Two ecological economists and one food system researcher teamed up to tackle the problem of sustainable food systems and reported on it in The New York Times this past week.
The team chose salmon for their study because it’s an important source of protein around the world and a food that is available nearly anywhere at any time, regardless of season or local supply. While they didn’t focus so much on what the fish consumed, they did bring to light the environmental impact of shipping salmon.
It’s not so much about organic versus conventional versus wild when you buy fish. It’s more about frozen rather than fresh because frozen fish has less impact on the environment than fresh. That’s because most people don’t live near salmon sources but still want it on their table. Flying in fresh fish to these consumers means using the most carbon-intensive form of transportation: airplanes.
When fish is flash-frozen at sea, its taste and quality is practically indistinguishable from fresh, the researchers claim. But the researchers also concede that fresh fish is probably the best choice if it’s driven a reasonable distance to market, resulting in a relatively low environmental impact.
Read more about their research on Ecotrust.org. (Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, Ecotrust integrates public and private purpose and for-profit and non-profit structures to inspire fresh thinking to create economic opportunity, social equity and environmental well-being.)
The fish industry is grimly affected by the demand for fish, as reported in another article from The New York Times last Friday. In San Francisco–the birthplace of the local food movement in this country–fisherman are having a hard time getting enough local varieties to supply the area’s restaurants. Instead, restaurants such as the Tadich Grill are flying in farmed salmon from Scotland. That’s because there’s been a 71 percent drop in commercial fishing revenue along the north-central California coast since 1990, according to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
It’s all part of a national phenomenon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly China.
The drop in local harvests doesn’t necessarily reflect the decline of fish in the sea. Both expanding global markets and more assertive local controls have caused major changes. Salmon fishermen tend to blame the decline on inland water users, like farms and developers, who, they say, diverted water needed for spawning new generations of fish. Scientists suggest that a warming ocean has put the fishes’ food supply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others blame mismanagement.
But restaurants are trying to make it look like they’re offering local fish with advertisements like “fresh catch of the day” when it’s often farmed fish flown in from across the globe. In 2005, vendors were obligated to label the country of origin. Combined with the catchphrase “sustainable,” it appears the restaurant is considering environmental impact when, in reality, fresh fish may be flown in across the country. As George Leonard, a marine biologist at the Ocean Conservancy says, “When you put fresh fish in an airplane, all bets are off.”
So where does that leave me in the fish dilemma?
If the fish isn’t local, buy frozen. I still don’t have a good resolution to the farmed versus wild argument. But I guess that’s another blog post for the future. If you have some advice about farmed versus wild fish, please share!