Food from the sea

In 1979, the late Lannice Snyman, a doyenne of South African cookery, published a cookbook called Free from the Sea. Nearly 40 years later, it remains remarkable that this natural wilderness offers us so much food, but I doubt anyone today – writer or publisher – would have the guts to use such a title for a seafood book: the myth of sea as an endless buffet is, one hopes, finally dying.

But it’s a struggle to regulate fisheries thanks to so much open space, so many players, and so few enforceable boundaries. While there have been some successes, the big picture is ever-bleaker. Part of the problem is that, for so long, we’ve viewed seas as discreet spaces, and if we just look after our own stretch, we might be doing alright. But there is, in reality, only one ocean as all seas are linked by winds, currents and migratory patterns.

The myth of the endlessness of the ocean’s bounty is still clear in the way seafood is displayed at the famed fish markets of the world, like in the image below of America’s oldest such market, in Washington DC.

All that’s missing is the cornucopia…

So it was with some surprise that I learned from a recent article that the USA imported more seafood than ever before in 2017 – not only to feed its citizens and residents, but to supply the nation’s secondary fishery industries, as these could not source enough seafood in local waters.

Gavin Gibbons, the spokesman for their National Fisheries Institute is quoted: “Our stocks are fished to the maximum sustainable yield. In order to feed Americans, and to feed the raw materials into the jobs that are needed, we have to get it from overseas”.

The article continues: “Some of the seafood items that American consumers are especially fond of, including tuna, salmon and shrimp, are heavily dependent on foreign imports to make it to U.S. markets and restaurants. Some species, such as lobsters, are caught in the U.S., exported to other countries that have greater processing capacity, and return to the U.S. as imports”.

How bizarre and amazing is global trade. One of the main lobster trade partners is Canada, so Donald Trump may have destroyed this happy relationship already.

The article also contains other ominous information. “There are also some fish the U.S. has imported more heavily in recent years because domestic stocks have dried up. One example is Atlantic cod, which was once the subject of a huge fishery in New England. That industry has collapsed due to overfishing and environmental changes”.

Fishing, as an “industry”, has many negative impacts. Hidden amidst the recent backlash against the plastic straw is just how small the straw’s contribution to total sea-borne plastic volume is (not to discount straws’ valuable symbolic power). Fishing nets alone are estimated to contribute to 46% of the plastic waste in oceanic “garbage patches”.

Then add the information that one in three fish caught in this industry never make it to the plate, “either being thrown back overboard or rotting before it can be eaten, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization“.

All of this brings home, once more, the fact that we have plundered this wilderness, treating a wild space with carelessness, as amoral owners. It’s going to take more than a village to fix the probably reality that our children may not eat wild* seafood. It was “free” too long.

*Aquaculture, while not immune to problems (especially when practised in the ocean itself), has to be a vital part of keeping seafood on our plates. This article on making fish farming sustainable is a useful introduction to the issues and best scenarios.