Some fish and seafood are sustainable, some devastate our oceans

Good fish or bad fish? Farmed vs. wild? Bluefin or albacore? Shrimp or no shrimp? How to tell if seafood is OK to eat—or if it’s destroying the environment.

Sunh Fish Company owner Nguyen Pham, who offers an array of seafood from all over the world, says a challenge for restaurants is serving sustainable fish <i>and</i> being profitable.

Sunh Fish Company owner Nguyen Pham, who offers an array of seafood from all over the world, says a challenge for restaurants is serving sustainable fish and being profitable.


Feel like fish for dinner? Then you’re in luck. There is no shortage of seafood in Sacramento’s restaurants and supermarkets. At Sunh Fish Company, a small family-owned shop in Midtown, the display case contains exotic items from every corner of the globe. There are Chilean sea bass from the Southern Ocean, wild Mexican prawns, Hawaiian ono, tilapia from Taiwan and farmed salmon from Canada.

At Safeway, the selection of shrimp alone—America’s most popular seafood—seems almost endless, including canned, fresh on ice and bags of frozen prawns coated in beer batter. At Raley’s, there are packs of frozen baby octopi caught in Vietnam, swordfish from Singapore, mahimahi from Ecuador and yellowfin tuna from Indonesia. Local restaurants serve an equally diverse menu of items.

From this bounty of options it might seem that the oceans are teeming with abundance, but they’re actually in pretty big trouble.

Most fish populations are being harvested at or beyond their maximum sustainable rates. Fish stocks are declining, and seafood prices are climbing.

Farming of fish and shellfish—called aquaculture—has become increasingly important in feeding the world. The industry has created a constant supply of many products previously seasonal, expensive or scarce. But even farming facilities are fraught with problems, like open-ocean salmon pens that cause pollution and disease outbreaks, and tuna-ranching operations that rely on massive amounts of wild fish as feed material.

With so many issues at play, how do smart shoppers who care about health and the environment even know what seafood is OK to eat? What’s the good fish and what’s the bad fish?

And what if the men and women behind the counter can’t even answer the most important questions, like where something came from or how it was caught?

A few Sacramento restaurants and retailers have been proactive in addressing the depletion of the oceans. By turning their backs on controversial seafood products, they’re coaching consumers toward the most responsible choices.

Nguyen Pham, owner of Sunh Fish, has signed off of wild bluefin tuna because their stocks have been so reduced. Whole Foods Market, Kru Restaurant, and Mulvaney’s B&L have all done the same.

But the majority of suppliers, including Bel Air and Costco, carry most seafood products that sell. Pham says most chefs and suppliers—especially in the sushi industry—must provide popular items, whether or not they’re considered sustainable, if they want to stay in business.

“If you only use sustainable fish, that cuts you back to almost nothing,” Pham explains. “There will be times when you have nothing to serve. You have to have a backup plan.”

That approach may be good for business, but it isn’t for the oceans.

The forgotten victims of commercial fishing

Recently at Sunh Fish Company, a clutch of prawns—about 2 pounds—lay on ice under the display window. Strict federal law requires just about every aspect of these animals’ origins be labeled: wild, previously frozen, landed in Mexico. The only glaring omission, perhaps—and one not required or necessarily even known—is the collateral damage: If this shrimp was trawled, presumably about 8 pounds of other sea creatures were killed and discarded.

This is perhaps the most dire issue connected to the shrimp industry. Trawlers—boats that drag large nets across the ocean’s bottom—catch and kill much more than just their target species. Fishery experts say that for every pound of shrimp they bring to port, fishermen toss back several pounds of unwanted species—called bycatch—that they sift out of their nets.

Lorayne Meltzer, a scientist from Arizona’s Prescott College who has been studying the Sea of Cortez shrimp industry for years, says most bycatch is dead by the time it’s returned to the water. Very little is kept and sold.

The bycatch tonnage consists mostly of halibut, sharks, snapper and grouper, with the occasional sea turtle. A recent haul, she told SN&R by phone from Mexico, was made up of about 90 percent baby halibut by weight.

For all those fish killed and tossed overboard, a few shrimp were thrown into the boat’s livewell. They were probably eaten in the United States, the biggest buyer of wild Mexican prawns, Meltzer says.

Yes, shrimp is the most popular seafood item in America, where each person eats an average of 4 pounds of the creatures every year—a total of more than 1 billion pounds.

But shrimp themselves, in most areas, are not at risk of disappearing. They breed like cockroaches—prolifically—and even where they are heavily fished, most shrimp populations are holding steady. Rather, it’s the animals they live with that are hurting.

