‘The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World’

Chapter 6: The Fish We Don’t Eat

By Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana

Despite generations of overfishing, mismanagement, and exploitation, there are still parts of the oceans where giant schools of fish gather in epic numbers and provide millions upon millions of tons of healthy protein. There’s just one problem: We’re not eating them. Not directly, at least.

The world’s largest fishery is found in the crisp, cold waters of the South Pacific, hugging the jagged coastline of South America. Here, schools of the slim, silver-scaled anchoveta, a small member of the anchovy family, are so enormous that the annual catch is three to five times the size of the world’s second-largest fishery, the pollock of the North Pacific. At its peak in the 1960s, 1 in 10 pounds of the world’s seafood catch was anchoveta. The fish are highly sensitive to El Nino, the meteorological phenomenon that warms coastal waters in the tropics and forces the schools to retreat to pockets of colder water. This makes the anchoveta even easier to catch, leading to all-too-predictable overfishing followed by years of recovery. Fishery managers in Peru and Chile have gotten a bit smarter about how to avoid taking juvenile fish, and in recent years, the anchoveta catch has stabilized, although it’s still affected by severe El Nino events. Even at a reduced level—5.5 million to 8.8 million tons of fish caught each year—the anchoveta fishery is still bigger than the next three wild fisheries combined. But this is the world’s biggest fishery not just because of its management, which has had its ups and downs over the years. Anchoveta are also resilient fish because they’re small and reproduce quickly. When left alone, anchoveta schools are capable of doubling their size within 15 months. Compare that with cod, which can’t reproduce until they’re at least 6 years old, or the patient orange roughy, which isn’t sexually mature until the ripe old age of 30.

But anchoveta aren’t bound for sandwiches or dinner plates. Only about 2 percent of the catch is eaten directly by people. There are two reasons for this. First is the belief that anchoveta are inedible. Even our most fish-savvy scientists turned up their noses at the oily little fish.

“I worked in Peru in the ‘80s a lot,” said Daniel Pauly, the fisheries scientist who initially uncovered the fact that global seafood catch was declining a decade ago. “At that time, it was agreed that anchoveta was not edible. I bought this because I was an idiot, and because everyone believed that.”

Instead of being eaten by people, millions of tons of the anchoveta hauled up each year are pressed, dried, and milled into coarse brown powder. This is fish meal, and it, along with its by-product, fish oil, is exported around the world to be consumed by other animals: predator fish like salmon, pigs, chickens, and pet cats and dogs, even horses. A small percentage of fish oil ends up in nutritional supplements.

We already know that fish are incredibly healthy, omega-3-packed sources of protein. That’s why livestock producers love to feed fish meal to their animals, even if the animal in question wouldn’t know what to do with a fish if it jumped out of the water and into its jaws. But thanks to the huge demand from the livestock sector, anchoveta are big business—along with sardines, jack mackerels, and similar small, fast-growing marine fish that also get ground into fish meal and oil.

Yet all these fish are perfectly edible and delicious in their whole, unprocessed forms. Top chefs love fresh anchovies and other small fish (flip to page 131, and you’ll find many wonderful recipes from many notable chefs that will let you discover just how tasty these small fry can be). These pungent fish “add an incredible depth of flavor” to a dish, according to sustainable-fish champion and chef Barton Seaver. When fresh (or freshly packed) and prepared simply and healthfully, these fish can supplant the shudder-inducing memory many of us have of our “fishy” first taste of canned anchovies or sardines. Oceana board member Ted Danson recalls, “The best fish I ever had was sardines in Basque country in Spain right off the boat, grilled with some olive oil and slapped between two pieces of bread.” Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the author and chef who promotes eating low-impact seafood with his Fish Fight campaign in the United Kingdom, adds, “Fresh sardines spitting and popping over charcoal create one of the most appetite-provoking smells I know.”

In Spain, anchovies—or boquerones—as well as sardines and many other small fish species—are delicacies, not food for pigs. They’re an excellent source of omega-3s, with more of the fatty acids per ounce than tuna, and their small size means they’re less likely to have toxins in their flesh, which build up with age and size. Americans may not make a habit of eating these small, bony fish, but in southern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa, eating small fish is as common and as much a source of pleasure and gastronomic delight as eating tuna or grouper is in North America. They can be eaten whole, with the bones providing a third or more of an adult’s recommended daily calcium intake, or filleted and served with salads, pasta dishes, or anything else you can dream up. Fearnley-Whittingstall adds, “They are delicious crisply fried, and crunchy enough to eat head, tail, and all—though equally easy to nibble off the backbone, leaving a classic pile of little cartoon fish skeletons on your plate!”

And yet forage fish like anchoveta and sardines are leaving the developing world by the millions of tons as fish meal and fish oil, destined to end up in the bellies of livestock and farmed salmon in America, Australia, China, and other wealthy nations. It’s simple economics: Given the lack of appetite in much of the developed world for anchovy-based meals, the fish is most valuable when it’s converted into other forms of animal protein via the guts of pigs or cows or chickens. This means that basic market-driven dynamics of the world are reducing the available protein for the nations that need it the most.

In Peru, where vast schools of anchoveta produce the majority of the world’s fish meal, nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line. And the hulking processing plants where the fish are ground up create a tragic dichotomy, with the people unfortunate enough to live nearby the losers: As the food product helping to fatten fish dinners in wealthy cities like New York and Dubai churns inside those factories, local Peruvians struggle with the pollution they emit. Billowing smoke forces people to stay in their homes and causes widespread asthma, and water and food are contaminated with effluents that even played a role in a cholera epidemic.

In the coastal town of Chimbote, life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average thanks in part to the smoke-belching fish meal plants. Maria Elena Foronda Farro is a sociologist who grew up there just as the plants were cropping up in the 1960s. For years, she has worked to get the processing plants to use cleaner technology. Foronda was repaid for her public health activism with a year in prison after she and her husband were falsely accused of belonging to a terrorist group in 1994. But she remains undeterred. Since leaving prison, she’s convinced numerous plants to switch to cleaner technology, and she told Grist Magazine in 2003, “It’s my life’s work. . . . You only need a tiny spark of social consciousness to become an activist.”

Foronda is one of a small group in Peru who are nobly working to reduce the impacts of the processing plants on the communities that surround them. But the larger impact of these plants is that they keep perfectly good, cheap protein away from the people who need it the most. Oceana’s scientists evaluated the amount of fish that ends up in the processing plants and found that if you took all the world’s fish meal-bound fish and instead fed it directly to people, you could provide an additional 400 million healthy fish dinners a day.

Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, who runs a restaurant empire throughout South America, has helped spearhead the effort to remove the stigma of anchoveta as an inedible fish by featuring it on the menus of his restaurants. Right now virtually all the anchoveta is exported from Peru because there’s no local market in place to provide demand and no place to buy or eat anchoveta. Acurio is demonstrating that this fast-reproducing, zooplankton-eating fish deserves to be reconsidered. His efforts have shown some success already: Direct consumption of anchoveta in Peru has increased from 11,000 tons in 2006 to 210,000 tons in 2010. That still represents 3 percent or less of all the anchoveta pulled from the water, and so Acurio’s campaign continues with the help of Peru’s former deputy minister for fisheries, the marine scientist Patricia Majluf. She met with fierce opposition when she called out fishermen for selling anchoveta they’d been licensed to catch for human consumption to fish meal plants, where they fetch a higher price. Between the two of them, the march to wrest anchoveta from the lucrative fish meal industry for the benefit of the poor has begun. Obviously, it’s going to be an uphill climb.

FORAGE FISH LIKE ANCHOVETA are usually small and reproduce quickly, which means they’re potentially highly productive, highly sustainable fisheries. That doesn’t mean we’ve always been good stewards, however. In Chile, an 18-inch-long blue-gray forage fish called the jack mackerel (jurel in Spanish) was once the fourth-largest fishery in the world. In the 1980s, at its peak, Chileans caught 5 million tons of the fish every year. Alex Munoz, who leads Oceana’s campaigns in Chile, remembers seeing cans of jurel at the local market as a child. “It was used to feed pets,” he said. “Now you can hardly find it. Nobody would feed a cat jack mackerel today.”

That’s because the Chilean fishing industry catches only about 198,000 tons of the fish these days, 4 percent of its peak just a couple of decades ago—another casualty of greedy overfishing. Munoz and his staff have succeeded in getting the government to set quotas based on scientific recommendations it had previously ignored, but it may be too late for the jack mackerel to rebound to its once-incredible bounty. Time will tell. It’s too bad—we hear that jurel, like mackerel, can be a wonderful, healthy meal. It is an oily, strongly flavored fish (like mackerel) and is often baked in a savory sauce or broiled (sometimes with a citrus marinade to tone down the fishiness).

