Have you ever wondered about the credibility of “organic” aquaculture? What about the effects of plastic waste on our seafood? Today on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez talks with Sheila Bowman, manager of Culinary and Strategic Initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. Trained as a marine scientist and passionate about conservation, Sheila’s current work focuses on educating and activating culinary audiences to help them make the best choices when purchasing seafood, and to demand environmentally sound fishing and farming practices.
The Seafood Watch Program compiles consumer guides that can be downloaded, printed, and referenced to help consumers make informed choices about seafood. “Over the last seventeen years,” Sheila says, “what we’ve done is build those lists, keep them up, and certainly add new fish and even plants as a way to keep it current and relevant to today’s food scene.” These guides are organized by region and especially important as, Sheila shares, there really is no “rule of thumb” regarding what responsible seafood consumers should buy and eat. “You do have to look up species-by-species,” she says, because it’s no longer a matter of simply comparing fresh vs. farmed fish—it really depends on where that fish is coming from.
In fact, Sheila says that “probably more than half of the fish we eat right now are farmed, whether it’s oysters or shrimp, tilapia or catfish.” With this in mind it’s imperative that we as consumers support responsibly-operated fisheries that keep things like the health of fish populations, fishing practices, management and habitat damage in mind.
Transcript: Interview with Sheila Bowman
Air Date: March 13, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today we are taking up a critical topic, and it’s about our oceans. And I’m here with Sheila Bowman, who is a marine scientist and manager of the Culinary and Strategic Initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. So delighted to have such a thing out there! Welcome, Sheila.
SHEILA BOWMAN: Thank you so much. I’m so pleased to be here with you, Theresa.
TM: It is just such an important topic, so I’m very eager to talk with you more about it. So the aquarium, of course, is so much more than just the Seafood Watch Program, which I think is very, very important. But what kinds of other things, for our listeners who are going to visit the Monterey Peninsula—which, by the way is stunningly beautiful—what kinds of things would they see at the Monterey Bay Aquarium?
SB: Well, since we’re speaking to a food-oriented crowd, I’d like to use the term locavore. So Monterey Bay Aquarium, when we opened in 1984, was all about the local ocean and what’s going on here in California. So we never had on exhibit, you know, exotic fish from the tropics or electric eels from other parts of the world. We really show you who lives in Monterey, in California, beneath the waves, and we show them to you in ecosystems. So you’re going to see big fish and little fish and plants and snails and, you know, things that in nature would eat each other. But here in the aquarium, since we keep everyone well fed, hopefully we’re just showing you a community that would be the same sort of fish that you would see if you were to go diving here in Monterey Bay.
TM: So after they put together the aquarium and everything, they developed a program that is called the Aquarium Seafood Watch. Can you tell us a little bit about that program?
SB: Sure. So when we had this exhibit, what we found was many of our visitors were starting already to say, “Tell me what I should eat more of and what I should eat less of.” And it was that kind of consumer interest that drew us into creating these lists that tell you exactly that. You know, you should eat more of the best choices—those are the food heroes that we all want to support. And for a while, stay away from the things that are on the avoid list—they really have probably a number of confounding situations that you want to probably not be part of. So that’s how we laid it out, was a green list, a yellow list, and a red list. And in the last seventeen years what we’ve done is build those lists, keep them up, certainly add new fish, and even plants. We added seaweed in the last year as a way to keep it current and relevant to today’s food scene.
TM: I was very stunned to see shrimp on the avoid list, and I went, “Ooh, everywhere you go, in every restaurant they’re serving shrimp.” So what is it about shrimp that makes it on the avoid list?
SB: Well, you know, shrimp is definitely one of our favorite foods, not just here but around the world. And it’s also one of a few species that are being both caught in the wild and farmed. So this is where it really pays off, Theresa, to know where it’s from. Is it farmed or wild? What’s the production system that’s being used? Because you will find shrimp on our green list, our yellow list, and our red list.
So I’m just back from the southeast, where they have some very fine farms and fisheries going on that are producing yellow-list shrimp that you should be eating. But there are other parts of the world where you’re going to find things on the red list. There’s also quite a few here in the aquarium—we use several species of shrimp that are on that green list. So it’s really about finding what you most want to eat. And then here’s the key part: buying it when you’re seeing it, supporting it so that those are the sectors of our food source that are growing and becoming more available.
TM: Well, you know, you just said something that perhaps our listeners need to hear more about. You said “farms and fisheries.” What I heard from that is there’s farms and farming fish. So tell us what the difference is between farms and fisheries.
SB: Well, I think one of the important things for people to keep in mind is, when we go out fishing in the oceans and lakes and rivers, those are all wild, wild animals that we’re hunting, really, to bring to our plates. So it’s one of probably the world’s biggest remaining wild food sources. So we need to always keep in mind that we didn’t plant those seeds and grow them for harvest. We really have to look at the oceans as a place where, if we keep them healthy and maintain them, those wild fisheries will continue to be available to us.
