How to choose, cook and eat fish sustainably

By Andrew Zimmern

Blue striped snapper are sustainably fished in the eastern central Pacific Ocean. © Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock.com

This year, World Wildlife Day is raising the alarm on marine biodiversity loss. That’s a BIG problem, and I know many of you are thinking someone else will fix this, or saying to yourself “this isn’t real,” or even worse, “I know it’s happening, but I can’t possibly make a difference.” You CAN! And I will get to that shortly.

Life below water has sustained human civilization for, well, forever. Today our oceans provide food, nourishment, and livelihoods for over three billion people. They absorb 30 percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and fully 90 percent of the heat from climate change. Most importantly, oceans produce 50 percent of the oxygen on our planet — in other words, for every second breath we take.

Our planet’s oceans and its species face growing threats, including climate change, marine pollution, habitat destruction, and unsustainable fishing.

These threats, these human activities, have a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of women and men living in poverty, on local communities, cultural societies, and on our massive global economies which depend on the marine ecosystem. I have spent my career seeing it in the very places where the water meets the land. And where fisheries fail, oceans fail. Supporting healthy fisheries and eating sustainable seafood is an easy way to help keep our global economies and oceans healthier.

I have seen the reductions in species and the impact on what were some of the most productive sustainable fisheries from Newfoundland’s cod fishery to Senegal’s tribal hand netting of local reef fish. I hear the same story everywhere I go, from Mr. Cox the conch diver in Tobago to Jamma the Sakalava spear fisherman in Madagascar. A decade ago these fisheries were productive and hundreds of local families were supported, on the table and in their local economies. Now they aren’t. In Marzamemi, in Southern Sicily, where there were once dozens of local fisheries and canneries, there is now only one. An entire industry wiped out in a generation. And why?

Plastic pollution and destruction of fish nurseries, like mangroves, are a threat to the future of marine biodiversity. ©IWRM AIO SIDS

Overfishing is the biggest threat to the future of fish. It takes the form of unsustainable fishing, illegal fishing and abandoned fishing nets and fishing gear — so-called ghost nets which continue to catch and kill fish for years. Add to that illegal fishing, invasive species, human-made pollution such as fertilizer run-off that causes oxygen dead zones and too much pest algae, untreated sewage, waste water, plastic pollution and destruction of fish nurseries, and of course climate change-related effects that cause ocean acidification and coral bleaching of fish nurseries. And remember, pest algae and toxic blooming affects tourism in places that rely on visitors to keep local economies alive.

The future of fish is at stake. And if our oceans can’t support fish, they won’t be able to support us. Remember that second breath! Since 1961 the annual growth in fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Demand for fish will continue to grow as the population does.

By 2030, combined production from capture fisheries and aquaculture will hit 201 million tons. Nearly 59.9 percent of the major commercial fish species that FAO monitors are now being fished at sustainable levels but 33.1 per cent are fished at levels which are unsustainable. The remaining seven per cent of fish stocks are underfished — -what many in the world call ‘junk fish’.

So we need to do more about that 40.1 percent for reasons beyond our environmental wellness. On the personal side, fish is the ideal energy source — with high-quality, easily digested animal proteins that fight micronutrient deficiencies.

Five ounces of fish provides about 50 to 60 percent of an adult’s daily protein requirement. Fish proteins are essential in the diet of some densely populated countries where the total protein intake is low, and are particularly important to Small Island Developing States. For the world’s poorest, fish is often the only source of free and affordable daily animal protein.

Fish proteins are essential in the diet of some densely populated countries where the total protein intake is low, and are particularly important to Small Island Developing States. © UNDP India / Dhiraj Singh

We have made major improvements in processing as well as in refrigeration, ice-making and transportation allowing increased commercialization and distribution of fish in a greater variety of forms in the past few decades. And we need to do more in developing countries that still consume fish soon after landing or harvesting. The loss or wastage between landing and consumption still accounts for an estimated 27 percent of landed fish.

On the jobs front, in 2016 59.6 million people worked in capture fisheries and aquaculture. Eighty five percent of the workforce was in Asia, followed by Africa (10%), and Latin America and Caribbean (4%). We have a large part of the world where we can do so much more to create sustainability. During the past 40 years, exports from developing countries have increased faster than from developed ones. In 2016 and, according to preliminary figures, also in 2017, developing country exports made up approximately 54 percent of the total value and about 59 percent of the total quantity of fish exports. And with world trade in fish growing significantly in value, aquaculture and investment in well-managed fisheries makes economic sense.

In 2016 59.6 million people worked in capture fisheries and aquaculture. Eighty five percent of the workforce was in Asia, followed by Africa (10%), and Latin America and Caribbean (4%). © UNDP DRC

I believe in making sustainable choices and have a zero-waste goal in my house. I buy whole fish whenever possible to increase the variety of species on our table. I use bones for stock, heads for stews, skins can be scaled and fried for cracklings…and you can do that with most any fish. I buy sustainable fish so that I am personally addressing global hunger, inequality and poverty. And I support aquaculture companies like Verlasso Salmon whose corporate mission is to become the world’s most sustainable salmon company. You should be supporting aquaculture too because by producing more seafood that is affordable and rich in nutrition, aquaculture can help improve food security and livelihoods for the world’s poorest.

I support nature-based solutions and innovative technologies to address these challenges. Most importantly I support the UNDP and its partners who are using existing resources and catalyzing new investments.

Which leads me back to the where we started. While the situation is dire, there are reasons to be hopeful. Things are slowly improving. And most importantly we can all make a difference starting today. Support aquaculture, sustainable fisheries, eat more by-catch (I don’t call them junk fish), make sure wherever you buy fish you ask the seller where the fish is from, and who caught it. If they don’t know, tell them that retailers need to know their sources. Buy whole fish whenever you can. Ask your fishmonger to break it down for you if you can’t do it yourself. And create a lot of noise within in your community for change. Educate those around you.

Make sure wherever you buy fish you ask the seller where the fish is from, and who caught it. If they don’t know, tell them that retailers need to know their sources. © TFoxFoto/Shutterstock.com

Buy a salmon, cure one side of it, or portion and freeze it. Poach, bake or grill the other half for dinner (lots of recipes on my website at www.andrewzimmern.com), make a soup or chowder with the head and bones and become the advocate for change in your house, on your block or at your place of work. Look, I didn’t come to this easily. I learned it traveling the globe for 15 years, living with the first peoples of the world. Everything we need to know to make our world healthy again we learned thousands of years ago. Live in harmony with nature, love and respect everyone including our planet.

Keep it simple at home and watch us all thrive. Become an activist and an involved global citizen outside the home, and watch our planet get better, one plate of food at a time.

A woman carries seafood on the shore of Senegal. Zimmern has seen the reductions in species and the impact on what were some of the most productive sustainable fisheries from Newfoundland’s cod fishery to Senegal’s tribal hand netting of local reef fish. © UNDP Climate Adaption/Imen Meliane & Julie Teng

A four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer and teacher, Andrew Zimmern (andrewzimmern.com) is regarded as one of the most versatile and knowledgeable personalities in the food world. As the creator, executive producer and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods franchise, Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food, The Zimmern List and Food Network’s Big Food Truck Tip, he has explored cultures in more than 170 countries, promoting impactful ways to think about, create and live with food.

To discover more about the threats to the world’s oceans, click here.