Sunday, April 3, 2011

How was it caught?

I sneaked out of many classes in my life, but "Fish sustainability" was the first class I ever sneaked into.  A strange wave of virtue and studiousness washed over me as I sat in the Whole Foods cafe.  I turned off my Kindle, got out my pen, and moved closer to the table where an inspiring talk on the catching methods was given to all the staff of the Framingham, MA store that might stand between you, the consumer, and that piece of tuna or mahi-mahi.  The "in-store educator" (that's what his business card said) even gave me a useful handout and was nice enough to answer all my questions after the talk.

As I found out from this class, you can now ask your Whole Foods fishmonger how the fish was caught.  He should know the answer or be willing to ask someone who does.  In theory, this should help you make an informed decision if you are trying to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium guide for choosing environmentally friendly fish.

Here are the fishing methods the class covered:

Long line --  uses a long line, called the main line, with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines called "snoods."  You can catch many fish at once without effecting the ocean floor.

Gill nets (aka "fixed nets") -- walls of netting which may be set at any depth.

Hook and line -- this traditional method uses one hook and one line.  least environmental impact, but very expensive.  Only 1% of commercial fish is caught this way in the US.

Bottom Trawls (aka "draggers") -- slow moving boats with large nets that drag along the sea floor.  The cheapest way to catch bottom dwellers, but is most harmful to the ocean floor.

Harpooning -- highly-selective method that targets larger species (sword and tuna).  No by-catch, no impact on the ocean floor, but expensive.

Purse seines -- netting encircles schooling fish that are targeted by sonar.  About 25% of US fish is caught this way.

High Seas Drift Nets -- nets are allowed to drift with the currents, and fishermen return later to retrieve what is caught.  This technique results in very large amount of by-catch and it was outlawed in EU since 2002.

I came home full of enthusiasm to see how this information helps me.  When I looked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Northeast guide in the past, I got hopelessly confused because some species appeared in all three columns.  For example, here is what the guide says about the bigeye tuna:

Best choice: Tuna, Bigeye (U.S. Atlantic Troll, Pole-and-line)
Good alternative: Tuna, Bigeye (Troll, Pole-and-line)
Avoid: Tuna, Bigeye (Worldwide, Except U.S. Atlantic Longline)

Unfortunately, neither Troll nor Pole-and-line methods were covered in the Whole Foods class.  Is troll  the same as trawl?  No. Trolling is a method where one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water.  I couldn't get as much info on Pole-and-line, but from what I've read, it's roughly the same thing as trolling, and hook and line.  So, if Whole Foods tells you that their tuna is harpoon caught, good luck figuring what Monterey Bay Aquarium thinks about that.

No, you are not the only person getting a headache when trying to make a responsible choice at the fish counter.  It is indeed very complicated.  But I am very encouraged by Whole Foods' new red/yellow/green labeling system.  Unfortunately, there is no effective way for you and the staff member helping you at the fish counter to make an informed decision about which fish makes a more sustainable choice.  You simply don't have enough information.  But there are people at Whole Foods who do have that information.  They can do the research necessary to find out how healthy is the population of this particular species, what fishing method was used to catch it, how this method effects the habitat of this and other species, and how much by-catch results from it.  They can put all these factors on the scale and give the fish its sustainability grade.  

1 comment:

Sean Sullivan said...

For another approach to sustainability, check out

I think your post does a good job reflecting the challenges most seafood lovers face. The one real downside to the seafood cards is that they tend to pain things with a too large brush. Atlantic Cod is a good example, while populations in Canada are in terrible shape, the cod populations closer to us are in quite good shape and can and are now being fished sustainably. Asking your fishmonger questions is a great place to start. If they dont have the answers for you about how, where and when your seafood was caught, you should find another monger!

Or of course you could also join a Community Supported Fishery such as Cape Ann Fresh Catch.

Love the blog!