfish. Undoubtedly a government surplus purchase of dogfish would have helped the embattled New England fishing industry, but at what cost? Dogfish is high enough in mercury that my own state of Maine advises women of childbearing age and children to avoid it. Certainly this isn’t a food we want in National School Lunch and food assistance programs as a generic fish stick or breaded fish fillet, is it? What’s good for the environment may not always be good for you.
Dogfish cautionary tale aside, I do agree with McKenna that seeking out trash fish this year is a worthy resolution when it comes to environmental sustainability. Even better, rather than blindly eating what someone else has identified for you as sustainable, good-for-you trash fish, take McKenna’s better advice and simply aim to “eat lower on the ocean’s food chain.” Mercury bioaccumulates up the food chain, and therefore the higher you go, the more risk you have to mercury exposure. Nonetheless, as McKenna suggests, put a Chef’s Collaborative Trash Fish dinner on your calendar for 2015 (like this one in Sarasota about which I wrote in 2014).
McKenna has three other good suggestion in her blog entry, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety here. Here’s to buying the change you want to see in the world of (sea)food in 2015!