For the environmentally conscious, the idea of sustainable seafood has recently become trendy.
“Many fish are threatened by human ignorance,” said David G. Argent, department chairman of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at California University of Pennsylvania and professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences. “We have overfished many species to the brink of extinction … like sharks, sturgeon and many salmon stocks.”
The idea is simple: Eat seafood caught or raised using eco-friendly methods in order to help reduce the amount of animals caught from wild fisheries that are depleted or threatened. But, in practice, those looking to find sustainable options while supporting their local parishes or fire halls during Lent may have found the task a bit daunting.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is the go-to source for proponents of sustainable fishing. Its website, www.MontereyBayAquarium.org, has a comprehensive list of species that are environmentally friendly and those that should be avoided.
The recommendations, however, can be confounding for even the most active advocate. For example, a popular staple of the area fish fry, the common cod fillet, can be labeled in each of the listing’s three categories – best choices, good alternatives and avoid – depending on point of origin and method of fishing. Line-caught, imported Atlantic cod are deemed the most friendly to Earth’s oceans, while trawl-caught U.S. and Canadian Atlantic cod are red-flagged.
Argent said the problem is something that would be best tackled at the federal or international level. A general lack of awareness by consumers is the underlying problem, but it is compounded by the fact that even those most actively searching for sustainable alternatives may not be able to find them. Simpler, mandated labeling would make the task easier for consumers. Similar laws made nutritional information labels mandatory in 1990.
“Labeling of many fish species available to the public – and churches – makes it tough to determine the country of origin,” Argent said. “The overarching problem I see is that these well-intended fundraisers are victim to poor fish-management practices around the globe that threaten wild stocks of many fish species. These events could be used as opportunities to better educate the public about fish consumption.”
Many local organizers said those showing up for their events haven’t asked for information regarding the species, point of origin or sustainability of Friday’s fried fillet. Furthermore, because they buy seafood from regional distributors, the original source of their food products is often unknown.
“No one ever really asked, so I never thought about it at all,” said Marge Farquhar, organizer of the Lenten fish fry at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Richeyville. “When you buy from a supplier, you gotta take what they got.”
Farquhar said the church’s shipments of fish don’t offer information as to the sustainability of the catch.
Renee Carroll, a buyer for Nappies Food Service in Oakdale, said the volume of seafood being purchased by restaurants and nonprofits during Lent increases almost threefold when compared to the rest of the year. While local purveyors are asking about quality, not many are questioning the sustainability of their purchases.
“They ask if it’s frozen at sea or from China,” Carroll said. “Some ask if it’s Atlantic or Pacific, but not everybody knows the difference. They also ask if it’s twice frozen or frozen at sea and the origin of the product.”
Further complicating the matter is how critical Lenten fish fry fundraising efforts have become to a parish’s bottom line.
“This is very, very important,” Farquhar said. “If we didn’t have the fish fries, we’d have to come up with some other kind of fundraiser so they wouldn’t close the church. We’re the smallest in the diocese, and you have to be able to pay the bills or they’re not going to let you stay here.”
Buying seafood harvested from sustainable fisheries is often more expensive than other options. A case of 12 5-ounce cans of sustainably line-caught albacore tuna can run $30 to $40, as opposed to the 80-cents-per-can price of the common trawl-caught variety available in grocery stores.
But cost isn’t as much of a concern for some fish fry coordinators as is quality. For Joe Carothers, coordinator for St. Mary’s in Cecil, it’s about buying the best catch, regardless of where it comes from.
“Do I worry about sustainability?” Carothers said. “No, absolutely not. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that most of my product would fall into the problem area.
“There are wild products and there are farm-raised products. I try to use wild-caught because it’s a better fish.”