A New Year’s Resolution — Support Local Farmers

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There’s a movement afoot to buy local products and to reduce “food miles” (the distance food travels from production to plate). And in seafood, the chatter is the result of the convergence of two complex issues. They are: concern about the safety of seafood that we import from other countries, and the increasing demand for seafood that our own country (the US) cannot yet meet. So, if a person wants to “eat local, buy local,” in the context of what is actually a global seafood industry, options may be limited. “Local,” for one, means different things to different people. It could mean within the neighborhood (community garden), the city (farmer’s markets), the region, the state, the states around you, the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, the Midwest, the United States, the Americas, etc. You get the picture: “Local” is in the eye of the beholder.
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Seafood, however, traverses our ocean planet (our planet, like our own bodies, is 70% water). Seafood, therefore, is a global industry. At the same time, the US currently imports about 80% of the seafood that we eat. The reasons for this are varied. One reason is that the industry is young in the US. Therefore, a related reason is that the proportion of our farmed/raised/aquaculture seafood is so little that we have to import the rest from afar. Another related reason is the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome (NIMBY) which means that it’s okay if we devour the resources of other countries to meet our own appetites, as long as it doesn’t affect my view/my ethics/my lifestyle/my property value, etc.
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If a person wants to eat local seafood, that person has two choices. The first is to eat wild, in-season products. These are delicious, well-managed species (meaning, their populations are stealthy enough to keep reproducing in a healthy ecosystem) and commercial fishermen/women/families are employed to bring us our catch of the day. There is no reason that we should not buy local, well-managed, wild-caught seafood if we can afford it.
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However, wild seafood—by its nature—is not always in season. Wild seafood, like all wild animals, live and die by the seasons (as would we if we didn’t have fire (heat), ice (refrigeration, air conditioning), shelter from predators, etc.). Wild seafood may not be available when we wish to eat them! Our menus in the United States are far more exotic than our wild fisheries can support. (The term “fisheries” refers to all of the activity around a certain seafood species, to include geographic and ecosystem range as well as economic inputs and outputs.)
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Environmental groups have done an effective job raising awareness of the plight of the wild fish in our oceans. Essentially, the world’s wild fish populations cannot keep producing at the rate that’s required for our ravenous appetites (and “our” refers to our growing global population). Many of these groups have stood by a report last year in the journal Science that said many wild marine fish could go extinct within 40 years. The solutions are few but obvious: Let the wild fish populations recover, and, meanwhile, eat other foods.
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It’s the “eat other foods” option that is daunting. For those who still love seafood and keep hearing that seafood is a fantastic protein full of healthy nutrients, the choices are less clear. Either we gobble up wild fish, pushing them into extinction, or we eat fish that are farmed. That is the second option as far as choosing local seafood. “Farmed fish” or “farmed seafood” are terms that have strangely received a ton of bad press over the past couple of years. Farm-raised, cultivated, aquaculture (they all have the same meaning) finfish, shellfish, and other aquatic animal and plant species do have their place on our plates just as cultivated fruit, vegetables and nuts and other sources of farmed animal protein (beef, poultry, pork) have for decades. So, where do we find local sources of farmed seafood if our own country has so little of it?
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I recently asked Mark Drawbridge, President of the California Aquaculture Association (CAA), and CAA consultant Tony Schuur for their take on this subject:
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PASSIONFISH: Why should people choose fish that is locally caught or produced?
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CAA: First, QUALITY: A locally grown product is unsurprisingly freshest and is grown under strictly controlled conditions. Rather than occasionally showing up in a retailer’s display as is the case with imported products, locally grown products are likely to be available continuously from local producers. Shortening the distribution chain between grocer and consumer naturally contributes to higher quality.
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Second, ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Locally produced fish, like any other produce, create less impact on the global environment because their distribution requires much less energy to bring the product to market. This is especially true of high-value fresh products that are packaged and air freighted from distant sources, consuming large amounts of fuel to get them here.
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Third, SUPPORTING THE LOCAL ECONOMY: Fish farmers employ hundreds of people who contribute to the local economy and buy almost all of the goods and services they consume from local businesses. Although the farm-gate value of California aquaculture is on the order of $100 million, its total effect on the economy as a primary production industry is many times this base value. The economic contribution reaches all the way from the feed mill worker who feeds the fish to the waitress who serves the fish to a patron.
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PASSIONFISH: Where do people now buy aquaculture products raised by California growers?
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CAA: Many aquaculture products go from the farm to wholesale fish distributors that pass them on to retail markets and restaurants. If you want fresh, locally produced products, look for retail market labeling and menu entries that say “California Grown” (depending on your locale!). If you don’t see that labeling, ask for it and eventually that preference will get back through the distribution chain.
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Many aquaculture products, especially live fish, are delivered to specialty markets throughout California, especially in metropolitan areas. You can search the media in your area to find those markets that offer live fish.
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Other aquaculture products including hybrid striped bass, oysters, sturgeon, and abalone are often the products of aquaculture in California and if you are in doubt of their local origin, you should ask for it.
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PASSIONFISH: What can restaurants in California do to source California Grown products?
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CAA: Restaurants usually get their seafood supplies from a local distributor or wholesaler who provides them with frequent delivery of a wide range of seafood products. If the restaurant wants to carry California Grown products, they should tell their supplier and very likely it will source the product either directly or by contacting the California Aquaculture Association who will direct them to the appropriate producer.
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PASSIONFISH: Are California Grown aquaculture products shipped beyond California?
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CAA: Several California products including abalone, sturgeon, and hybrid striped bass among others are broadly distributed throughout the United States and the rest of the world. Caviar from California-cultured white sturgeon can be found in gourmet shops in Europe labeled as “American Caviar.”