In addition to wild fish, though, there’s quite a growing aspect of the seafood market which is all about farmed fish. So probably half, more than half of the fish we eat right now are farmed, whether it’s oysters or shrimp, tilapia or catfish. A lot of those products out there come from farms.
TM: I’m going to bet out there some of our listeners, and certainly I’ve been one of them, I get confused sometimes. What’s better for me to eat? Is it a farmed fish or is it a wild-caught fish? Is there any kind of rule of thumb? Or is it just you have to know where each one comes from?
SB: It’s more of the latter. So I think twenty years ago when we started there was a clearer line. There was a lot of aquaculture that was not being done in a very environmentally friendly way. And while that’s still the case, I think that, like any food product that you can come across in the supermarket, there have been fish farmers who have said, “Nope, we can do better.” And they’ve really developed the technology and learned the process to create really delicious food that’s also quite environmentally friendly. So if you look at our green list, there’s quite a few green list items, or best choices, that are coming from farms. And that’s a pretty exciting development in my world of seafood that has happened since I’ve been working with this program.
TM: Well, I think, obviously, what do you mean by environmentally friendly?
SB: So one of the important, I think, distinctions about Seafood Watch is all of the fish that is on our list is really there based on the impact, the environmental impact of the particular fishery or fish farm. So if you’re a fishery, one of the things that we look at—we look at four different things. We look at, you know, how healthy is the population of fish that you want to catch. And then we also look at, you know, the idea of bycatch, which is while you’re out there trying to catch the cod or the tuna or the salmon, are you catching other species at the same time unintentionally? And some fisheries have a lot higher level of bycatch than others. You can imagine, if you’re out fishing with one pole, you’re going to catch fish in a more individual and careful way than if you’re using a giant net that would catch everything in its path. So that would be something we would look at.
We look at management. How well are we humans doing with understanding the fish biology, setting the right records and limits for those fish, and then enforcing those limits so that fisheries are out there catching the right amount of each fish? We look at habitat damage. If you’re dragging a big net across the ocean floor, that’s going to create a lot of problems for all the little creatures and snails and plants that live there and create that habitat and that food system, much more so than if you put one hook over the edge of a boat and catch fish.
So those are sort of—that’s the mindset we have. We have a similar kind of mindset with farming, to look at all of the different impacts that come into place to bring that fish to the table.
TM: You know, I actually have read that, for example, the same kinds of things that are used in livestock are also used in farmed fish, like, for example, hormones and antibiotics—now maybe not hormones so much, but antibiotics, I understand—and also the potentially killing of predators, i.e., lovely big birds who love fish. Is that something that’s part of the standards?
SB: Yes. So when you’re looking at farmed fish you’re going to have eight different criteria, including all of the things that you just discussed. We also look at, again, the impacts on the habitat. If you’ve been to a cow farm you know that there’s going to be impacts in the local region. It’s the same thing if you have, you know, a million salmon in a salmon farm. It’s going to impact the immediate sea floor and some of the fish that are swimming near and outside of those farms. So those are the kinds of things that, again, we look at in balance to make sure that… I think all of our food production systems, Theresa, we have to know, are going to have some environmental impact. So we’re not looking for perfection, but we are looking for farmers to try to, you know, moderate, mediate those kinds of impacts, reduce them where they can, and try to really create food that we all can feel good about eating.
TM: I read about, on Seafoodwatch.org, that you have a very rigorous standard development process which is very inclusive. I wonder if you could tell us more about it.
SB: Yes. Well, as a scientist I’m very proud of our standard, and we go through the standard and update it on a regular basis to make sure it’s really scientifically taking into account all the different aspects of how the seafood is being fished and farmed. We post all of that on our website so that people can take a look at it and understand it. It’s a really valuable tool if you’re a fisherman or a fish farmer and you want to learn how you can make improvements in what you’re doing.
TM: So actually your website isn’t just for the public and people who are interested in the sea and the ocean health, but also for farmers? Do you have like a whole farm segment that’s part of your Seafood Watch program?
SB: Yes, we do. Well, every one of our reports that we do is posted on the website, and you can see the numeric criteria of how we reached our different rankings. What we do in order to put together these reports, we use white papers and lots of government data and talk to the people who are doing the farming, who are doing the fishing, and really try to pull together a comprehensive picture of what’s going on. Our reports can take over a year to actually write. And then the thing, I think, that really holds everything together at the end is a completely separate group of people will do the peer review on the report. So, intimately associated industry people, people who are specialists in that particular species who may know way more about shrimp than I know, would read those reports and make sure that everything is being considered comprehensively and accurately. And if it’s not, then they give us that feedback and we rewrite the report until everybody who is a stakeholder really feels like it’s a complete and correct representation.
