Do you know where your seafood comes from?
Anjani Ganase, marine biologist, alerts us to the risks in eating seafood of unknown origins. These are some of the questions she suggests that we ask before we purchase.
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve had the luxury of eating freshly caught fish straight off the fisherman’s boat or caught by a family member or friend. We learned to identify the common species of fish that live in our local waters, identify their flavours and how to cook the different fish species. Other countries and cities are not as fortunate as fish is brought from great distances and often pre-packaged and frozen. Unfortunately, more and more fish are being bought in the supermarkets with fewer visits to the local fish depot; and there are fewer occasions of a friend handing over a fresh catch.
It may be that this is still happening. But, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) since 2002, the import of fish to Trinidad and Tobago began to exceed local catch and exports. In 2014, we spent about 52.5 million USD to import seafood, which is almost four times the amount earned from our local fisheries (FAO). With more people eating imported fish, there is a need to understand the global fishing industry and how it affects you and your local economy and environment. Here are questions that you should ask about the fish that you eat.
What is it?
A study done by Oceana revealed that globally, 1 in 25 fish being sold is mislabelled, where the mislabelling can occur at any level along the chain of supply until it reaches the consumer. There are severe consequences to this, especially among fish species that have very different life histories. Knowing what you eat is better for multiple reasons.
Firstly, your health. Consider the higher diversity of fish and other marine life in the ocean: the diets and habits of the fish in the ocean are just as varied - if not more so - as land animals. The top predators – the lions and tigers of the ocean – are the sharks, tunas and swordfish, to name a few, which have very different lifestyles and feed on different prey. Being on top of the food chain, these species of fish build up a significant storage of toxins and organic chemicals that were passed up the food chain. Methylmercury is one of the chemicals that bio-accumulates in the fatty tissues. Health officials have warned that long-term consumption of these fish species can also lead to a build up in your body over time and result in mercury poisoning; symptoms include tremors, numbness or pain in parts of your body, changes in vision and hearing. Species of fish that are high in mercury and should not be consumed include: swordfish, shark, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, grouper, marlin and Chilean sea bass. There are many other fish species that have low mercury content and are still rich in the necessary fatty acids.
Sustaining fish stocks goes hand in hand with being selective about what you eat. Much of the fish species that are longer-lived predators usually take four to five years to reach maturity and become reproductive. The rapid rates at which humans are removing these fish put them at great risk of a rapid population crash. The biomass of predator fish globally has declined by two thirds over the last 100 years with the majority of this loss occurring in the last forty years (Christensen et al 2014). Furthermore, many fish that are mislabelled turn out to be species that are already overfished and therefore threatened with extinction. For example, an overfished rockfish species was being sold as Pacific Red Snapper in California (Logan et al. 2008). This mislabelling does not help consumers that are trying to do the right thing.
Trinbagonians – as well as others - need to avoid the complacency of not knowing the type of fish we eat. In Australia, for example, the basic term “white fish” is often accepted when purchasing fish from a fish and chips shop. This is a general term where the flesh of the fish is white. Think about this for a second: if you are given a meat pie and you ask what meat is inside, and the response is"red meat," how do you feel?
|A fishing net draped over a coral reef is used to catch the fish we eat but it also entraps other marine organisms and damages the surrounding habitat. Fishing practices need to be more sustainable, targeting only the seafood that we want without destroying the habitat or other ecologically important marine life.|
Where is it from?
When we buy fish straight off the boats near a beach or at fish markets, we are usually assured of fish that is fresh from our coastal and offshore waters. In the freezer department of the supermarket, however, what fish is available? Where is it from?
Fish farms have been growing in numbers over the last decade to balance the demand of fish with the decline in stocks of fish worldwide. The quality of the fish farms depends on the species of fish and how well they do in captivity and the amount of antibiotics being used to to prevent disease. Over the years, the technology behind of fish farms has improved dramatically; the farms can be set up to be environmental friendly and sustainable.
The best quality seafood farms are those dedicated to rearing crustaceans, such as oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. These sedentary filter feeders strain out particulates from the surrounding water column. The majority of these filter feeders are farmed in coastal bay areas, where they are suspended so the concerns you should have will be related to the run off from the land and the pollution in the water column. It is crucial that these farming habitats are regulated to maintain healthy conditions. Of all the farmed seafood these have the lowest environmental impacts as they simply feed on the plankton already existing in the water column and it is the preferred purchase by environmentally conscientious consumers.
If caught in the wild, then how was it caught?
There are many pros and cons to wild caught fish, with the biggest con being the lack of regulation resulting in the rapid depletion of fish stocks. Although some countries have regulations governing pelagic fish, there is no global regulation on what can be caught and how much. The methods used to fish can also be devastating to the marine ecology. The most detrimental of all is shrimp trawling. This method involves collecting shrimp by scraping the bottom habitats and gathering everything into a net. The method destroys the whole ecosystem that is home to the shrimp as well as many other organisms. This includes fish species (mostly inedible), sea turtles, dolphins, corals and other benthic invertebrates. Most of the shrimp trawling for Trinidad occurs in the Gulf of Paria. A study done in 1991 estimated that for every kilo of shrimp being caught, at least 20 kg of demersal fish were caught and discarded. An estimated total of 1,500,000 kg of by-catch, which included demersal fish and other invertebrate life, were estimated to be discarded over the ten-month study period (Maharaj and Recksiek, 1991). Ironically, the Gulf has been a growing industrial coastline over the last thirty years with a considerable amount of pollution run off. I wonder how much viable catch is collected today.
In Tobago, fishing takes place from relatively small-scaled artisanal craft, with significant cultural value to the local communities. While choosing local is always the preferred choice for a greener future, it is also imperative that consumers demand sustainable practices. For the sake of our health, we must insist that fishermen and consumers alike be educated about the seafood we eat; and the ecological roles they have in maintaining our ecosystems (our surroundings) in the long-term.
Christensen, V., Coll, M., Piroddi, C., Steenbeek, J., Buszowski, J., & Pauly, D. (2014). A century of fish biomass decline in the ocean. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 512, 155-166.
Maharaj, Vishwanie and Recksiek, Conrad (1991) The By-catch From the Artisanal Shrimp Trawl Fishery, Gulf of Paria, Trinidad.Marine Fisheries Review, 53(2), pp. 9-15.
Cheryl A. Logan, C. A., Alter, S. E., Haupt, A. J., Tomalty, K., Palumbi, S. R. (2008) An impediment to consumer choice: Overfished species are sold as Pacific red snapper. Biological Conservation, 141, 1591 – 1599.
FAO website: www.fao.org/fi/oldsite/FCP/en/tto/profile.htm
More information on Oceana seafood fraud campaign: