Is There Really a Debate over Seafood?

Whether we should continue eating seafood is a hot topic this week. While I was arguing (again) that we should give up eating seafood, Mark Bittman at the New York Times had a nice piece on how seafood has changed through his lifetime and how the days of "see it/eat it" are over. However, he stops short of a strong stance and tries to justify his continued seafood consumption:

One could argue, as I sometimes do (mostly to myself), that one shouldn't eat fish at all, fearing that if fish lovers begin consuming those few remaining species that are not in trouble -- sardines, mackerel, squid -- we might just make quick work of them, too. But though that may be the easiest argument to phrase, it isn't likely to be popular, nor will it help the cods and flounders.

Similarly, the debate (which is not particularly compelling since no one argued we should stop eating seafood altogether--again, fish need a wide spectrum of voices) rages on at the NYTimes blog. I prefer the one Randy Olson and I had on the Shifting Baselines blog back in 2007 since it presents a dichotomy (as one might expect in a debate).

We need stronger positions. And we need them soon. I believe people are realizing that the "choose this but not that" approach to seafood is a paltry one coming from the old guard. There is a new guard who has grown tired of this moderate (and therefore unexciting, however realistic it might be) stance.

After seeing the film End of the Line this week and seeing the devastating effects of overfishing, a good friend of mine wrote to me:

I have decided to give up eating fish though now. And meat only at weekends. You see that your good influence is (finally) having its delayed effect.

There will be more people who sign on to give up seafood altogether. And soon. I look forward to raising the profile of the Stop Eating Seafood movement.

More like this

Even though I mostly eat food provided by the local food bank and food pantry, I actually purchase food for my parrots (alas, food banks/pantries don't provide pet foods). So I went shopping today at my local 99 cent store (which should be renamed the local $2.50 store) looking for frozen fruits…
In an extension of first shifting baselines post where Randy Olson and I argued over whether to continue eating seafood, I wrote a guest post last week for The Reef Tank titled What happened to your clients? Um. We ate them. It begins: "So. What happened to our fish?" asks The Future. "Um. Well…
The observation of World Oceans Day June 8 sparked a lively online debate about the environmental repercussions of seafood consumption. Is it possible to know whether the fish you are eating is truly sustainable? Why is Pacific cod "safe" but Atlantic cod off limits? Is farm-raised salmon really…
Holy Macaroni (and I don't mean tuna noodle casserole)--this blog is one year old today! On April 8th last year, Randy Olson moved the Shifting Baselines blog to Scienceblogs and, for its launch, we staged a debate on whether or not to eat seafood. One year later, our seafood debate is still…

In my view, blaming eating sea food for the demise of fisheries is like blaming guns for violence. You need to get to the root of the problem, which is overfishing. Regulated fishing and aquaculture (while its sustainability could be argued) are the way to go, but not without "population adjustment".

With a decline of sea food products, demand should go up, as well as prices (which should not be gauged by subsidies). With some luck, it would be profitable to capture less (given the quotas would be enforced). In Utopotamia. :)

I think I'm 99.7% on board with the "don't eat fish" movement. My family averages fish once a year, for xmas dinner. Is overfishing a severe enough problem that I should consider giving that up too?

As for meat, my family has limited it to about once a month or so, and even then we basically eat only some locally grown buffalo and chicken, and a small number of other minor products like pepperoni on occasion, or hotdogs on a once-a-year camping trip.


I found myself agreeing with much of what Bittman said in the end, about seafood being a treat, but I don't think it will work for everyone, particularly with varying definitions of treat. I've only recently discovered a like for seafood, mostly in the form of sushi, having avoided it almost completely growing up. While I may some day give it up again, right now I only rarely eat it anyway, and would definitely call it a treat.

By ABradford (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

Kevin - you'll do much more good if you can convince someone who eats fish every week to only do it three times a month, than if you cut out your once a year consumption. As a vegetarian, I'm surprised that people see the moral issue as cutting out the consumption entirely - it's clear that what really counts morally speaking is decreasing consumption as much as you can where it's easiest. If I were to eat meat once a week, but get several meat-eating friends to cut back to once a week, that would be a big net reduction in meat consumption.

