Food Tank’s book for this week is the recently released The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World, by Andy Sharpless. The Perfect Protein makes the argument that wild seafood is the most sustainable – environmentally, economically, and nutritionally – source of protein, and that people all over the world should make the transition to incorporate it more heavily into their diets. Sharpless spoke with Food Tank to explain the message behind his new book, and why the mantra “eat wild, eat local, eat small fish, and eat shellfish” can save the food system.
You describe seafood as the “healthiest, cheapest, most environmentally friendly source of animal protein on Earth.” Can you explain why you believe that this is true?
Unlike other forms of animal protein, wild seafood requires only traces of fresh water, produces just a small amount of carbon dioxide, doesn’t use up any arable land, and provides healthy, lean protein at a cost per pound that’s cheaper than beef, chicken, lamb, or pork. In comparison, a single quarter pound burger demands the equivalent of 10,000 gallons of water, a square meter of land, 200 tortillas worth of grain, and it produces enough carbon dioxide to equal an average commute. Wild seafood does not. What’s even more encouraging is that replacing red meat with fish has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and other disease.
We hear reports about how the oceans are being overfished, with more than 85 percent of world fisheries being pushed to or beyond their natural limit. How can eating more fish save the planet?
It comes down to eating more responsibly. The Perfect Protein calls out a simple guide for doing this by asking readers to “eat wild, eat local, eat small fish, and eat shellfish”. If we follow these simple rules, especially when consuming species caught in the U.S. (which has pretty well managed fisheries) we can continue to eat more seafood even as we rebuild wild fish stocks around the world. Farmed shellfish like oysters, mussels and clams are the perfect example. They’re filter feeders that help clean the ocean and they don’t compete with us for food. We can happily eat as much of them as we can stomach without taxing the ocean further.
You say that consuming more fish will lead to less obesity and heart disease. Can you explain why this is true?
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, but I can say that studies have shown over and over again that switching from red meat to seafood reduces heart disease, obesity and other health risks. Many nutritionists recommend eating two seafood meals a week to get the benefits of heart healthy omegas. The health benefits are part of what makes wild seafood the perfect protein – that and the fact that it’s less expensive and less environmentally taxing than other forms of animal protein.
There is a rapidly growing problem of contamination in our bodies of water and fish – including plastic debris and toxins such as PCBs, mercury, dioxins and other chemicals. According to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “land-based sources (such as agricultural run-off, discharge of nutrients and pesticides and untreated sewage including plastics) account for approximately 80 percent of marine pollution, globally.” How can we safeguard against these toxins and reduce our risk of toxicity while continuing to consume seafood?
Pollution is a serious challenge we face in our fight for healthy oceans and Oceana is hard at work on this through our campaign to stop offshore drilling, for example. But the good news is that we don’t need this problem to be solved overnight in order for billions of people around the world to enjoy healthy seafood right now. In The Perfect Protein I recommend eating lower down on the food chain – species like sardines, mackerel, and herring. Not only are they packed with healthy omega-3’s, but they are also short lived and don’t accumulate as many toxins as the larger, long-lived species like tuna and swordfish. These small species also tend to be more abundant and resilient against fishing and should be a much bigger part of our diet than they already are.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of farm-raised fish? Is consuming wild fish healthier than farmed fish?
When assessing the benefit of farmed fish it really comes down to what that fish ate. Popular species like salmon are carnivorous. They eat other fish. When farmed, they eat upwards of 5 pounds of small fish to produce just 1 pound of salmon, so this protein is produced at a net loss. Aquaculture should add protein to the planet, not reduce it. Let’s not forget that farmed salmon are packed into small pens, doused with antibiotics and died pink to resemble their wild counterparts. We’re better off eating wild salmon, which are pretty well managed in the U.S.
On the other hand, eating farmed shellfish like oysters, mussels and clams are great because they eat algae and don’t compete with us for food. They add protein to the world, unlike farmed salmon, and help keep the ocean clean by filtering the water.
According to your book, 25 countries control 75 percent of the world’s seafood catch. What are the three key steps they need to take in order to better manage their wild seafood supply?
Simply put, good fishery management comes down to three things: protecting habitat, reducing bycatch (the incidental catch of non-targeted species) and enforcing scientific quotas. If the handful of countries that control the majority of the world’s fish catch enforce these policies, we can see the oceans turn around relatively quickly, really in a matter of decades. These policies are proven effective and we’ve seen fisheries all around the world recover after they’re implemented. After a discard ban was enforced in the late 1980s, Norway Arctic Cod came back from the brink. When fishing limits were imposed on the U.S. Haddock fishery in the 1990s, we saw the same thing happen. The list goes on. Restoring the oceans is a surprisingly manageable task.
What can we do right now as individuals to support sustainable fishing practices?
Get involved. You can engage in the movement as a consumer by making sure to eat seafood responsibly (wild, little, local, shellfish). You can also get involved as a citizen by demanding that your elected officials support policies that protect the ocean. There are currently two bills in Congress that address seafood fraud and if passed will help ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. The SAFE Seafood Act will require that fish be tracked from boat to plate with information including the species name, where, when, and how it was caught. So call your representatives and ask them to get on board with these bills.