Stewardship, the keys to consumer support for sustainable seafood

Walking Fish shells. Photo courtesy of Debbie Callaway, Walking Fish.

For Debbie Callaway, life is inseparable from the seafood industry. Her grandfather was a clam on the North River and a cook for a menhaden operation. But throughout her life, she saw the environment and the landscape being altered by forces such as demographic changes, development and pollution. It is as if the access to exploitable waters were more and more encroached.

“I’ve lived here in Beaufort all my life,” Callaway said. “And the changes are just amazing.”

Callaway sits on the board of directors of walking fish, a community-supported wild fishery that distributes in Raleigh and Durham. This cooperative model is based on a common concept of land-based agriculture called “community supported agriculture”. The idea is for consumers to buy shares of a seasonal harvest, which they collect weekly or bi-weekly from a designated location.

People who sign up get whatever is seasonally available that anglers catch that week – clams, oysters, flounder, shrimp, monkfish and more.

“We are increasing the availability of seafood for people living in the Triangle, who have limited access to fresh, local seafood – by delivering seafood directly from fisherman to consumer,” Callaway said.

The idea behind Walking Fish is the “triple bottom line– that for anything to be sustainable, it must recognize the interconnected nature of socio-cultural, economic and ecological systems. The aim is to harvest only what is seasonally available, to protect the environment and to use an economic model that makes the activity viable for the fishermen and interesting for the consumer.

The environmental impact of the seafood industry is a complex issue. Overfishing has been recognized as a problem associated with large-scale commercial fishing. National geographic reports that it first emerged as a problem in the late 1800s and by the mid-1900s poignantly affected regional fisheries. But by the end of the 20th century, it was clear that the ocean, and not the limitless food resource some thought, was nearing breaking point. Many species, such as Atlantic cod and herring, have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The pressure on biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems has increased and continues to grow.

Aquaculture – the practice of farming seafood in the ocean as an alternative to fishing – has been proposed as a partial solution to the problem. Aquaculture is not new, but it has been practiced sustainably in various forms for thousands of years. But if not sized properly, aquaculture faces many of the same obstacles as land-based agriculture – pollution, ecosystem disruption and landscape degradation – making it hardly a panacea solution.

Ryan Nebeker is a researcher and policy analyst at Foodprint. Foodprint is an organization dedicated to helping people know where their food comes from and how it affects social and environmental systems. One of the Nebekers recent reports for Foodprint was a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of aquaculture – especially large companies which it calls “Big Aquaculture”.

Aquaculture has been around for a long time, Nebeker said, and comes in many forms. But when it comes to the idea that aquaculture is a global solution to feeding the world, Nebeker has serious doubts.

“When you open the hood to how aquaculture actually works, you really come up against this idea that it faces a lot of limitations,” Nebeker said. “The idea that the ocean is some kind of magic gift where you can just farm fish doesn’t really work.”

It has a lot to do with understanding that aquaculture is not a one-size-fits-all practice – there are many different ways to farm seafood, and it’s important to differentiate between them. According to Nebeker, many of the species demanded by consumers are considered “high input” and therefore “high impact”.

These terms refer to where a fish is in the food web. For example, Atlantic salmon is a popular commercial fish. But it is at the top of the food chain, which means that to raise it, you have to feed it with other fish. Fish feed production greatly increases the environmental impact of Atlantic salmon farming.

“As a result, you end up feeding them a bit more than you’re getting back in terms of usable meat,” Nebeker said.

Consuming wild-caught fish that are lower in the food chain, such as sardines and anchovies, can help reduce the impact. As does the farming of other species that have positive environmental impacts, such as algae and bivalves. Oysters, with their natural ability to filter water, give something back to the environment in which they grow.

“Just be friendlier with clams, mussels, oysters — they’re so easy to cook,” Nebeker said. “Most people don’t realize that they have a really light impact on the environment. And they are delicious.

Supporting local fishing operations is another good way to reduce the impact, Nebeker said, but he also recognizes that for most of the country there are no “local” seafood products. Instead, traceability is of great importance.

“One thing that has become much easier in recent years is direct selling by fishermen and fishing cooperatives. Not everyone can go to the fish market per se, but it has become much easier to buy directly from fishermen. There’s a verified supply chain, you know they caught it, you know where they caught it.

Some, like North Carolina’s Walking Fish, serve inland communities in their state. But others instantly freeze their supply and ship it to other parts of the country.

Thanks to the Internet, this option is available in a larger part of the country than before. The downside, Nebeker said, is often cost. But when the cost is low, he said, it can mean someone is taking shortcuts. Therefore, this cost may not manifest itself economically, but environmentally or socially.

In his report, Nebeker stresses the importance of considering the ocean as a shared resource.

“This is a resource that everyone should be able to use and access,” Nebeker said. “But they shouldn’t be able to use it in a way that damages it for other people.”

For regional fishing operations like Walking Fish, the understanding that environmental health is linked to economic and social well-being is the basis of their business. After operating for approximately 13 years, Walking Fish has a consistent membership base that also shares these values.

“We have persevered and maintained a membership base that benefits from the availability of fresh seafood in Raleigh-Durham, but also provides a market for commercial fishermen,” Callaway said. “And for that, I am very grateful.”

This is the third in a series examining the role and sustainability of seafood in a healthy diet and is published in collaboration with North Carolina Health News.

Next in the series: What is the economic cost of seafood and who can afford it?

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