So yeah, I say don't worry about the occasional indulgence - just help other people realize the costs of their every day habits.

As a dedicated member of the E.O.D. I wouldn't think of eating seafood.

Even if I weren't allergic to it.

I haven't seen the movie so I'm interested if it addresses the problem of the huge number of people who, unlike Kevin and Rob, are more or less completely dependent on sea food for their nutrition. By huge I mean a billion plus human beings.

Making a serious reduction in the amount of fish caught means finding something else for those people to eat. Conversely it also means that if the fish stocks those people are feeding off collapse then mass starvation on an unprecedented scale is quite likely.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

The biggest consumers of fishes are fishes!
The sea is has everybody. If fishes is taxed (becomes dear(expensive)) in America, he(it) will be imported for cheaper.
The future is in fishes of breeding (!) is nourishing in cereal and animal meats.

It's self-serving and false to label your stance as "strong" and hence better, while others are the "old guard" and "moderate." Aiming for a linguistic win won't do it.

Is a hunger strike strong? Holding your breath until you turn blue? Both are about as likely to fix our oceans as eschewing fish.

Ethical eating or not-eating work much better for food products where consumption actions have some link to production actions. If you can look an ethical pig farmer in the eye and hand over cash directly, person-to-person, then you're doing something.

For seafood no such links exist for anything but artisanal fisheries.

The strongest action is that which makes the most change. Passing a new law that ends overfishing is strong, even if it's not the complete answer, because it makes big changes now in how our oceans are used by people.

Jennifer, that's great. I am a rural Alaskan and as a child I hunted and fished all the time. I gave up meat at around 13 and only ate fish. I gave up fish for reasons similar to yours now when I was 18 - I'm part Indian but I wanted more fish and game for the villagers. Salmon, that symbol of Alaska, are crashing, and crashing hard (so hard we shouldn't even dream about more dams). When I was a child crab meat was dirt cheap. Now it's hard to get real crab.

Even when we're eating packaged food marked "Real cockroach meat inside - not melamine!" the capitalist cornucopians will still tell us we're doing better than ever.

I read about one* that said he thought 10^25 people could live on the Earth with no ecological impact. More than the mass of the planet. I picture this f__ing ball of human flesh. Kind of a spherical lattice. Compressed in the middle to almost a core. When you die of suffocation or starvation or rickets, down you drop. Only the elites, I suppose, would get to live on the "surface" - the rest of us climb up and down in the human ball/latice. Maybe our food will be airborne algae, and crushed people?

Ben Elton's "Stark" is quite simply coming true. My mom moved near Willits where the Economic Localization project is - mentioned in Robert Newman's History of Oil. Their calculations just for FEEDING people, fairly soon, depend on 100% vegetarianism and composting everything including wastes and bodies.

*In the Great Mambo Chicken

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

One more thing - we need to end the harvest of fish for fertilizer too. We never budget - topsoil? what's that? oil? comes from saturn. Fish? ubiquitous and infinite. Etc.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 11 Jun 2009 #permalink

Don't go being all holy on us, child. You are young and idealist and don't yet realize - or don't want to admit to yourself - that saving fish means putting more pressure on other wildlife.

Everything has consequences. Eliminate one large source of food and some other source of food will have to increase. We too are eating almost no fish and almost no meat and making very careful (and expensive) choices about sourcing on the rare occasions when we do. But I am mindful that my soybeans are growing on what was once prairie and that is now the Great Corn-Soy Desert of America's midsection. I realize that although we eat organic, most of America does not and so honeybees are killed by pesticides, birds are killed to protect grapes, sunflower, and many other crops.

Thanks for the link. I hope to bring that film to my local university, if they're not already planning on showing it.

The strange thing is that while seafood is being annihilated, fresh-water fish are neglected in many places. For instance, carp is a pest in Australia and no-one knows what to do with them apart from killing as many as possible. In Central/Eastern Europe where I'm from it is widely consumed in many different forms. It is a sustainable oily fish that could be a viable substitute for seafood, but for some reason it is still mainly considered to be a sports-fish in most places.

