The future could be fishless.
Photo illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
While meat consumption has been studied for its contributions to climate change for decades, the world is only just beginning to reckon with the commercial fishing industry’s climate tolls.
For example, a study published in March in Nature magazine found that bottom trawling, the widespread fishing practice of dragging a weighted net across the ocean floor to catch fish, emits 1.47 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year – as much as that entire aviation industry. “When we ran the model and got those emissions, we got ourselves back,” said Trisha Atwood, a co-author of the study and professor of watershed science at Utah State University. “It was way more than we expected.”
And it’s not just about towing: in 2016 alone, marine fishing vessels released 207 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, compared to just 47 million in 1950, according to a study published in Marine Policy. According to a study on the natural climate from 2018, emissions from fishing for wild lobster and shrimp are often higher than from animal husbandry because an additional step was not taken on land: catching them on land with boats that burn large quantities of them to bring fuel.
“Seafood is better than pigs and cattle, but it’s quite carbon-intensive because of transportation problems,” said Ian Urbina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Outlaw Ocean. “The carbon footprint is not small.”
And as with meat, a new industry is developing to replace seafood with plant-based foods.
That’s Good Catch’s promise that co-founder Chad Sarno hopes to offer for fish what brands like Impossible and Beyond have for beef. Founded in 2016, Good Catch offers a variety of animal-free options: shelf-stable tuna (one of the world’s most popular and overfished species), deli-style tuna, New England-style crab cakes, fish burgers, and more. Good Catch has already been flushed with millions of venture capital and hit the shelves of retail giants like Whole Foods and Thrive Market. In March, unimpaired fish giant Bumble Bee Foods announced a partnership to distribute Good Visit stores that already sell Bumble Bee.
Good Catch is far from the only player in the seafood game: while plant-based seafood accounts for just one percent of the U.S. plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy-based market worth around $ 7 billion, that’s a deluge other new alternative seafood companies have sprung up, including Van Cleve Seafood Co., Sophie’s Kitchen, and Plant Based Seafood Co. Given the skyrocketing sales of alternative meats and the fact that a number of high profile restaurateurs are switching to meatless menus, it’s fair to ask whether the future can also be fishless.
While little data is available to date on how the plant-based fish industry holds up against commercial fishing, the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems reported that a Beyond Burger emits 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases and uses 46 percent less energy than its beef counterpart. Previous research on the Impossible burger found it used 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land than beef, and reduced water pollution by 92 percent.
Carbon emissions are far from the only concern about the huge fishing industry. Scientists have found that bycatch – marine life that is accidentally caught – makes up around 10 percent of the fishing industry’s transport. And, as in almost every food system, human rights violations are often widespread. Crews, often migrant workers in need of work, can spend years as “sea slaves” working around the clock in unforgiving, abusive conditions, usually unsupervised. “When it comes to maritime slavery, companies are starting to think about supply chain transparency, but they haven’t done much,” says Urbina.
So the solution is to “act sensibly and not pollute too much,” says Rashid Sumaila, professor of marine and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia. (Sumaila was not involved in the nature study.) Unfortunately, we did not exactly live by this ethos. According to a 2010 report by the United Nations, over 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully or overfished, and a fish shortage would effectively “activate” climate change, says Sumaila. Or as Urbina puts it: “When the oceans die, when the biodiversity disappears and we have these huge dead zones, the filter function of the oceans disappears. The lungs can sit in your body. If you are not alive, they will not work. “
The Good Catch preparation is copyrighted, but the brand’s promotional materials state that all food is made from a “mix of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans and white beans with six legumes.” Cultivated algae oil and omega-3 fatty acids are apparently also part of the recipe. “We had to check a number of boxes when developing the product,” says Sarno. “One of them was smell. We were looking for a way to get an odorless fish because we were ashamed in the workplace. The texture was different. “
After Sarno and I had a chat, he sent a smorgasbord of the Good Catch meals to sample. The deli-style tuna was moist and had a compelling texture. The tuna burgers and crab cakes had a consistency that is not often found in imitation fish. The products also came with recommended sauce recipes (I will be making the sriracha tartar sauce on many future occasions). I was not supplied with any of the tuna that were stable in storage and, perhaps not by chance, received comparatively less favorable ratings.
Now, plant-based seafood can’t be the planet’s only solution to these problems. “To say that everyone should switch to a plant-based diet is a very western view of the world,” says Atwood, the Utah state professor. “That just won’t be possible in communities that rely on fishing for coastal protein.” Innovations in aquaculture and cell science offer even more alternatives for commercial fishing, but both have their own problems. Aquaculture, the process by which fish are raised for food, has long been criticized for its potentially sizeable carbon footprint, although the sector appears to be improving overall. And when it comes to cell science, it’s still unclear how exactly the government will regulate laboratory-grown fish, or whether people will have an appetite for something born out of a petri dish.
Currently, plant-based seafood is the most environmentally friendly alternative we have. “We have a food crisis on the horizon,” says Urbina. “If we don’t figure out how to wean ourselves off this current model and have alternative, scalable protein sources, we will see really acute problems.”
Sarno’s diagnosis was a bit more blunt: “We don’t have 100 years to get our shit together.”
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