While writing about meat-eating and some of its associated implications, it didn’t occur to me that in addition to beef, pork, and poultry, I should consider seafood as well. For me, it’s often easier to overlook the ethical issues that are associated with seafood, probably due to a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t live in an area that produces it, and my closest connection to squid and shrimp (two of my favorites) is when I purchase them at the grocery store or order them at the restaurant. Nevertheless, it’s just as important to understand what we are eating when we consume seafood, and it’s even possible to draw parallels between mass-produced seafood and their land-based cousins.
The New York Times provides an excellent example of this in an entry for their current series on China’s “epic pollution crisis” (series overview here). David Barboza focuses on the southern coastal city of Fuqing, which has become a major domestic and international source for farmed fish, including crab, shrimp, and eel. As he argues, Fuqing is part of the aquaculture system that has made China a “seafood power” since the 1990s, but their farming methods come with a high environmental and public health cost:
“Government records document the environmental ills in the region. The nearby Dongzhang Reservoir, a water source for agriculture and more than 700,000 people, was recently rated level 5, near the bottom of the government scale, unfit for fish farming, swimming or even contact with the human body.
“The Long River, the major waterway in Fuqing, has been degraded by waste dumped by paper factories and slaughterhouses. The government this year rated large sections of the river below level 5, or so highly polluted that it is unfit for any use. And nearby coastal waters which are also heavily fish farmed are polluted with oil, lead, mercury and copper, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration in China.”
Barboza notes that while “industrial waste and agricultural runoff” are responsible for the polluted water supplies upon which aquaculture farmers rely, “[t]he fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.” Moreover, the farmers have resorted to treating fish supplies with a variety of chemicals and antibiotics that are not only illegal, but also include carcinogens and other human health hazards. Consequently, the U.S. has rejected over forty seafood shipments from Fuqing this year, all of which “involved the use of illegal veterinary drugs.”
As I read about this, I noticed that what Barboza was describing bore striking similarities to U.S. factory farming. Both factory farms and Fuqing’s aquaculture farms are attempting to defy nature by packing a high concentration of animals into confined spaces while keeping them fit for human consumption. Both negatively affect (and are negatively affected) from their surrounding environments, especially with regard to waste disposal and access to uncontaminated water sources. Both face high risks of disease outbreaks among their stock due to confinement, and both rely upon the use of chemicals and supplements as a primary response method. Finally, because of the above practices, both place human consumers at a greater risk than we should tolerate.
The irony of aquaculture farming is that it’s theoretically supposed to counterbalance the quite serious problem of overfishing, which has depleted numerous species and upset delicately balanced ecosystems worldwide. Yet if farmed seafood can be unsafe for consumption and results in environmental damage, how do we proceed in determining what types of seafood to purchase? The best resource I have found is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which includes a seafood guide for consumers. The guide is particularly helpful because it not only classifies popular edible seafood into three categories (Best, Good and Avoid, with corresponding green, yellow, and red signifiers), but also briefly explains the harvesting methods for particular species and why it does or doesn’t make a good choice based on environmental and marine factors. (Unsurprisingly, they aren’t too keen about the harvesting of sea turtles.)
As I wrote in my previous entry, we’re not always going to make the ethical and/or sustainable choice that we probably should. Following the Seafood Watch recommendations definitely requires some adjustments, especially since some popular types of seafood—Atlantic cod, farmed shrimp and salmon, and certain types of halibut and flounder—have Avoid warnings. The good news is that there are plenty of environmentally sound and personally safe choices on their list, and, thanks to federal law, we can also determine the source of unprocessed seafood at the store, as well as whether it has been farmed or wild-caught. Keeping these two things in mind provides us with a basic awareness of what we eat when we eat seafood.