From Fishing Net to Fork – A Glance at Seafood Sustainability

By Henry Bell

A commercial purse seine vessel draws up its tuna catch. Photo Credit: Henry Bell

Do you know where your favorite seafood comes from? I grew up in Minnesota, and aside from the occasional walleye or perch that came from a nearby lake, I certainly didn’t. Perhaps the grocery store label would tell me if my fish was farmed or wild-caught, but what about the fishery it came from? How about where it was processed or who imported it? Dare I question who caught it or what type of gear was used? Should I care?

Let’s make a comparison. When it comes to fruits, vegetables and even meat and eggs, it’s clear that a lot of Americans do care about where their food comes from. The rise of the farm-to-table movement and growth of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs indicate that many of us now place an emphasis on eating fresh, high-quality and locally sourced food. Indeed, the number of farmers markets operating in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1994. Restaurants have joined in with enthusiasm by making commitments to source ingredients locally and some restaurant owners are even going so far as to grow their own produce and run their own farms.

At the heart of this movement is a desire for increased transparency and traceability in our food supply chains. Farm-to-table restaurants purchase their ingredients directly from farmers, and those of us who shop at farmers markets actually get to carry on conversations with the people who grow our vegetables. Growing up, I would occasionally join my mom at our local CSA to plant seeds or pick tomatoes in exchange for a discount on the price of our weekly share of produce.

But our interest in fostering connections with those who bring us our seafood is lagging behind. The average American consumes about 14.9 pounds of seafood each year and our appetite for fish and shellfish is continuing to grow – shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna are our favorites. Americans actually harvest a lot of this seafood, but much of it is shipped overseas for processing. In the end, more than 80 percent of the seafood we consume is imported and it can be impossible to trace the long path that your fish took to reach your plate.

Luckily, there are a number of inspiring groups and individuals working to change the disconnect between fishermen and consumers and educate the public about the importance of eating sustainable seafood. When I was in high school, my mom found a community supported fishery group called Sitka Salmon Shares that distributes the fish they catch directly to consumers in the Midwest. This group of twenty fishermen-owners in Alaska freeze their catch and ship shares of seafood to consumer-supporters in America’s heartland. Included with each share are vivid stories about daily life in Sitka, delicious meal recipes, and pointed anecdotes about dangers posed by mismanagement and overfishing within the greater seafood industry.

This was my introduction to the concept of sustainably-sourced seafood. I began to understand the importance of supporting fishing communities that aim to protect the health and balance of marine ecosystems so that we can continue eating delicious seafood long into the future. Groups like Real Good Fish in San Francisco and Starbird Wild Fish in Vermont similarly work to bring fish from boat to plate and connect seafood consumers with fishermen that harvest their catch sustainably.

US-caught sockeye salmon from Alaska are sustainably harvested and therefore are a great seafood choice. Photo Credit: NOAA

I recently came across Algrano Fish, which also pursues transparency in the seafood industry by bringing sustainably sourced fish and shellfish directly to Seattle households. A few years working in the commercial fishing and seafood importing industries was enough for owner Jess McCluney to get it – it’s difficult to ensure harvest source and supply chain transparency while meeting the large-scale volumes associated with retailer demand. She decided to start her own business with the goal of inviting consumers to learn what clean, simple seafood should be. Jess puts it matter-of-factly: “I’m selling the seafood that I want to see being sold.”

Why do connections and transparency in the seafood industry matter? By bringing together consumers and fishermen, we can increase awareness of fisheries issues, preserve ocean resources by making it possible for fishermen to earn more while fishing less, and bring tastier, healthier seafood to our dinner tables.