When I first decided that I wanted to reduce my environmental impact, one the of the first aspects of my life I addressed was my diet. I came face to face with the reality that conventionally farmed animal products have a huge carbon footprint, so I cut back significantly. I experimented with veganism, vegetarianism, and eventually came around to the decision that I could be pescatarian. After all, the fish that I eat doesn’t really have a carbon footprint, and it’s much better for my health than beef or chicken, right?
I buried my head in the sand for a while and slept a little easier knowing that I was abstaining from beef, chicken, and pork, but I knew that eventually I would have to do more research about the environmental impact of my beloved seafood.
Well, my friends, I’ve done the research, and I’ve found that just like with all food, whether it comes from plants or animals, it behooves us to ask a few questions about where it has come from. And generally, it’s a good idea to eat a whole lot less of it.
Why should you eat less fish?
A lot of the quandaries that I’ve confronted in my quest to find a planet-friendly diet could be solved if there were just fewer people in the world. But the reality is, there are a lot of us, and there are going to be even more of us soon. Why is this a problem?
- We, in our growing number, happen to have an appetite for seafood, and have massively overfished wild fish populations. Aquaculture (fish farming) has grown as a result of, and potentially a solution to this overfishing. But as we’ll see, it’s not without a slew of problems of its own.
- We habitually and increasingly pollute the planet. This means that there is all sorts of stuff in our oceans and waterways that shouldn’t be, which finds its way into the bodies of the animals that live there. As a result, both farmed and wild fish are likely to have traces of mercury and PCBs (man-made chemicals) in their bodies.
What’s so terrible about farmed fish?
Fish farms are essentially comprised of enclosures in which fish are fed a controlled diet until they reach the appropriate size for commercial sale. Just like with animal agriculture on land, not all fish farming is created equal. However, generally, there are several issues with aquaculture:
- Disease. Farmed fish are often over-stocked in their enclosures, creating a stressful environment, sometimes causing bodily harm to the fish, and encouraging the spread of disease and infestation (sea lice are a common problem in aquaculture).
- Contamination of wild stock. Diseased or infested fish often escape their enclosures and contaminate the fish in the wild. Wild salmon in Norway, for example, are on the brink of extinction due to contamination by farmed salmon.
- Antibiotics. Farmers use antibiotics and vaccines to combat these diseases. The list of drugs and chemicals administered to farmed fish is extensive and growing.
- Overfishing of forage fish. Carnivorous fish like salmon are fed fishmeal made from ground-up forage fish (like anchovies). This has resulted in the overfishing of wild forage fish populations to feed farmed fish. The overfishing of forage fish threatens populations of wild predators, like dolphins and whales, that also depend on them for survival.
- Low Omega-3 levels. Some farmed fish are also fed corn and soya, which increase the levels of Omega-6 in their tissue, rather than Omega-3. This diminishes the nutritional value for which they are so widely touted.
- Lots of fish poop. Fish feces contaminate the environment and cause algae blooms, which can cause fish die-offs and create dead zones in the water.
- Suffering. Studies have shown that fish are sentient beings that feel pain, and some methods for killing farmed fish are less than humane. Some are killed by air asphyxiation, in which they suffocate on beds of ice, and some are bled to death without first being stunned.
How will I get my Omega-3s?
It’s true that wild fish are typically high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which we are told are critical to our heart and brain health (though, I was surprised to learn, the evidence surrounding this claim is a bit murky). Eating more fish will likely increase your levels of Omega-3. It will also certainly increase your levels of mercury, which could counteract the benefits of elevated Omega-3 levels. The middle ground that I’ve found:
- Generally cutting way back on my seafood intake
- When I do eat fish opting for:
- Wild-caught fish, especially forage fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies, which are higher in Omega-3s than some of the larger predatory fish like salmon and tuna
- Farmed oysters, clams, and mussels - these are filter feeders, which help to clean the water that flows through them; they require no additional feed, and actually improve the health of their environment
- Incorporating more plant-based sources of Omega-3s into my diet, including flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds
What fish should I avoid?
If you want to be safe from both health and environmental standpoints, it’s best to avoid farmed fish altogether, with the exception of mussels, clams, and oysters. It’s worth noting that tuna, whether wild or farmed, is likely to be high in mercury. Why is tuna especially susceptible? It’s pretty high on the fish food chain, and since all its prey likely have mercury in their systems, tuna tends to build up an exceptional amount.
There is also a lot of controversy around shrimp. It used to be that mangrove forests were cleared to make room for shrimp farms, and while that issue has greatly improved in recent years, there are still issues with slavery in the shrimp trade. There is also the issue of “bi-catch”, which means that when shrimp are hauled in, there are a lot of species that get mixed in with the shrimp that are simply discarded as waste.
What fish should I look for?
Anything that’s wild-caught. Remember that the lower the fish is on the food-chain, the higher the Omega-3 content is likely to be, and the lower the mercury level is likely to be. As I mentioned above, farmed mussels, clams, and oysters are also a good bet.
How will I know if it’s wild or farmed?
Unless you’re buying your seafood in a package that tells you where it comes from, you’re going to have to ask. But know this: nearly half of all the seafood the world consumes is now farmed. A fishmonger will know the origins of the fish he sells, and if he doesn’t, get out of his shop.
And, yeah, it’s not very fun to be that person in a restaurant who badgers the waiter to ask the chef the origins of the food. But you know what? You have every right to know what you’re putting in your body, and to know whether your hard-earned dollars are going to support sustainable practices.
Eat less fish. And when you do eat it, make informed choices.
Don't take my word for it...
There's a wonderfully informative and unbiased documentary called The Fish On My Plate, created by lifelong fisherman Paul Greenberg that gives great insight into the aquaculture business and the state of wild fish ecosystems as they are today. If you have a couple hours, I highly recommend giving it a watch.