By Anomalocaris (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

"End of the Line" does highlight West Africa which depends on fish for it's protein. It specifically documents a fisherman from Senegal who could barely make ends meet using his traditional methods while huge EU factory trawlers were fishing him out of a livelihood. That example right there is the reason why giving up seafood as protein is unrealistic on a global scale.

This is not new information but we need to lobby for better fishing regulations, as consumers ask where your seafood comes from, and don't buy it if they can't tell you how it was caught (ie hook and line).

People need food and jobs, I am optimistic that we can continue to do both.

I agree that there is place for all views in this debate, however I believe we should continue to push and educate seafood lovers and harvesters to make the best choices possible instead of boycotting seafood altogether.

By HivesItch (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Two nights ago I had the halibut with a special melted parmesan cheese sauce at the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto seafood restaurant in Tyson, Virginia. It made me want to drop to my knees and thank whatever heavenly forces were behind bringing together that piece of fish with those savory ingredients. My two film crew members had the same experience. It may have been the best seafood restaurant I've ever visited. Truly amazing. It obliterated my guilt meter.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Eleanor, with due respect, I think you're not "doing the math." This is not the middle ages, and we actually understand the sources, inputs, outputs, etc. of our food supply. The oceans are under pressure from overfishing, especially driftnets and bottom trawling, from increasing pollution, and from increased carbon dioxide, among other things. People need to stop immediately thinking of the oceans as an inexhaustible dump and resource depot.

Glad to hear you're not eating a lot of meat and fish.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

@8, there was an argument against reframing or re-defining the argument with new words. However, this might be actually the way to go. Whoever ate Patagonian toothfish before it became 'Chilean sea bass'? Or the bycatch now called 'Peeky-toe crab'? Perhaps bluefin tuna could be renamed seafart! (Chilean sea bass does in fact cause loose bowels for some eaters.)

@ #16 - On the contrary, I think Eleanor has done at least some of the math, perhaps some that you've missed? Eutrophication from fertilizer and sewage input to the Mississippi and Brazos Rivers is directly responsible for the extensive hypoxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. This leads to periodic fish kills, and diminished reproductive capacities for the fish that remain. One of the reasons that the dead zones have expanded recently is the increased corn production for biofuels, to (supposedly) reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Oil that's used to produce plastics (much of which ends up in the ocean), and to fuel cars and airplanes so that some can drive or fly across country, and give talks and attend meetings and vacation or whatever.

I think most people have to pick their battles in this life-the catch is whether they're willing to admit this. I've reduced my seafood consumption considerably over the past few years, but I'm not giving it up entirely. However, I have stopped drinking bottled water, and cut my travels quite a bit - I fly maybe once or twice a year. I also made a decision not to reproduce, but I'm not about to go around telling others what to do in that arena. It's interfering enough to encourage the neighbors to use the recycling bins that the city provides.

Barn Owl - not eating seafood contributes to exactly zero of those problems.

"You are young and idealist and don't yet realize - or don't want to admit to yourself - that saving fish means putting more pressure on other wildlife."

No, it does not. She's wrong, and so are you. period.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Those of you who are trying to change your diets have my sympathy. My wife and I became vegetarians a little over forty years ago, and I remember the struggle. All I can offer by way of encouragement is this: remember your reasons for making the changes. If those reasons are more important to you than the temporary dissatisfaction of a meatless and/or fishless plate, you'll get past it faster.

By John Swindle (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

I found your article to be very interesting had not thought about it before but found it interesting... Thanks for the blog

Then there's Sun Myung Moon and sushi:

Not sure how this fits in, but Americans currently eat a LOT of sushi.

Higher fish prices have dictated my move from fish to chicken. That and the fact that more often than not, fresh seafood offered for sale isn't fresh. When I lived in NYC, my seafood eating was varied, delicious, and sensibly priced. Now a mere 60 miles away, awful and high priced. As I get older, I look forward to having a Soylent Green - Edward G Robinson moment, showing off a illegal swordfish steak to a friend.