Chef Patrick Mulvaney likens bottom trawling, also used to catch halibut, rockfish and other local species, to clear-cutting of a public forest.

“If you were driving to the [Sierra Nevada] and you saw some loggers in a national park clear-cutting the trees, you’d call the police,” he says. “Shrimp trawling is like deforestation, but because no one sees it happening, we don’t think about it.”

The devastation of trawling also goes unnoticed, Meltzer speculates, because the creatures killed by shrimpers tend not to be charismatic, lovable animals, like dolphins, which generated so much empathy and outrage in the 1980s, when an undercover cameraman filmed tuna fishermen butchering live dolphins that had become tangled in their nets. Rather, shrimping bycatch consists mostly of ungainly and slimy critters from the seafloor, she says.

By comparison, the bluefin tuna is an example of what some naturalists refer to as “charismatic megafauna.” The animal is one of the largest and fastest fish in the sea and can weigh almost a ton. Bluefins have virtually no natural predators and, capable of swimming as fast a semi on the Jackson Highway, can catch and eat most other things that swim. Mahimahi flee like panicked sardines when a bluefin pack appears.

But because the bluefin tuna tastes so good to the human palate, we have allowed this species, over a period of about 40 years, to be all but annihilated in the name of sushi.

Here in Sacramento, Mulvaney and chef Billy Ngo of Kru Restaurant, as well as Pham at Sunh Fish, quit buying wild bluefin tuna. It has been an ethical decision, made in spite of the popularity of the product—especially the buttery fat belly meat, called toro on sushi menus.

“If someone says, ’I really want some toro,’ we’ll say, ’I’m not confident with how bluefin tuna stocks are doing and how they’re raising them in farms,’” Mulvaney says. “’But, look, we have albacore caught in California by hook and line.’”

Chef Billy Ngo of Kru Restaurant stopped serving some seafood, such as bluefin tuna, because of the devastating environmental impacts harvesting it has on the ocean.


However, in recent years, according to Pham, interest in eating bluefin tuna, at least among his clientele, has diminished.

“It’s not really something people want anymore,” he says.

This is presumably due to widespread publicity campaigns by fishery activists like Carl Safina and groups including Greenpeace and Oceana.

Ngo has also seen interest in eating bluefin diminish, though higher-end restaurants in the United States still serve a great deal. Most demand comes from Japan, where bluefin toro is the most coveted of sashimi cuts. To catch adult bluefin, boats use lines fitted with hundreds of baited hooks and set out overnight. They also use purse seines—large nets towed by power boats and wrapped around entire schools of fish.

The other primary harvest method involves netting schools of juveniles and “ranching” them in floating pens, where they are fattened on sardines and anchovies, reared to market size and slaughtered. This latter practice has been considered even more devastating than the fishery that targets adults, for the young tuna never have a chance to spawn.

The population is guessed to be at about 10 percent of its unfished level, and with Japanese chefs willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single fish, the rewards for fishermen drive the industry forward.

If these animals were popular mammals, like rhinos or pandas, they would be protected as an endangered species.

Farmed fish as the answer?

Michael Passmore stands in the rising morning sun. He reaches over the rim of a swimming-pool-sized tank just outside his office, his hand dangling in the water as a shark-shaped torpedo moves toward it through the murk. As the creature passes under the surface, Passmore makes a grab at its back, which is lined with rows of diamond-shaped studs. Fingers meet the leathery skin, and the huge fish thrashes away in alarm, splashing Passmore’s shirt. The animal is 7 feet long.

This fish—a white sturgeon—and its companions have been living on the Passmore Ranch, about an hour east of Sacramento, since they were babies almost a decade ago. They are Passmore’s most prized residents, and next spring they will be harvested. Their flesh and carcasses will go to a few chefs, some of whom utilize every last scrap of head, fin, skin and bone.

Ngo, for instance, has used Passmore’s sturgeon skin to make a jerkylike fried appetizer, and the white meat as sashimi. Other chefs use the fish’s backbones for making soup. The sturgeon’s eggs—their real treasures—will be cured on-site, jarred and sold as caviar.

The farm also grows bass, catfish and carp, sold mostly to a few dozen restaurants around the country, as well as about 100 local households that receive doorstep delivery boxes of chilled fish fillets through the farm’s “community supported fishery” program. The farm, recognized for its sustainable practices, uses a gravity-powered water-circulation system and emits no wastewater off the property. Seafood Watch has even named farmed white sturgeon as a green rating on its “best choice” list. Mulvaney recently hosted a dinner to celebrate the designation and educate diners about sustainable seafood.

While Passmore Ranch is hardly feeding the masses, aquaculture has the potential to alleviate overfishing pressure on wild resources. Passmore believes that, on a global scale, fish and shellfish farming will help to meet the planet’s growing appetite for seafood.

