Eating Seafood Responsibly

Instead of cod or shrimp, satisfy your taste buds with razor clams or a conch

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

In New England’s open ocean, bays and estuaries nearly everything that swims, crawls or borrows can be served on a plate and eaten. But the seafood options at many restaurants and on display at most supermarkets represents just a thin slice of New England’s fare — and that’s not a good thing for the health of the region’s marine ecosystems.

This absence of seafood diversity is not only a loss of culinary opportunity, but also a potential source of ecological imbalance, according to Sarah Schumann, president of Rhode Island-based Eating with the Ecosystem. The Warren resident has been delivering this message across the region since she founded the organization two years ago.

Since the type of seafood listed on menus or available at grocery store counters doesn’t always match what’s truly available in the ocean, Schumann says this hidden discrepancy stresses local fisheries — the fishermen, targeted species and ecosystems.

Schumann, who studied marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island and has a master’s degree in environmental policy, has spent the past decade in the local fishing industry — first as a deckhand catching fluke in Block Island Sound and then on a lobster boat. She now harvests local shellfish, and she works a seasonal job at a salmon cannery in Alaska.

After spending a sizable chunk of her life on or in the water and studying the marine environment, she has become concerned about the environmental impacts of our seafood choices. This growing concern led her to establish Eating with the Ecosystem* in 2012. The nonprofit’s mission is to promote the culinary delights of New England’s underutilized seafood species.

Schumann says consuming seafood responsibly means dining on a wider variety of species; it means leaving your culinary comfort zone. Instead of buying cod or ordering shrimp, satisfy your taste buds with razor clams, periwinkles or a conch.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported that the Atlantic cod population in the Gulf of Maine is at an all-time low. In an early-August notice, scientists warned fishery managers that this new analysis presented “a grim picture for the recovery of this iconic fish.”

Nearly every indicator of the stock condition declined in the past year, to the point that the total of adult fish, known as spawning biomass, is estimated to be about 4 percent of a sustainable population, according to Peter Baker, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

The Commerce Department declared the fishery a disaster in 2012, and nearly $33 million in federal aid is being distributed to New England fishermen.

Shrimp, like cod, is a popular seafood choice. Americans alone consume more than a billion pounds of shrimp annually. However, about 90 percent of the shrimp sold in the United States is imported from overseas aquaculture facilities that harvest it in ways that cause significant habitat destruction and environmental degradation.

Atlantic slipper limpets are common marine snails native to the northeastern U.S. coast. (Karen Chan/WHOI)One of Schumann’s favorite shellfish is the underappreciated Atlantic slipper limpet. The shell of these common marine snails, also known as “quarterdecks” and “boat shells,” are a familiar sight on beaches up and down the East Coast.

They live and breed in stacks, attaching themselves to rocks, pilings and other shells. These snails, a sliver of orange flesh braced tightly within their shells, taste kind of like scallops, but this plentiful species hasn’t caught on as a popular seafood option.

In fact, the list of local seafood species that are underutilized is long, from monkfish and sea robins to unappetizing-sounding dogfish, skate and scup. But lobsters didn’t look appealing more than a century ago, when they were fed to servants, or used as bait or fertilizer. Today they sell for between $4 and $6 a pound.

Thanks to the efforts of Schumann, local enterprising chefs and adventurous  consumers, species once referred to as “rough” or “trash” are now being ordered, served, bought and eaten — thus taking some pressure off overfished species such as cod.

The depletion of overfished species means other species such as pollock, tautog and redfish have taken their place in New England’s marine ecosystems. But based on trips to the supermarket or dinners out, consumers are likely to see plenty of cod but no slipper limpets, dogfish or skate.

The more popular seafood choices are often top predators such as bluefin tuna, swordfish and salmon. But consuming species lower on the food chain, such as hake and sand and rock crabs, is generally regarded as more sustainable and environmentally responsible.