By fishy eater (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

Despite the "optimism" of some comments here that global, uncontrolled harvesting of wild fish populations is sustainable, the scientific assessments say otherwise. In addition, overfishing is just one of several destructive human impacts on ocean ecosystems, the cumulative effect of which is predicted to eventually reduce fishing harvests to not much more than jellyfish and algae. The paper below, for example, published in PNAS provides a good overview of where we are headed:

The paper's author also gave a very accessible presentation on the subject which you can see here:…

Changes in individual behavior such as seafood consumption by educated people in the developed world are important and meaningful, but the larger problem is massive, complex and global; no different than the global warming challenge. It will require global coordination and political will.

By Jim Costopulos (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

My question is this: how does farm-raised seafood play into this? I tend to eat tilapia most often, and it tends to be farm-raised. And the best fish I've ever eaten was from a trout farm, while I was staying at the adjacent campground. From pond to campfire in less than ten minutes... that's good eatin'.

In many cases it's better, Benjamin Geiger, but frankly, it's impossible to generalize, except in very strict terms where you follow as many inputs and outputs as possible.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

Yeah, um, Marion - see you are confounding all sorts of stuff. One great big mushed up mess of issues. Drift nets, purse-seine nets, bottom trawling, long-lining, bycatch - all cause problems, exacerbated by volume. At no point did I suggest, nor would I, that many fisheries are vastly overexploited. The oceans are in big trouble. So are terrestrial ecosystems. It's just that we've only realized how much trouble the oceans and fish populations are in for the obvious reasons - vast and hard to see. So you are arguing against something I never said. What I did say is that basically most of our natural resources are overexploited and in big trouble. Taking the pressure off one almost certainly means adding pressure to another. Except of course for that one, big, untapped resource: Soylent Green, anyone?


I reiterate that I am glad to hear you're cutting back on meat and fish.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

I'm confused. The very reason that humans evolved to the point we are at now, is likely the result of eating meat. There are numerous studies linking the high protein content of meat with increased brain size/function. Are we then a mis-step in evolution that is unsustainable? Or is the problem that we have become too prolific, and the world simply cannot viably produce enough fish, beef and poultry to satisfy all humans? It seems to me that we shouldn't HAVE to cut meat out of our diets, however, we NEED to because there isn't enough to go around. Personally, I eat meat nearly every day. I almost exclusively eat chicken, knowing how much worse it is to eat beef and especially fish. However, given my active lifestyle, not eating meat is not really an option- the dense protein and calories are difficult to find in alternative foods. I feel guilty, but the only options I see are for me to change my lifestyle, or hope that people stop breeding.

didn't you write "When whales were on the brink of extinction, the primary avenue of protection was not a campaign in opposition to using whale oil or eating whales.." (Jacquet and Pauly 2007) in your paper about how utterly ineffective seafood ecocampaigns are?

some more things you wrote "The implication being: if you don't eat it, someone else will...." in your article actually titled: Consumers Alone Can't Save Our Fish.

I like your argument that it is going to require more (political change, more government regulation) than changes in consumerism to improve the destruction to oceans caused by fishing, but then you spend all this energy about how consumers should stop buying seafood? What gives? It seems contradictory?

You want the truth? You can't handle the truth. But here it is anyway:

The problems are big and entangled. Polluting of the oceans, noise from ships and the navy, trawling, overfishing, the changing of the ph levels of seawater. These are all profound impacts that we have as a species on our planet.

Think about it. We are an apex predator species, at the top of the food chain, and with a voracious appetite. And we are omnivorous - we eats all kinds of meat and vegetables.

Imagine having 6.5 billion apex predators (say 6.5 billion grizzly bears or mountain lions). Can you imagine the impact on the worldwide ecosystem? Now make those 6.5 billion predators tool users who can alter their environment (or build new environments), and who can change the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans. Scary, huh?

We are omnivorous, tool-using, apex predators, and there are way, way too many of us for the planet. That's just the simple truth of it.