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PASSIONFISH: What seafood species are raised in California?
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CAA: Because of its varied climatic conditions and water resources, California aquaculture is diverse and many species are cultured not only for consumption as food but also for stocking for sport fishing lakes (catfish), baitfish for fishermen, and an ornamental aquarium fish market.
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Aquaculture has also contributed to the successful supplementation of natural wild fishery stocks including trout, white sea bass, and striped bass. Freshwater finfish reared for food in California include catfish, trout, hybrid striped bass, sturgeon, and black (largemouth) bass. Marine shellfish for food consumption include abalone and mussels, and Pacific oysters.
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Although they are very strictly regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game, there exists a large potential for growing marine finfish offshore and other species in isolated controlled systems. These aquaculture technologies have in the future a capacity for increasing locally produced seafood by several-fold when the benefits of local production are fully realized.
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PASSIONFISH: We keep hearing that seafood has pollutants. Is this true for wild and farmed seafood?
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CAA: Sadly, in the world today, no one can say that any seafood product whether wild or cultured is completely free of pollutants. The limits of detection technology have advanced to the degree that ‘pollutants’ are detected in very small amounts almost everywhere we look.
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Are seafood products safe? Yes, because the same detection technology is able to define acceptable limits in seafood of a magnitude much lower than acceptable health standards.
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Despite distorted claims of seafood pollutants in the media, the seafood supply is closely monitored and entirely safe. A few exceptional products (such as some species of tuna) are prone to concentration of toxic constituents such as mercury and are sold with advisories to limit consumption to a limited number of meals per week. These are safety precautions that limit consumption well below any health standard.
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PASSIONFISH: Do people who go out to sea to catch or hunt wild fish also raise fish on the side, or do they want to?
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CAA: Capture fisheries and aquaculture are two very different technologies that do share a common interest in producing quality seafood for consumers but they are rarely conducted by the same operators. In the case of offshore cage aquaculture that is not yet practiced except on an experimental basis in California, there may well be some convergence of the aquaculture and fisheries assets and technology.
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PASSIONFISH: Do other states have aquaculture associations promoting their products? If so, why do we keep hearing a bad rap about “farm-raised” seafood from environmental groups, although, for example, Whole Foods promotes local, farm-raised products?
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CAA: Every state in the country has some form of aquaculture association or at least coordination at a state level. Aquaculture is also represented at a national level by species based on associations for salmonids, catfish, hybrid striped bass, and tilapia. The National Aquaculture Association (NAA) is an umbrella organization representing the national industry particularly for concerns related to federal regulation and legislation in Congress. The California Aquaculture Association is a member of NAA.
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Negative press about aquaculture in the media often outweighs its positive contribution to our economy and especially to consumers. Origins of this “bad rap” are suggested as follows:
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1. Because aquaculture has had a very rapid growth rate over the past 35 years, many fishermen and fishing organizations regard aquaculture as a competitor in the market. While this may be true in some limited circumstances, aquaculture is driven by demand for seafood products that are simply not available from finite capture fishery resources. Now that aquaculture supplies almost half of US seafood consumption, fishing interests are still viable and many are thriving.
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2. Environmental activists seize on the high environmental profile of aquaculture activities. With the very rapid aquaculture development in many foreign countries, especially those producing shrimp and salmon, caused avoidable environmental impacts, non-governmental agencies rightly sought to identify and reverse these impacts. They identified biological, chemical, habitat related, feeding supply, and organic pollution flaws in aquaculture development. Although many of these flaws have been corrected within these foreign industries, there is transference of these past excesses to aquaculture in general. This resulting image of aquaculture is exaggerated and distorted.
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3. Aquaculture in California is perhaps regulated as strictly as anywhere in the world and its environmental footprint is negligible. Nonetheless, inferences promoted by non-governmental organizations continue to label aquaculture in general as an environmental threat.
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4. As time goes on, many organizations with an environmental conscience are realizing that aquaculture has a positive contribution to make to global environmental issues while at the same time providing immense benefits to consumers that would otherwise suffer a severe deficit in seafood supplies.
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So, to those of you who have written to us about how to buy local farmed seafood, in a clamshell…check with your state’s aquaculture association for products that you may buy to support your healthy lifestyle and your local economy. Go ahead and enjoy wild seafood when it’s in season and, at the same time, support your local shellfish and finfish farmers! And, if you live along the coast, you may often find locally caught or raised seafood at your farmer’s market.
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Coming up next in Ocean Commotion’s “Buying Local” section is a topic that is talked about much less often. It’s about whether buying local truly reduces the “carbon footprint” overall, and the effects that buying local may have or is having on communities around the world.

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From Beer Waste to High-Quality Fish Feed

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Can beer get any better? Two graduate students from the Colorado School of Mines and the good people at New Belgium Brewing Company have devised a way to convert protein-laden, bacteria-rich wastewater from brewing operations into granules to feed farm-raised fish. Check out the story at Rocky Mountain News: www.rockymountainnews.com.
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New Belgium not only produces fantastic beer (think Fat Tire!) but is admired and well known as a fantastic corporate citizen. On top of that, they are located in the microbrew capital of the world — and one of my all-time favorite towns, Fort Collins, Colorado!

Passionfish Executive Director Interviewed by US Ocean Agency, NOAA/NMFS

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This link www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/profile_carl_rebstock.htm is a brief Q/A about the ocean sustainability subject between the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)/National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Passionfish Executive Director Carl Rebstock.