TM: Seafoodwatch.org, for those of you who want to hear more about the standards. Trying to dig in a little bit more, Sheila, on just how is this being used. I see that you both have, folks can go online as well as there’s a seafood pocket guide. Can you print it out, or do you send it to people? Or how can people get this seafood pocket guide?
SB: The pocket guide is probably one of our best tools for consumers. It doesn’t have all of our recommendations on it, but we have different pocket guides for each region. So up where you are, you’re going to see fish that would be really familiar to you when you’re in restaurants and in the grocery store, whereas it would be slightly different for me here on the West Coast. So everyone can pick up their regional version of the pocket guide on our website. Print it out, put it in your wallet. And I think the key thing, Theresa, is updating it, making sure that every six months or so you’re going back in and getting the new version, because the great news about Seafood Watch is a lot of these fisheries change and improve through time. So you want to make sure you know how to buy sustainable Chilean sea bass, which is available now. It’s not all sitting on the red list anymore, and the pocket guide will help you determine which questions to ask so that you can find that sustainable product.
TM: Well, you just made me really happy because I happen to love Chilean sea bass—it is so delicious and flaky and wonderful! And for a while there I wasn’t eating it, so now I’m seeing it’s back on the list—that’s great. But of course, you know, those of us in the Midwest, we are like, you know, walleye fans. Would that be found on your regional Midwest seafood list?
SB: It’s on there and in the Great Lakes. You know, I learned a lot about the Great Lakes when we put together that part of the card. So different lakes have different recommendations, but we certainly have that on there, along with several other lake trout and other species that are very familiar to you but not so familiar to me. A little quick look-up here and walleye from the Minnesota Red Lakes is on our green list. Lake Eerie and Superior and Huron have some yellow list but also some red list. So again, you’re going to want to spend a little time, determine what exact criteria you need to look at. And if I can recommend, head over to our partner page and look and see if we have anyone listed there who has committed to buying sustainable seafood. They really can help a consumer find their way to a store where they can find those products.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sheila Bowman, the manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.
Well, I’m so glad that you mentioned that you have the partnership page, because I think that’s another very valuable tool for those who really care about where their food comes from and also want to support stores and those who are doing a good job. You know, I mentioned to you that I’m from Portland, Oregon, and you know the salmon couldn’t be a more iconic fish. And I know many people, and certainly myself included, for many years have said, “No, we’re going to avoid farmed salmon.” But not all farmed salmon is created equal, is it? I mean, are there good examples of farmed salmon and bad examples?
SB: Well, I think that for almost any fish that we talk about, there’s good examples and bad examples. And I think if, people listening, if that’s the one thing they can take away is that that rule of thumb doesn’t really apply—that you do have to look up species by species. But farmed salmon is certainly one that I think has had a really kind of bad reputation for many years, and people assume it’s all bad and they shouldn’t eat it. And that’s not fair at all to the industry. There are quite a few players out there who have really changed, developed, innovated the kinds of work that you and I want to see in the food system. And I would say that we really want to get out there and try and support some of those better players. So use the pocket guide, look at the app, and find the kinds of farmed salmon out there that is doing those—that important piece of work to be more sustainable.
TM: Yes, and also look at the partners in your region, just because they’re going to be looking at this guide too and trying to choose the best choices. You know, some of the talk is that the problem with farmed salmon is that it gets out and then it kind of contaminates by breeding with the wild salmon. Can you give us some insights into that thought?
SB: Well, one of the things that really does make farming salmon very different than farming chickens is very rarely, I think, do chickens get out and go unrecognized on the planet. People would know that those are chickens and that they will probably need to get back in that farm. But in the ocean, if you have a million fish in a salmon farm and a storm or some other force comes along and all of a sudden half of those fish escape the farm, there’s really not a very good way to get them back. And if you are raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific, which happens, or Atlantic salmon in the Southern Hemisphere, which certainly happens, you know, you have to think about what the repercussions are of having those fish out in the wild habitats.
So in our aquaculture criteria we certainly think about escapes. We look at the number of escapes that sort of have happened within an industry. We also look at data that comes from governments and other environmental kind of survey takers that tell us, are you seeing those Atlantic salmon swimming in streams in the Pacific Northwest? Are they surviving? Are they impacting wild fish species? We look at all those things, and the data are available. And you know, if it’s great numbers and again comes out numerically significant, that’s something you’ll see in the report.
On the flip side, I know there’s a salmon farm in the Atlantic that has done a really great job of not having their fish escape. When you look at places where salmon hang out, you don’t see their salmon in those stream surveys and things. So again, it kind of comes back to, with the right effort and approach, you know, these farms can be done the right way. So the importance is staying away from those that are still having problems and supporting the ones that have done that work to be more sustainable.
