Glass: Yale’s unsustainable seafood

I’ll admit it: There’s nothing more delicious than fresh lobster tail dipped in butter. Maybe coming from the Midwest, 1,000 miles away from any beach, has fostered my attachment more than normal, but I love seafood. Crab cakes, crab bisque, crab legs — all of it.

So it was a sad day when I decided I had to stop eating fish.

Don’t worry: My vegetarianism is not something I push onto others. In fact, my summer boss is a cattle farmer who owns KFC franchises and likes nothing better than veal. I want everyone to eat fish for the rest of their lives. I want everyone’s kids and grandkids to eat fish too. But that will only happen with a word that Yale loves: sustainability.

My embargo was inspired by two courses that opened my eyes to the disaster that is the global seafood industry: “Ichthyology” and a seminar called “The Management of Marine Resources.” If there’s anything that will stick with me from these classes (apart from learning the 101 things wrong with “Finding Nemo”), it’s that “surf ‘n’ turf” is in great danger of becoming just “turf.”

Simply stated, we have overfished our oceans. Fish are the last wild-caught animals on the planet that we eat on a large-scale basis, but they are often overlooked. In 2003, over 70 percent of the world’s fisheries had either collapsed or were being overfished, and the situation has since become worse. Soon there will be nothing left to catch.

So I stopped eating seafood.

Yale Dining claims it serves its students “fresh food … purchased and prepared in a fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.” The Yale Sustainable Food Project, in the one sentence about fish on its Web site, claims to follow guidelines from Seafood Watch, a program run out of Monterey Bay’s Aquarium that is dedicated to consumer awareness of sustainable seafood. But in a recent undertaking to find out where my Sunday morning lox actually comes from, I realized that Yale’s offering of seafood is anything but sustainable.

Neither we the students nor those in Yale Dining responsible for making the menus have a good idea of where our fish comes from. Sustainable seafood is complex in that it’s not a simple “yes” or “no” call. Not only does the species itself matter, but equally important are factors such as the method of fishing and the country of origin (most major seafood-importing countries in Asia and South America have weak management of fisheries and aquaculture).

After interviews with a few of the seafood wholesalers that supply to Yale, I learned that most of the seafood we are served would earn a big red “Avoid!” warning from Seafood Watch. The salmon is farm-raised, much of the shrimp is farmed from Asia and South America, and the U.S. Atlantic cod fishery is close to collapsing.

In one of the YSFP table tents in the dining halls — the one titled “Surf” — Yalies are advised to avoid eating farmed carnivorous fish like salmon (oops). We are also discouraged from eating farmed fish raised in net ponds in the oceans. Guess what: Our tilapia with bread crumbs and white wine is not only fed marine-harvested krill, but is farmed in net ponds that border the ocean (again, oops).

But this is not all dismal. Take solace in the fact that the Friday favorite, New England Clam Chowder, is made from scratch with clams that are wild-caught from the Atlantic. Good job, Yale Dining. I bet you had no idea.

Federal law requires retailers to provide country-of-origin labels for seafood and to label the fish as wild-caught or farm-raised. Go to a supermarket and you’ll see them on the packaging — but go to Commons, and all you’ll find is a simple calorie count.

We are “customers” of Yale Dining Services, and it is their duty and obligation to make that information available. We put our trust (and invest a lot of money) in Yale Dining to make educated choices on our behalf. Undergrads are required to be on the meal plan for the first two years, and are entirely at the mercy of what the University decides to serve. To reform its system, Yale needs raised awareness and an incentive to improve.

Luckily, there’s some hope for the future. Next year, Yale will be switching to wild-caught salmon from Alaska, one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. It’s a great start to sustainable seafood (one species down, about 10 to go), and I hope that Yale Dining will continue to pay attention not just to the turf, but the surf, too.

Jessica Glass is a junior in Berkeley College.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Good op-ed and pretty accurate, but your statement that "Federal law requires retailers to provide country-of-origin labels for seafood and to label the fish as wild-caught or farm-raised. Go to a supermarket and you’ll see them on the packaging" is a bit misleading.

