By Eric Hyman
Most Bay Area folks realize that their food choices have a compounding impact on the resources found in both our immediate and wider natural world. And just as an element of mystery surrounds the watersheds we live in – the water often weaving its way out of sight, underground, beneath pavement, and so on, only to reappear unexpectedly (maybe) as it migrates towards the Bay – the complexity of decision making when buying seafood routinely alludes the average grocery shopper.
For starters, seafood is the only wild food product that humans consume on a mass scale; beef, chicken, pork, lettuce, apples, lemons, green beans, asparagus, almonds – all cultivated. Also consider that fish are often caught hundreds of miles away from land and people, deep below the surface in darkness. Finally throw into the mix the conflicting statistics on a particular species’ population numbers or the debatable effects of a given fishing method on a specific area’s underwater terrain and you are left shrugging at the supermarket.
Having sourced all the ingredients at a well-respected Bay Area fish house for more than a decade, I’d like to share a handful of watershed-aware strategies to consider when you purchase seafood for your dinner. Hopefully these tips will begin to simplify your decision making:
- Eat seafood lower on the food chain, which translates to smaller and/or less mobile animals, as larger sea creatures typically use up more resources. Think commonly available options like squid, herring, mussels, and clams. Also think of less commonly available options like sea urchins, smelt, and sand dabs.
- Consider the road less often traveled, as in ‘not always the most obvious’ choices of salmon, halibut, bass, tuna, and cod. Instead of tuna, how about ono or opah? Instead of sea bass, what about sturgeon? This is not to say that these five fish are always problematic, given the appropriate seasons and fishing methods, but large numbers of consumers spreading out their preferences means less heavy usage of a small number of species. Also know that many fish have market names that use these more popular words but are, in fact, not related. Local rockcod is not a true cod. Black cod is also not a member of the cod family. California white sea bass is actually a drum or croaker.
- Pay attention to seasons and fishing methods. I know that this is a tricky one for the average person to know, but understand that fish have migratory patterns that make different methods of catch more or less effective different times of the year. These different methods also have differing degrees of environmental impact. Plus, reproductive periods must be respected as well. Here’s a helpful chart on when to buy what.
- Oysters! Oysters! Oysters! I have purchased somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven million oysters in my career so far, and I know how it sounds when a guy who makes a living buying and selling oysters tells you that the responsible thing to do is to eat more oysters. The truth is that I am proud to support myself working with an animal whose natural environment thrives when their populations are booming due to increased cultivation. If you’re reading the Watershed Project’s newsletter, I’m hoping you’re aware of the incredible role that oysters play in a bay’s ecosystem as the filtering champions that they are. Just in case, though, here’s a quick refresher: by filtering out particulates, oysters improve the turbidity of the water, which allows the light from the surface to penetrate deeper, which causes the grasses on the seafloor to grow larger, which provides habitat for small creatures, which provides food for larger animals. I know an oyster farmer in Washington that laments how the improved water quality his farm helped usher in led to the return of salmon after many years which led to the local authorities limiting the farm’s footprint to grant wider access to salmon fisherpeople!
Obviously this list barely scratches the surface of the how’s and why’s of buying seafood and the impact on your local watershed, but to quickly summarize and end with a mantra: shop small, shop “in season,” shop for biodiversity, and of course, shop for oysters!