The highly profitable fish meal industry is increasingly squeezing out the local artisanal fishers. In Chile, for example, only 5 percent of the jack mackerel quota is given to artisanal fishermen even though they outnumber the industrial fishers by thousands. This is an enormous, and so far missed, opportunity. Local fishers must operate within 5 miles of the country’s coastline, where forage fish abound. It is these fishermen who will be able to provide anchoveta, sardine, and jack mackerel for direct human consumption in Chile and Peru. But with only a tiny percentage of the catch afforded to these fishermen and little infrastructure like processing plants and markets in place to support human consumption of these fish, they’ll continue to mainly be ground into fish meal and exported to wealthier nations, bypassing the local population.

One-third of all the wild fish caught on Earth end up as fish meal or oil. Of that, 81 percent goes to feed farmed fish. Given how rapidly the aquaculture industry is expanding, it’s clear that the demand for forage fish won’t abate anytime soon. But the market may finally begin to play a helpful role; increasingly expensive thanks to the price of fuel, forage fish are getting more and more pricey. The aquaculture industry, as well as livestock producers, are motivated to replace fish meal with something else.

But that day may not come soon enough for the oceans and for the people who could be enjoying nutritious seafood meals today. The first step is to remove the stigma of eating what many perceive as inedible fish. As Daniel Pauly told us, “They must be treated how you treat food.” The same might go for the menhaden found all along the US East Coast, one of the most popular species for reducing into fish oil and widely considered inedible because of its oily, bony, and incredibly fishy nature. “I have always read that [menhaden] is not edible by people,” Pauly continued. “And I wonder if it is true. I have never heard of anyone taking a fresh one and actually working on making it a human product. It’s bony, but boniness is in the eye of the beholder. Cod are bony and are the preferred fish of millions of people.” A few brave fishers are already eating menhaden—more commonly known as bunkers, pogies, mossbacks, bugmouths, or fatbacks—and enjoying them barbecued (like bluefish) and stir-fried.

Chef Alton Brown has aligned himself with the Sardinistas, a small cabal of culinary-minded artists, writers, and fishers in California who aim to bring sardines back to the American palate. In the first half of the 20th century, California’s sardine industry was so vast that 700,00 tons of the fish were canned every year on Monterey Bay’s Cannery Row. After World War II, the fishery collapsed under the strain of decades of overfishing, and now the oceanfront streets of Cannery Row are filled with trendy restaurants and shops.

Brown loves sardines so much that he takes a tin to eat with chopsticks for lunch each day when he’s on the road filming Good Eats. But even he, the plainspoken purveyor of consumer-friendly meals, recognizes the challenge of getting a little fish like the sardine back on dinner plates. “Americans: We’re people of the cut, not the carcass,” he told the Washington Post. “We need to teach our children that, yes, it had a face. And, yes, it had a life. And here, it has fins.” And then perhaps the idea of eating a whole fish rather than a single fillet would not be so daunting.

And forage fish can be more than just tasty. They provide jobs. They reduce pollution. It seems counterintuitive to argue that eating fish can add to the world’s available protein, but if you eat anchovies instead of farmed predator fish like salmon, that’s exactly what you’re doing. This speaks to what scientists call the fish-in, fish-out ratio. As we saw in Chapter 5, it takes up to 5 pounds of wild forage fish to create 1 pound of farmed salmon—resulting in a net loss of protein. If you took the “reduction” fish—the anchovy, the sardine, the jurel—that was fed to the salmon and instead made it your dinner, you’d really be eating one fillet of fish when you eat one fillet of fish, not five fish that aren’t there. You’d be leaving more fish in the ocean.

And we haven’t forgotten the dolphins, whales, seabirds, sharks, and more that rely on forage fish to survive. Giant schools of these fish form an intermediate step in the food web: They eat microscopic plants, and the big predators eat them. An ocean devoid of forage fish would be an ocean without these signature creatures. So our directly consuming these little fish, funny as it may seem, could help protect the entire marine food web. In a world where we are scandalized by schoolchildren eating “pink slime,” the leftover trimmings of industrial beef production, there are few things more natural than a whole fish provided by Mother Nature, whether it’s bony or not. And there’s no industrial process—no additive, no extraction, no modification, no passing through the intestines of a feedlot pig—that can improve upon the original creature, the perfect protein: the fish.


The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World (Rodale) is available on May 28, 2013.

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