TM: You mentioned organic, and I know that the USDA National Organic Program, they are in the process of developing standards for aquaculture. I’m wondering how much you know about that and whether you have a comment on that.
SB: Well, you know, as long as I’ve been working with Seafood Watch we’ve heard this idea that, you know, there should be some standard for seafood that’s organic. And parts of the world do have one, but here in the U.S. we don’t, so anybody who’s telling you they’re selling you organic salmon is really kind of putting together two words that don’t really have much meaning right now. We do know that lots of the practices that you see in an organic farm, when you’re talking perhaps beef, are the kinds of directions that you want to see a fish farm move in: careful monitoring of the feed, careful monitoring of the drugs; there’s certainly a lot of understanding and limitations on genetically modified organisms.
So I think that the organic direction is a great one. I’m not sure how close we really are to getting there with seafood, and there’s a lot of people on both sides of that story. Some people think it can never happen unless you really figure out the feed part, because, you know, cows eat grass and you can understand the grass and test the grass, but a salmon’s going to be eating fish all across the Pacific Ocean as it lives its adult life. How can you ever guarantee that that’s an organically fed creature? But I think in aquaculture, where you are controlling what the fish are eating, there’s a great opportunity to really investigate what we’re feeding farmed fish and make sure that it’s healthy and organic and sustainable at the same time.
TM: That is very good information, Sheila, so thank you so much for clarifying that. So those of you out there who see organic fish, be sure that, you know, you ask the retailer and/or the restaurateur, where did that come from and really who is certifying it, because there is no domestic certified organic aquaculture at this point.
You know, I have to ask this question because it’s been bugging me like crazy as a food and farm activist. I read, I’m not sure when it was, and maybe you can confirm it for me, that 25 percent of our ocean is unable to reproduce anymore, and that the ocean and seas are in deep trouble. Can you comment on that, and can you kind of like correct me if I’m wrong, that that’s something that is happening with the seas, that a big portion of them—a portion of it, 25 percent of our seas are dying?
SB: I think probably what you’re referring to are these dead zones that are created mostly sort of in a downstream from some of our terrestrial runoff. So I know here in the U.S. we have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And that is another kind of interesting place where terrestrial food systems overlap with marine food systems—the idea that using too many fertilizers and pesticides on land end up being moved through rivers and downstream into the ocean and create a situation where ocean wildlife reacts really differently. Small plants can become fertilized and so numerous in an area that they literally remove most of the oxygen from the water, which makes it impossible for a fish to live there. And once a fish can’t live there, you’re going to see fish—or mammals and birds that depend on those for their diet—start to not be able to live there.
So these dead zones are a fallout from some of the ways we are using the ocean kind of as a reciprocal [receptacle?] for chemicals and garbage and pollutants that we create, and it’s of great concern. I think we really need to think about this idea that if it just flows downstream or goes to a dump, it’s no longer in our immediate vicinity, that we’ve solved the problem. But we’re starting to see in the ocean this accumulation of these unwanted products. I think one of the things that we’re starting to hear of more and more now is that plastics, which end up in the ocean and float around, break down into smaller and smaller pieces that start to become consumed by fish. So within the fish’s body we have these plastic properties that, you know, aren’t great. So then we go out and catch the fish, and we’re eating a product that has that plastic garbage in it. So I think whenever we all can really keep hold of those important ideas of reducing the amount of plastic we use, recycling it, keeping an eye on when we can use a reusable grocery bag, those are all the kinds of things that can really help us keep the planet a little bit more tidy, which really has benefits to our own health and long-term, I think, happiness.
TM: Well, Sheila, thank you so much for that comment, because I think what you just said was it’s all connected. And even though we don’t know that maybe some of our habits that we have might be compromising our love of eating clean fish, it might be. So what you just said was an excellent connection between our everyday lifestyle and keeping the oceans as clean as possible.
Sheila, really fantastic talking with you. I have so many more things I would love to ask you about, but we’re out of time right now, and I want to make sure our listeners know that they can get more information about the pocket guide and about Seafood Watch at seafoodwatch.org. And then I’m assuming the Monterey Bay Aquarium has their own website. Can you tell us what that is?
SB: Yes. MontereyBayAquarium.org is another great place to learn a lot about some of these issues, but also all these amazing, beautiful animals that live in the ocean.
TM: I read recently that we’ve only explored 10 percent of the ocean. Is that true?
SB: That is true! You know, one of our founders here at the aquarium was David Packard, and he used to say that we know more about the surface of the moon than parts of the deepest ocean waters on our own planet. So that, I think, is a real sort of call for us to understand and keep exploring and protect, even if we don’t know exactly everything that’s out there, continue to protect and keep the environment in mind.
TM: Thank you for your passion and interest in this and for sharing all of this with us today. It’s been a pleasure, Sheila.
SB: Thank you, Theresa.
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