“The oceans are producing food at their maximum limit,” says Passmore, who also serves as the president of the California Aquaculture Association. “Per-capita seafood consumption is rising, and to feed the world, aquaculture is going to become an important part of the equation.”

Aquaculture already produces almost half of the world’s seafood, and the global industry is growing at several percent per year—though the American industry has actually declined.

Some people in the seafood industry believe fish farming could help wild populations in decline by removing fishing pressure. There is even a relatively young farm in Japan that is now producing bluefin tuna.

Recently, a slab of the beef-colored flesh was displayed on ice at Kru. The meat came from a bluefin tuna that was raised in captivity from egg to slaughter size, and with no reliance on wild tuna stocks—something that has been achieved by no one else.

“It’s sustainable,” says a sushi chef behind the counter at the restaurant as he slices cuts of fish, including Passmore Ranch’s sturgeon, which is served as nigiri. The bluefin tuna grown by Kinki University has been widely regarded as a major advance in aquaculture science. That’s because managing to fertilize and hatch tuna eggs in captivity, using a small collection of brood-stock fish, seemed for years to be impossible. Now, Kinki University is selling its very expensive Kindai tuna, the name by which it’s usually marketed, to restaurants around the world.

But not all seafood activists are impressed by Kinki University’s achievement. That’s because it takes about 10 pounds of fish—edible and valuable species like anchovies and sardines—to grow each pound of the product. Conventional tuna ranching uses as much as 18-20 pounds of fish per pound of tuna produced. Kindai bluefin represents an improvement, albeit a slight one.

“Frankly, [Kindai bluefin tuna] is staggeringly unsustainable if we’re talking about managing the global protein demand from the ocean,” says Casson Trenor, one of the leading voices in the country on the issue of fishing and sustainability, and founder of San Francisco’s Tataki Sushi & Sake Bar, which has been lauded for serving the world’s first “sustainable sushi.” “We’re taking 10 pounds of fish protein to make 1 pound of fish.”

Farming does often add up to a net waste of resources. In Peru, anchovy populations have plunged, thanks in part to the ravenous salmon-farming industry, and many activists are warning that fish farming could end up doing more harm than good to the environment.

Tom Worthington, co-owner of Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley, feels the researchers who developed the Kindai bluefin tuna have created new issues in the seafood sustainability puzzle, not solved an existing one.

“It’s incredibly expensive,” he says. “It’s for superwealthy people. It’s not an answer for feeding the world.”

The wild debate

Experts are divided over what fish is OK to eat and what is not.

Geoff Shester, California program director for the group Oceana, points out that most farmed seafood is fed to other fish, sometimes in combination with plant protein. Shester, who himself has become a fan of catching and eating herring from San Francisco Bay, believes consumers should simply eat the smaller fish that farms use as their feed.

“You’re taking the ocean and all its splendor and turning it into a feedlot for farmed fish and animals,” he says. He also points out that 400 million people could eat a seafood meal every day—and a delicious, healthy one—“if we fed them the forage fish that we feed to livestock.”

Small fish, like anchovies and sardines, are high in healthy oils and, because they reside low on the food chain, contain less mercury than high-ranking predators, like tuna and sharks.

Peter Bridson, aquaculture research manager with Seafood Watch, believes aquaculture practices must be carefully monitored and controlled if the industry is to be truly sustainable.

Michael Passmore (right), shown here at a Seafood Watch awards dinner last week at Mulvaney&#8217;s B&amp;L in Midtown. Passmore was recognized for his sustainable fishery practices in nearby Sloughhouse.

PHOTO BY rachel valley

“Some species will not be suitable,” he says. “There are the major problems with the eel [unagi] industry and with bluefin tuna. You need to remember that you’re growing fish for a very elite market.”

Farmed salmon, he says, are now being reared on less wild-fish meal than ever before—but only, he says, because plant protein is being used to balance out the feed blends, introducing issues to the aquaculture discussion previously only associated with livestock production.

“You have to be careful that you aren’t eating salmon that’s being raised on rainforest soybeans,” he says.

Anthonie Schuur, a Sacramento aquaculture consulting specialist, says species such as anchovies are not actually being taken from the mouths of the hungry. He points out that sardines, herring and the like are already used as food in the few markets where they are demanded. In fact, they can be relatively expensive.

“You can put some anchovies on a pizza for 8 or 10 bucks,” he said, adding that such schooling “bait fish” are caught at industrial scales and rendered into fish meal to grow other products simply because of the pull of consumer demand. “It would probably be good if we ate a little lower down on the food chain, but the demand is for salmon.