    The problem is that it is very difficult for retailers to determine the geographical origins of certain species, especially ones that lack any sort of variation across their range. How is one to determine whether a patagonian toothfish (the real name of the so-called "Chilean Sea Bass") has come from a sustainable population or a threatened one? The only person that can tell you is the fisherman himself, and they have a financial incentive to claim that the fish came from a sustainable population. Retailers can't really do a thorough background check (and likely wouldn't anyway, as there would be no incentive for them not to buy the fish unless they didn't think they could sell it) due to a lack of information.

    Basically, there is no guaranteed way of ensuring that the seafood you are eating came from a sustainable population unless you caught the thing yourself.

  • John Lotzgesell, Silver Bay Seafoods

    As part of the management team and a processor of sustainable wild salmon from the pristine waters of Southeast Alaska, I applaud the article. Not knowing who Yales food service uses, but Bon Appetit uses sustainable fish products in their operations. As a fairly new company, we are exploring avenues to reduce the over all carbon footprint, in addition to bringing the world some of the finest quality salmon products. Good luck!!

  • Anonymous

    I had second thoughts about eating the Tilapia tonight. Thanks for such a thought provoking article!

  • Andrea Angera, Jr.

    As a purveyor and processor of sustainable seafood, I was pleased to see that the Yale community is questioning the source of its seafood (hopefully all its food).

    Care must be taken though to understand what sustainable seafood is. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program is a resource, however, it is in fact supporting the continuing consumption of endangered fish populations. Seafood Watch is part of the problem of overfishing.

    My company, Litchfield Farms Organic & Natural (http://www.litchfieldfarms.net/) has articulated beliefs and standards that define and advance a concept I developed: Cultural Sustainability. This belief recognizes that we must all reduce our consumption of ALL wild capture species. Until marine resources are managed in a holistic and ecological manner, no wild fishery can be ethically be supported with our forks unless there is a compelling cultural rational.

    Seafood is a part of a many cuisines and has many health benefits. The vast number of these benefits however are diminished in value as the result of environmental toxins like mercury and PCBs.

    True sustainability can only be realized when we drastically reduce or eliminate most wild capture fisheries and support best practices in aquaculture and marine resource management that mimic similar best practices in agriculture and land management.

    I urge everyone to reduce consumption of wild seafood to no more than one or two servings a month. As for aquacultured seafood- only eat it if you know that it comes from the few leaders in sustainable aquaculture.

    Peace, Andrea Angera, Jr., General Manager
    860-483-7040

  • King Salmon

    Did you ask why the Alaskan salmon fishery is one of the best-managed fisheries in the world?

    What they forget to mention is that the fishery is artificially 'enhanced' using farm raised fish. Otherwise it would have been fished out years ago.

  • REVOLUTION

    REAL REVOLUTION HERE WE COME!
    Fight on Fighter!

  • Geoff Shester

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program provides information to consumers and businesses about the sustainability of various seafood products through a rigorous – and transparent – science-based assessment process. Since the program began a decade ago, Seafood Watch has established itself as the leading source of consumer information about sustainable seafood in the United States. We’ve been recognized by Bon Appétit Magazine and TreeHugger.com, among others, for our work.

    As the senior science manager, I oversee all our reports and recommendations (which can be found online at http://www.seafoodwatch.org). Overfishing is one of the key criteria we consider in our detailed fishery assessments. Some wild-capture fisheries are very well managed and have successfully prevented overfishing. People can support these fisheries by buying items from our green list of Best Choices.

    When overfishing is a problem, we place the fishery squarely on our red list to Avoid. In our analysis, we also look at bycatch, habitat impacts, food web impacts and management of all fisheries.

    We at Seafood Watch remain skeptical that aquaculture is a panacea that will solve our fisheries crisis. Some forms of aquaculture are very good, notably some shellfish species low on the food web like clams, oysters and mussels. Farming of carnivorous fish species (e.g. farmed salmon, ranched bluefin tuna) have in most cases increased the pressure on wild stocks that are used as fish feed or seed stock. In the case salmon farms especially, aquaculture operations have harmed local populations of wild fish. You can find examples of farmed and wild seafood on all of our lists: red, yellow and green.

