Roadside Sustainable Seafood?

A wild-caught California King Salmon

Stephanie Mutz (@seastephfish), President of the Commercial Fisherman of Santa Barbara, says that fish is the last wild food we eat. Think about that and you will probably find it true. You probably haven’t stalked a deer in awhile and you just can’t find a recipe you like for those wild mustard greens; but most of the fish we eat grows wild in our oceans, rivers, and lakes. And though there are farmed versions of many types of seafood, a good deal of fish comes only in wild form.

The wild nature of fish means it requires a watchful eye. Their populations are maintained by natural forces and are much more delicate than those that are farmed. We cannot simply “raise” more tuna, the way we can chickens or cattle. Even when we can farm fish, the process is prone to issues. Concentrated waste and disease can be released into the local environment. Escapees mate with wild populations or infest previously unpopulated areas. Some farmed fish requires large quantities of wild caught baitfish for food; even though it’s farmed it still puts a strain on wild populations.

Eating fruits, veggies, and meats from a good source is very important.  However choosing sustainable seafood is perhaps one of the most important food choices you can make. Those choices are lasting and sometimes permanent. Contaminated genes cannot be purified, infested waters are difficult to purge, extinct species cannot be revived.

Sustainable seafood is a critical issue to the future of our food supply and our environment. But what, really, are we to do. I am a (relatively) normal person. If I know something specific is bad, I avoid it. But it’s not always so simple. Chinese Tilapia is bad, US Tilapia is fine. Swordfish, Chilean seabass, and bluefin tuna are being overfished in some waters, but not others. Farmed salmon is mostly bad, not always; but does always suffer from a protein imbalance (3 lbs of wild caught protein in for 1 lb of salmon meat out).

If you don’t already know it, Seafood watch is a good start. Run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium they rate species and origins. The rating is three-fold: best choice, good alternative, and avoid; or green, yellow, and red lighted. They have free wallet sized guides rating popular seafood choices. They also have a free app for download.

But let’s face it, it’s still hard. I have the app, and the card, and write and think about this stuff all the time. And I still wonder sometimes if I’m making the right choice. Furthermore, no matter how much you care about your food, once in awhile you’re away from your kitchen and trusted bunch of restaurants, and really hungry. You standards of eating and morals about what you are eating start to slip with each growl of your stomach.

I was in just such a situation a week ago, on the drive home from LA. I found myself stopping at a Rubios right off the highway. The classic BRC burrito is a go-to standby on the road. But once inside I noticed a little blue fish and the word “SUSTAINABLE” next to most of the fish items. When I got home I looked it up.

According to their website, all the generic fish items are made with Wild Alaska Pollock. They also have a few items made with Wild Alaska Salmon. These fish are both certified by the trustworthy Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), green listed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and bear the Alaska Seafood Certification.

When Alaska became a state they wrote into their constitution that all fisheries had to be managed sustainably. In the case of salmon that means (spawning) fish return quotas are counted and met before any fish is caught. It is perhaps a clever trick of marketing, but the MSC is purported to have been formed based on the standards set by Alaska Seafood certification.

The remaining seafood menu items are made with aquaculture Shrimp, which are certified as a “Best Aquaculture Practice” by the The Global Aquaculture Alliance. In spite of what might be called a decent effort at sustainability, they also have 1-2 items that are not labelled sustainable.

I don’t necessarily mean for this to be a plug for Rubios. I don’t like corporations, and crappy restaurant corporations are among the worst. As for their food, I find it passable at best. However I do want to recognize and applaud their efforts. I’m happy to see the corporate world responding to changes in our food awareness. A corporation moving to sustainable seafood will probably make a much larger difference than all the boutique seafood restaraunts I usually frequent, combined. And I’m glad to know there is an affordable and readily available source of well-sourced seafood out there for the hungry traveller.

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