I love seafood, so getting the chance to amble through the aisles of the International Boston Seafood Show, sampling one delicious treat after another, made me very happy—not to mention extremely full. At times, I felt like I was at a convention center-sized raw bar, sipping, sucking and slurping like a drunken sailor. As a fish-eating vegetarian, however, I drew the line at the sautéed alligator at the enormous Louisiana Seafood marketing installation.
The exhibits were beautiful, so my eyes were happy, not just my belly. The gorgeous displays at the Fruits de Mer booth lured me to their marinated white anchovies. These lovely little fish tasted mellow and light—nothing like the salty, oily, dark little fish that I love on pizza.
As I wandered from booth to booth, I was delighted to see that almost all of the vendors were talking about sustainability. But were they just talking, or were they really “swimming the swim” of sustainability?
Since I received a free entry pass to the show as a participant in the “1st Annual iPura Tweet & Blogfest at IBSS 2011,” blogging contest, I decided to head over to the iPura booth to get their perspective on sustainability. iPura provides environmentally-friendly food safety services at seafood processing facilities. I asked their communications director, Jason Simas, if he thought the industry is serious about sustainability.
“Greenwashing is definitely a component in the business, but, by and large, the major players are addressing the issues in a very sincere and common-sense manner,” Simas responded.
His response makes sense to me. The major players, at least, have to get serious about sustainability, because the seafood industry itself will become endangered if it does not address some of the problems that current practices have helped to create, including pollution, diseases, overfishing, and loss of livelihoods. The industry will not be able to meet the growing demand for seafood if it does not find better ways to address the health, safety and environmental issues that put fish, people, and the ocean at risk.
“Swimming the swim,” however, is not easy, no matter how sincere you are, because not everyone agrees on which species are most at risk, which practices are truly sustainable, and what to tell consumers.
Although the sustainable seafood buying guides produced by Seafood Watch and other NGOs are now available in iPhone and Android apps that are much more current and specific than the old printed wallet cards they used to make, for example, they are still problematic, according to Simas. For example, Seafood Watch, the well-respected initiative of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has “red-listed” farm-raised Chinese tilapia as a fish to avoid, but “There are many great facilities in China [raising tilapia] who are doing the right thing,” Simas told me. “Seafood Watch admittedly paints with a broad brush because they can’t do a science-based assessment of each firm,” he said.
Third-party certification applies to specific products rather than entire countries or species, so it is, in a way, fairer, but because standards vary among groups, not everyone agrees on the legitimacy of the certifiers themselves. So what are consumers who want to do the right thing supposed to do?
I believe that even though the consumer buying guides and certification are problematic, they are, at the very least, a good starting point to becoming an informed consumer. I was excited to discover, for example, that Seafood Watch lists US-raised farmed catfish as a “Best Choice,” since catfish is a big favorite in my house.
The catfish farmers at the U.S. Catfish Institute booth told me that their feed is primarily grain-based—soy and corn products—with some fish bone meal. While this seems more sustainable than using small fish as feed, their input costs are rising. Shorty James, a fish farmer from Jackson, Mississippi told me that feed accounts for 75 percent of their inputs. “Our feed costs went from $250 to $450 a ton over a 3-year period,” he said.
I liked the concept of Local Ocean, which raises six varieties of fish in a controlled salt water ecosystem in Hudson, New York. Their chef, Ric Orlando, is a two-time winner of the Food Network show, Chopped. Orlando told me that most of their fish is sold within a 3 hour radius. Eventually, they may open facilities in other parts of the country. I tasted their sea bream, prepared as a breaded slider, a crudo, and a ceviche. While I enjoyed all three, I thought the frying brought out the flavor of the fish more than the raw preparations.
Since my pass also admitted me to the New England Food Show next door, I also spent some time eating my way through those aisles. There were a fair number of tasty, green, healthy products, but few were as delicious, healthy, and sincerely working towards sustainability as the folks at the International Seafood Show. While the seafood industry has a long way to go, it may, in fact, be leading the way for the rest of the food industry. So that’s good news for me, as well as the fish.