    Finally, we commend the original op-ed author for helping encourage more sustainable seafood purchasing.

    Geoff Shester, Ph.D, Senior Science Manager

    Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program

  • Michael Vaughn

    After spending many years within the seafood industry (both retail and wholesale), I came to the same conclusion as you have: That a wild-caught, sustainable Global seafood industry cannot be achieved.

    Socioculture and socioeconomic factors contribute to many of the global fisheries problems we face. Add to the fact that this is an industry, with the goal to produce increased profit and expansion, wild fisheries cannot be sustained.

    The Marine Stewardship Council(MSC)and its labeling methodology, however well intentioned, does not reflect the true basis of sustainability; it does however create higher demands on MSC labeled resources and increased revenue for the industry in general.

    (Just a note on COOL labeling: Not all retailers fall under this Act. Small to medium sized retilers (grossing under a certain amount) do not need to disclose to the public from which country the seafood originates.)

  • yaylie

    The author can't have it both ways. Either you support the avoidance of overfishing and eat farm-raised despite the drawbacks to you or you eat wild caught, in which case you're contributing to the fish being taken out of the water. Overfishing of ocean stocks cannot be helped in our current world order because the ocean is a public resource and often falls outside any one country's jurisdiction.

  • Seafood Guy

    If we continue to consume seafood at our current rate, aquaculture is the only answer to avoiding the depletion of all marine biodiversity. It is inevitable, given the rate of population growth and the demand for seafood, that wild stocks can not maintain sustainable biomass numbers well beyond the next 10 years. Therefore, we have two options: Stop eating seafood all together or determine how to raise seafood through fish farming in a responsible ecologically friendly manner while simultaneously managing the worlds oceans through an international task force.

    Currently America is behind in the realm of aquaculture. We are so afraid of the idea of fish farming as a result of many bad practices and a negative marketing campaign, that the government has been crippled when trying to promote research dedicated to aquaculture. The Monterey Bay Aquarium ignores aquaculture as a means by which we can remove the pressure off wild species, yet they award chefs at their cooking for solutions event that promote farmed salmon (Thomas Keller--Loch Duart Salmon). There are many fish farms that do operate in a sustainable manner, and they need to be rewarded in order to encourage those unsustainable farms to start operating in a similar way. Yes, feeding farmed fish wild feed is theoretically unsustainable, however, studies show that it is more efficient than in the wild. Therefore, it actually takes less wild fish to feed farmed fish than wild.

    All I hear on this board (aside from Andrea Angera Litchfield Farms who offered a clear cut solution) is complaints and opinions. How about a solution? Source sustainably farmed fish products (cleanfish.com), encourage chefs to purchase domestic seafood that is well managed through transparent scientific assessment and regulations set forth by The National Marine Fisheries Service, and boycott mis-labeled products from countries that have weak management of fisheries and aquaculture.

  • fish4good

    LOBSTER

  • Kara Chaing

    Lame. I get wanting to be in a club while you're at Yale and staying in touch with the club/people after you graduate but to think that your Manuscript meetings are changing the world…

  • SM 2010

    Great article. Transparency is something all Yale students should demand from our mandatory meal plan. Sustainability is something all Yale students should strive for.

  • Lisa

    In CT we are so close to lots of fresh seafood. Hell, lobster is local, and cheaper than it's been in years at $7/lb from my lobsterman in Fair Haven. I agree, we should put pressure on the Dining Services company to buy local. Even in a recession with budget cuts, Yale can choose to do the right thing.

  • Mike

    Key point you made about seafood being the last wild animal-based economy. I find it unbearable that people are so opposed to farm-raised fish production. Does anyone realize how bad the environmental and social issues are with our chicken, beef, and pork industries? The only difference is that with these industries there is not the alternative of throwing a big net into the sky or plains and getting the wild stuff.

    By the way, Tilapia is not a marine fish, it's freshwater fish.