Eating with the Ecosystem will be hosting a community dinner Oct. 25 at the South Kingstown Elks Lodge to draw attention to the delicious, nutritious, abundant and mostly overlooked seafood caught by local fishermen.

The fundraiser is being produced in collaboration with members of the Point Judith commercial fishing community. Fishermen will donate their catch, clean and cook the fish, and chat with guests at the dinner. Guests will have the opportunity to learn where their seafood comes from and how consumers can help fishermen adapt seafood markets to changing environmental conditions.

The concept for the event was originated by Rodman Sykes, who has fished commercially out of Point Judith for 40 years. Sykes, a member of the board of directors of Eating with the Ecosystem, said he hopes the dinner introduces consumers to unfamiliar species.

“Many of the fish that we catch are underrepresented in the marketplace,” Sykes said. “As fishermen, we are always looking for opportunities to sell all the fish that we catch. Educating the public to appreciate these fish will help the industry and the resource.”

Point Judith fishermen plan to serve dogfish, sea robins, skate, scup, bluefish, whiting, butterfish, squid and mussels, but the final menu will depend on what is swimming that day. Tickets cost $17 and can be bought online. Proceeds will benefit Eating with the Ecosystem.

Schumann believes most sustainability campaigns are focused on the global view, which ignores the complexity of smaller interdependent ecosystems. The world’s oceans aren’t one large ecosystem — a consumer in Hong Kong, for example, has a vastly different selection of more sustainable seafood options (giant grouper, say) than someone in Iceland (red mullet).

However, responsible seafood consumption isn’t just about what we eat, she says. Schumann says it’s also about a changing climate, the introduction of invasive species, habitat loss, and ocean acidification from greenhouse gas emissions.

Seafood can be considered sustainable if it’s harvested in quantities small enough to prevent negative impacts to its population and is caught in a way that doesn’t harm other species or marine habitats, according to Julia Beaty, a Maine-based fisheries social scientist.

“Sustainability is all about the future productivity of marine ecosystems,” she wrote in a recent piece for Newport-based Sailors for the Sea. In her essay, Beaty highlighted five questions that consumers should ask to determine if their seafood is environmentally responsible:

What type of fishing gear was used? Indiscriminate high-impact gear such as purse seines, gill nets and trawls typically results in more bycatch — also called by-kill — compared to selective gear such as hooks, traps and harpoons.

How much bycatch does this gear usually cause? Bycatch or by-kill refers to species that are caught incidentally by fishermen who are usually targeting just one or two. Bycatch can include a species that a fisherman isn’t permitted to harvest, such as a fish caught out of season, or one that is smaller or larger than the legal size.

Does this gear type damage marine habitats? If fishing gear touches the seafloor it can damage marine habitats, causing major impacts on the health of a marine ecosystem. Bottom trawls are the most notorious example of fishing-induced habitat destruction. Bottom trawls catch fish by dragging heavy gear along the bottom, and are particularly harmful to rocky habitats, sponges and corals. Pole-caught, handline, troll or trap-caught seafoods are better options.

Where on the food chain does this species fall? Fish that are low on the food chain are generally more sustainable options because they are, for the most part, more abundant. They also reproduce at a younger age, which helps them recover relatively quickly from low to moderate levels of overfishing.

Is it wild or farm-raised? Most of the seafood consumed in the United States is harvested from wild populations. However, the amount of farm-raised fish and shellfish in U.S. seafood markets is rapidly expanding. There are benefits and environmental costs associated with aquaculture. Some argue that aquaculture is necessary to feed a growing human population while also supporting the health of marine ecosystems by taking pressure off wild stocks. Others argue that aquaculture relies too heavily on wild-caught fish to create feed for farm-raised fish and that it pollutes the environment with fish waste and antibiotics. Farm-raised mussels, clams and oysters are generally beneficial to marine ecosystems because they feed by filtering seawater.

*ecoRI News editor Frank Carini is an Eating with the Ecosystem board member.