Unfortunately, becoming a vegan is not the answer. One, because people won't do it, so it's a moot point, and two, because we are by nature omnivorous apex predators.

There needs to be population control and intelligent resource management/environmental maintenance.

It demands basic, fundamental, wide-reaching changes of practically ALL of our living habits - from fossil fuels to diet, to transportation methods, to building materials. This means massive changes in how we educate our young and what behaviors we teach them. As long as money is more important than maintaining the ecosystem, people will destroy the earth in order to make a buck. How we think about economics has to change.

These are huge structural changes that must happen planetwide.

As a species, I don't think we are capable of pulling it off. We are not evolved enough to handle it yet.

Instead we are going to have to deal with the humanitarian crises, and the degradation of our lifestyles. There will be pandemics, economic depression, wars over water and other resources, global warming and climate change, sea level rise and all the rest.

It's going to get ugly, and in many places, society will simply break down.

This is because we don't have the necessary planet-wide willingness to co-operate, and this rests on a more fundamental problem that many people are not educated about the issues. They already live hand-to-mouth and are not disposed to long term planning when surviving this day now is what occupies all their attention.

It didn't have to be this way. Scientists, authors, and environmentalists were sounding the alarms even thirty years ago. We had all the warning signs. We just gave in to inertia and made a fundamental, irreversible decision that the dollar was more important than the ecosystem.

It's too late to talk about making a turnaround when we have already fallen off the cliff. You can dream about turning around, but really the solid ground is coming. The free fall will end. A lot of people are going to suffer and die. And when that time comes, it will be obvious to us what we should have done twenty years ago.

It was obvious to us then too, and we chose, on purpose, not to change. That's the thing that will be our undoing.

In response to comment #34 - it is funny how society goes from accepting that a problem exists to udder despair. There are real examples of fisheries recovering and fisheries that remain well managed: Maryland Striped Bass, California White Seabass, Alaskan Salmon, etc... your viewpoint of doom&gloom is both not based in reality and not helpful.

And to clarify by "udder despair" I mean that you suckle on the udder of despair... Actually that is an embarrassing typo, I meant "utter".

Jim is correct- there are seafood stocks that are healthy and well-managed. There are also numerous fish that people can only eat if they catch it themselves (snook, redfish).

"Stop eating seafood" is nice and touchy-feely but is, for one, unrealistic for cultures that get their primary protein from the sea.

Eat seafood you catch, eat well-managed stocks, eat catfish farmed in America, eat lower down on the food chain (sardines, herring, mullet).

Agree with comment #34.

Global population in 1830: approximately 1 billion
Global population today: right around 6.4 billion

It's tremendously depressing, but it's obvious: the surface of the earth (including the top 2,000 meters of the ocean) has simply been appropriated by one species. Ecosystems are changing accordingly. I, for one, simply cannot see how this is not the inevitable result of our ever-increasing population.

I have a photo of a single bull bison out on the prairie somewhere in the western US. The photo stretches on to a distant horizon, but no other bison are to be seen. I took it because, hey, it's a bison. Looking at it afterward, though, the message was striking: that bison was supposed to be a part of a vast herd, a herd that not 200 years ago may have stretched to the distant horizon in that photo. The true subject in that photo, then, is the barren prairie. That bison in the photo is ecologically extinct, a loose shred of a once-brilliant tapestry that just happened to blow into the frame, drifting without ecological purpose across what is now merely a landscape, not an ecosystem.

The same is true for those few scrawny Atlantic cod that are dumped gasping onto trawler decks amidst piles and piles of skates and crabs. It is equally true for countless other marine species that are not technically extinct, but are mere faded scraps of what they were.

Those old days of stunning natural productivity and biodiversity are gone, they are done, and they will not come again so long as multiple billions of humans seek to fill their stomachs on a daily basis.

I am afraid that many well-meaning attempts to stave off the ecological implications of our species' stunning ascension to the role of global apex consumer are misguided and of little long-term use. These efforts often seem to be - as the old saying has it - no more than mere stamp collecting, when compared to the cold physics of filling the stomachs of billions and billions of people.