“Would you rather eat salmon or anchovies?”

Quite unlike farmed tuna, most farmed salmon raised are much cheaper than the wild product. The fish are reared in floating net pens in Canada, Europe and Chile. And more than two-thirds of salmon eaten in America—about 2 pounds per person per year—are farm-raised.

Raley’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, Sunh Fish, Costco—all are stocked with the product. Most restaurants serve it, too. And at one-half to one-third of the price of its wild-caught counterpart, farmed salmon has become one of the most ubiquitous seafood products in the world. Schuur says this is overall a good thing, allowing consumers everywhere the option to eat salmon at affordable prices.

But Kenny Belov, who owns a trout farm in Lassen County, is generally skeptical of aquaculture. He believes only if done right—especially using landlocked systems of recirculated water—can aquaculture become a sustainable industry. Feed is an issue, as well, and one that Belov has directly tackled. He has developed a proprietary feed blend based on fast-growing marine algae—not fish meal. Until recently, the mash included soy protein, a component Belov has replaced with nut waste from California farmers.

Belov also runs a fish supply company called TwoXSea, based in San Francisco, and has rallied against farmed salmon for years. He argues that the constant and widespread availability of the product creates a false perception of abundance, ultimately diffusing consumer interest in addressing environmental problems in the rivers where wild salmon lay their eggs, like agricultural runoff, diversion of water and construction of dams—the issues that have plagued the Sacramento Valley’s runs of chinook salmon.

“Not everyone in the world should be eating salmon,” says Belov.

Paul Greenberg, author of the new book American Catch, which details global issues in the world of wild seafood, fishermen and aquaculture, agrees.

“The advent of salmon aquaculture could cause the disappearance of wild salmon,” Greenberg said in an interview. “Consumers never see the environmental damage being done to rivers. They only see the display cases full of bright-red salmon meat.”

What the heck should we eat?!

Change is coming. Mulvaney says he is “very careful about shrimp” and buys farmed shrimp only from reputed facilities in the United States. His wild spot prawns are caught in California with midwater trawls—setups in which the net does not touch the seafloor, producing a great deal less bycatch.

Worldwide, many governments have taken serious efforts to reduce bycatch, requiring their fishermen to place escape hatches inside the nets that allow sea turtles and other potential victims to get out before tumbling into the belly of the net, where they will drown or become crushed by the accumulating mass of captured creatures.

But in spite of a law passed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1987 requiring that American shrimp trawlers use such turtle-excluder devices, fishermen in Louisiana have resisted, some refusing to abide by the law. The Seafood Watch program responded by slapping a red “avoid” rating on Louisiana wild-caught prawns, a rating which remains today.

John Filose, a San Diego consultant to seafood vendors and importers, says the bycatch issues with shrimp fishing have been mostly alleviated, and shrimp farming facilities no longer wantonly destroy mangrove swamps.

But Meltzer feels the distance between the source and final sale of most shrimp is too great for one to truly understand the consequences of eating it. Unlike most Americans, Meltzer almost never eats shrimp, since she believes it’s almost impossible to do so responsibly.

Yet shoppers at virtually any Sacramento supermarket continue choose from just about every seafood item imaginable.

Meanwhile, Filose believes that the ocean is healthier than it has been made out to be. He says many environmental groups “have to cause crises to raise money.”

Schuur echoes the same allegation. Though he believes the oceans’ productivity has been tapped out and will need to be balanced by sustainable aquaculture, he believes “environmental organizations have inflated issues beyond reasonable limits.”

“That’s their nature,” he says. “No one gives you money if there aren’t problems.”

Greenberg says there might be hope for maintaining abundant, healthy oceans even as our demands escalate. “If we’re all going to eat the government’s recommended daily allowance of fish, we have to do it by feeding ourselves with a combination of wild seafood and onshore aquaculture that doesn’t involve the grinding up of other fish to feed the fish that we want to farm,” he says.

Mulvaney is directly addressing the problems. So is Ngo, who has been trying to wean his customers off of unagi—one of the most problematic, but demanded, items in the sushi business. Eel farms depend on juvenile eels captured in the wild and reared in captivity. Wild eel populations have declined as a result.

Ngo has experimented with using Passmore catfish as a replacement, but for now, eel remains on his menu.

“It’s something people expect you to have,” he says. “You can’t just not serve it.”

But Trenor, at the helm of his own eel- and bluefin-free restaurant, asserts that chefs must drive industry change.

“If I were an herbalist, and I had people coming in wanting tiger penis and rhino horn, does that mean I’d have to give it to them?” he says. “No, it doesn’t, and chefs and business owners that put the onus on their customer are just passing the buck.”