Over the last several years, Slow Food has become almost synonymous with local food. Indeed, shopping locally helps ensure that we are encouraging many of the values of Slow Food. Although local is not inherently better, when we buy from the farmers in our community, we can see first-hand how the land is being treated, we can see our dollars supporting our local economy, and we know our food is fresher for it has not been picked early and shipped across the globe. So now we have a pretty good handle on how to get good, clean, and fair tomatoes, carrots, and beef, but how to do expand slow food ideals to products that will never sustainably be produced nearby? Many of us take comfort in labels that promise our bananas and coffee are organic or fair trade, or sometimes even shade grown or cruelty-free, although those definitions are troublingly vague.
Finding good quality fish that lives up to the standards of the Slow Food can be even more difficult. Information about sustainable, healthy fish can be confusing and contradictory. Often the method and location of the harvest is even more important than the variety when determining these values, and those details are seldom provided. Worse yet, many times the information that is given is false, and the international nature of fisheries makes traceability nearly impossible in most cases. And yet the situation for our planet’s fish and the communities that depend on them are increasingly dire. What can we do?
Below I provide a very brief summary of some of the main issues threatening our global fisheries and the devastating effects on the environment, society, and our personal health, and then I provide at least one positive alternative for consumers who love the rich, delicious flavor of healthy ocean fish. For more information, I encourage you to check out Slow Food International’s Slow Fish campaign.
What are the main concerns?
- Overfishing – Due to increased demand, increased mechanization, and a lack of regulation and oversight in international waters, and illegal pirate fishing, many of varieties of fish are being harvested to the point of extinction. The FAO reports that almost 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks for which assessment information is available are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. As stocks become depleted and larger mature fish are no longer available, smaller younger fish are caught before they reach their reproductive potential, which exasperates the problem. In short, we are harvesting fish faster than they can reproduce themselves.
- Bycatch – Industrial scale fishing is a largely imprecise endeavor. Huge trawler nets and longlines scoop up everything in their path, to be sorted out later on the boat. Turtles, sharks, dolphins, other fish, and even some sea birds are caught unintentionally and most are killed in the process. It is estimated that anywhere from 25-40% of the global ocean fish harvest is bycatch. It is a devastating waste of ecosystems and fragile marine communities.
- Seafood Fraud/Labeling – On its way from the boat to our plates, many fish are mislabeled and disguised to be other fish. Oceana recently published findings from DNA testing in 14 cities across the United States wherein between 18 and 52% of the fish tested were fraudulently labeled. Estimates are even higher (25 to 70%) for fish like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod. Deception in the marketplace makes it very difficult for consumers to make education decisions about the fish they choose.
- Aquaculture/Fish Farming – With all of the negative aspects of wild ocean fishing, it might seem like fish farming would be a good idea. However, the truth is that this is, in many cases, just as bad for the environment, local communities, and the health of the consumer. Often aquaculture is located in coastal areas where mangroves and even coral reefs are destroyed and human communities are displaced in order to build industrial ponds or ages. Once operational, fish farms produce huge amounts of fecal waste and water contaminants, comparable to that of large CAFO pig or chicken farms, that seep out and poison the natural environment. Besides all that, farmed fish are frequently fed large quantities of fish meal, oil, and smaller fish, sometimes resulting in a net loss for protein.
- Fishing Communities – Much the same as in agriculture and animal husbandry, large-scale fishing vessels and fish farms can be as destructive to human communities as they are to natural ones. Fish are a culturally important food source around the world, and fishing is equally important as an occupation. Industrial fishing operates on an economy of scale that out-competes smaller, more traditional fishermen and women, driving them out of business and making entry by younger generations nearly impossible. These large fishing boats, usually operated by foreign interests, are also responsible for overfishing varieties that have been valuable to poorer countries for basic sustenance and cultural identity.
- Bad Fish – Even if all of this weren’t enough to turn Slow Foodies away from ‘mainstream’ fish, the final straw must be that the fish just doesn’t taste as good. We have already discussed how larger varieties and individuals have been overfished, leaving us with smaller, younger, bonier fish. Then huge fishing nets and longlines take in vast quantities of fish (and other things) that are often bruised and damaged in the process of being hauled in and sorted. Many spend hours or even days out of the water before being iced, and they are then processed and packaged with large, brute machines that further damage the meat. Freshness is seldom guaranteed, despite what the label might imply. The fish raised in fish farms are no better, being genetically inferior, laden with antibiotics, and often dyed to resemble their wild relatives. Even for the savvy connoisseur, options are grim.
An Option for Slow Fish: Introducing the Community Supported Fishery
Slow Food International’s Slow Food Campaign has worked not only to outline the hazards of industrial fishing and fish farming, but also to identify some positive alternatives. One of the most promising solutions is direct to customer marketing schemes that connect conscious consumers with artisanal fishing communities. Although these are still relatively rare, Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) offer a source for a delicious catch that eliminates many of the concerns of industrial fishing:
- Smaller scale fishers harvest less overall, ensuring that wild stocks have time to reproduce;
- Their small fishing lines and nets create almost no bycatch;
- The direct sales ensure traceability and authenticity;
- The fish are wild-caught, without any of the negatives of the fish farm;
- Small boats and direct sales allow create more opportunity and better wages for fishers;
- Less volume means that the fishermen and women can take more care in harvesting and processing individual fish, which are then sent almost directly to the consumer, assuring a higher quality product.
Again, this is easiest when the resources are local. For those of us in the flyover states, options for good quality fish are slim, and complete traceability is seemingly unheard of – until now. One bright spot is appearing for sustainable seafood lovers in the midwest in the form of Sitka Salmon Shares, a small company that provides a Community Supported Fishery option for people in select areas Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana to purchase directly from the small fishing communities of Southeastern Alaska. Focusing primarily on salmon, Sitka Salmon Shares offers consumers the option of 3, 5 and 7 month shares that can include other Pacific treats such as halibut, black cod, and spot prawns.
In addition to all of the benefits of CSF schemes listed above, Sitka Salmon Shares goes even further towards complete sustainability by offsetting all of the carbon from shipping, donating a portion of sales to habitat restoration in salmon spawning areas in the Tongass National Forest, and also contributing a portion of all sales to sustainable food initiatives in the consumer territory of the midwest. This year, through their “Sitka Shares” campaign, the company will donate $25 from every share sold in the month of March in the Milwaukee area to our very own Slow Food WiSE. More information on this campaign, and on other Slow Fish events, will be announced soon!