By stbd side (not verified) on 15 Jun 2009 #permalink

In response to comment #38:
You say right inyour response "...amidst piles and piles of skates and crabs". So I don't think anyone will argue that Atlantic Cod have been destroyed, but it is still a productive ecosystem. The cod have just been replaced by other species which you do not find as pleasing...

I am glad for your enthusiasm but worry about your naivete and extremism. I hope you don't mind if I choose to follow the guidance of Carl Safina, who knows a thing or two about the status of the oceans and fisheries (from the NYT):
The Smaller the Fish, the Better
Carl Safina

Carl Safina is the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include âSong for the Blue Ocean,â âEye of the Albatrossâ and âVoyage of the Turtle.â

Iâm not your typical consumer. Iâm a scientist, writer, fisherman, New Yorker, scuba diver â for a living, I think about how the ocean is changing and what the changes mean for people. When I step up to a seafood counter, I think about the ocean we used to have, what we have now and what we want in the future.

The thing is, life changes and the answers to the questions I think about change over time. Swordfish, once the target of a successful consumer boycott, are doing much better now.

Do your homework before hitting the seafood counter.

In general, the smaller the fish the better. Bigger, longer-lived fish tend to be higher in mercury, slower to mature and reproduce, and therefore more depleted by overfishing. Farmed oysters, mussels and clams tend to be very sustainable and can actually improve local water quality. Domestic shrimp is O.K. these days, imported shrimp has problems. Environmentally, wild salmon is a better pick than farmed. Halibut? Go with Pacific. For lobsters: Atlantic or Australian are best-managed. Mahimahi reproduce abundantly and grow very fast. Sharks, snappers, groupers are not the best from a health or conservation standpoint. About half the seafood we evaluate is generally O.K. to eat with a good conscience, and the other half, well, you might want to skip it.

Do your homework â carry a wallet guide, surf the Web, hop on Facebook â before hitting the seafood counter, there are good resources at the ready.

Care. Ask questions. Decide. Repeat. Bon appetit.

Eleanor - I'm glad for your enthusiasm but worry about YOUR naivete with regard to mass communication (and given the volume of seafood consumed, it is a mass communication issue). You're living in fantasyland if you think even a hundredth of a percent of the American public is about to "do their homework" regarding fish consumption, versus allowing their libido to be massaged by Red Lobster's luscious "Unlimited Seafood Buffet" commercials. Do you know what their annual advertising budget is -- roughly $100 million. I see those ads and want to go eat a boatload of seafood myself.

This is an issue of mass communication, which means simplicity is the most powerful attribute. Towards that end, Jennifer's very simple plea to stop eating all seafood has a great deal more mass communication potential than seafood cards that are made for the reading-prone, already-converted.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 16 Jun 2009 #permalink

Randy - you are an optimist. You assume that if people know, they will change their behavior. I don't think they give a shit. Knowledge will change the behavior of a very, very few.

And calls for extreme measures - not sure how the masses will hear about that anymore than they will hear about the issue generally, but extreme positions tend to provoke backlash. Especially once they learn that some fish species and stocks are OK. Then they distrust any message they hear.

I commend Ms. Jacquet for her stand on boycotting seafood. I have been refusing to eat seafood since 1972, when I took a pledge never to eat wild meat. Since seafood is clearly wild meat, I included it. I've been ridiculed repeatedly for 35+ years, but perhaps influenced a few. I ate farmed fish (when I could find it) but learned that little of it is safe, or free of contamination problems.

By Virginia B Trail (not verified) on 14 Aug 2009 #permalink

Ãzellikle son zamanların en popüler cilt yenileme ürünüdür. Pembe Maske bir çok ünlü isim tarafından da yoÄun olarak kullanılmaktadır. Yüzdeki kırıÅıklıklar, sivilce ve sivilcelerin sebep olduÄu deformasyonları gidermede kullanılan Pembe yüz maskesi ve inceltici, selülit giderici olarak kullanılan pembe vücut maskesi olmak üzere iki farklı ürün mevcuttur.