The fish we eat

03 Jun 2015
Sustainability is not limited to the fishery, but also includes the fishermen and their communities. Credit: SeaDave/CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sustainability is not limited to the fishery, but also includes the fishermen and their communities. Credit: SeaDave/CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks at the term ‘sustainability’ and how it now covers more than just the fish itself.

The 2016 Seafood exposition in Brussels is hoped to attract a couple of tens of thousands of professional visitors.  It would certainly encourage trade and other seafood-related business, but I doubt that it would change the preferences of the world's consumers or their numbers.

The problems that seafood encounters on the world markets, in particular the ‘western’ ones, stem from other reasons. The plethora of social networks and press, which meddle with seafood and the different ways it's caught, handled, processed and marketed, has been causing many consumers to become increasingly choosy and asking often difficult to answer questions. This is affecting fishing people, seafood importers and marketing chains.

1: Is seafood sustainable?  
Sustainability can be understood as whether the fishery involved is sustainable with respect to either fish only or rather also to fishing people and their communities. It seems that things are now moving in the latter direction. Recently, Safeway, the American giant supply chain with over 1,300 outlets all over the USA and Fair Trade USA, a non-profit NGO, jointly launched the ‘Fair Trade Certified" seafood into the North American market. The initiators claim to be the world's first to address both social and environmental responsibility in fishing communities and the quality of the seafood they produce, whether fresh, frozen, wild-caught, or farmed.

According to Maya Spaull, director of innovation at Fair Trade USA, this holistic approach would help to sustain both fishing communities' and the ocean's health. “Beginning with wild-capture tuna from small-scale fishermen in Indonesia, the world’s first Fair Trade fish debuted last March in California, Portland and Seattle in Safeway stores".

Their certification requires fishermen to fish and trade according to rigorous, independently audited standards designed to protect fundamental human rights, prevent forced and child labour, establish safe working conditions, regulate work hours and benefits, and enable responsible resource management. "This is especially important in an industry with a long history of labor abuse". (Hear, hear!).  

2: Poverty wages
Fairfood International is a mainly Dutch-based NGO, financed by the Ford Foundation and the German government agency DBU. It is mainly concerned with the basic human rights of workers and their families. Its latest report exposed the low wages and harsh labour conditions of workers in the shrimp processing industry in Asia and the abuses in the Thai industry.

Thailand is one of the largest producers of tropical shrimp in the world, but also a country that tolerates some of the worst exploitation of migrant workers, who earn next to nothing, but "owe their souls to the company store".

In the Thai shrimp industry, in particular, these are migrants from Burma, who have paid brokers high sums for placements, travel, and visas to work in the industry. They're earning up to €8 a day, while their costs of living are at least €12 a day. Additionally, their wages are further deduced to pay for work permit fees, visa costs or debts to brokers. Just for comparison, recently in California, the minimum worker's wage has been set for US$12 per hour! Therefore, Fairfood says that supermarket chains, with their huge buying power should use it to ensure a living wage for all workers in their supply chains. Because of that power, supermarkets could determine how and under what conditions the food consumers buy is produced. What Fairfood is saying is not far from AP reports on slavery conditions onboard mainly Thai fishing vessels. (See this column, May 2016).

3: How healthy is the seafood?
Recently, one reads only too many contradictory stories, in both general and specialised press, on the effects of various sorts of seafood on consumers' health. This, in spite of the consensus among almost all experts that seafood, which is rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and in easily digestible animal protein, is important for growth in youth and for pregnant women.

Most pelagic fish contain the all-important fatty acids omega-3 DHA and EPA. On the other hand, however, the larger and older pelagic fish, on the top of marine food-chain, such as tuna, billfish, or salmon, may carry in result of prolonged, multi-stage bio-accumulation, such poisonous and carcinogenic substances as heavy metals. On still another hand (how many hands does seafood have?), most of this accumulates in internal organs, intestines, liver, kidneys and lungs, and in skin and fins (yes, fins…), so that the right way is eating only the muscle-flesh of such fish, and not on a daily basis.

Same goes for old, piscivorous ground-fish and inshore caught fish, where pollution may abound. Such fish should be analysed periodically for contamination, before marketing is allowed and, especially, before being certified on sustainability. Small pelagics are safer. Additional problem occurs where fish and shellfish are inadequately handled, stored, and processed, because when consumed raw or partially cooked, may carry bacterial or viral contamination and cause diseases.

Also John Sanckton, founder and editor of the Seafood.com website, wrote that there's a scientific consensus that "the benefits of seafood far outweigh the risks of small amounts of contaminants”…and that “…farm-raised seafood has as much or more EPA and DHA per serving as wild caught. “

4: Farmed seafood
In view of the demand for seafood among the increasingly growing world population and hardly any growth of wild fish resources and yield, mariculture offers the only potential growth of seafood supply. Because of better taste, wild-caught finfish fetch higher prices on fish markets.

Pollution in coastal waters equally affects cage-farmed and wild-caught fish. One (important) solution is setting up cage farms offshore or in permanent sea current. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, safe marketing should be subject to checking for contamination.

Thus, while, in general, seafood is undoubtedly the best and healthiest source of animal protein for human consumption, it comes with several problems attached: the water it grows in, the species-specific nutritional value, and what certification is taking and not taking into account. Still, it's better than dead cow…