Every year, tuna fisherman Paul Hill and his three-person crew set sail from Puget Sound on a months-long trip that can take them thousands of miles from civilization. There, in the remote Pacific Ocean near Midway Island — an iconic World War II battle site halfway between Hawaii and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands — they catch some of the world’s most sustainable albacore tuna. The fish are caught on trolling lines, and immediately reeled in to be flash frozen. This dramatically reduces bycatch, the industry term for unwanted, accidentally caught fish, and lowers the threat of overfishing.
At Vital Choice, all of our products show this level of commitment. Since Vital Choice’s founding in 2002, we’ve gone to great lengths to find the most sustainable and best quality wild seafood. The same goes for our pasture-raised meats and other organic foods.
But much of the fishing and retailing industry doesn’t share that commitment. And new research shows the growing environmental importance of sustainable fishing methods. Industrial fishing practices don’t just deplete wild populations, they harm the planet at large. Meanwhile, health research makes it clear that seafood is more important than ever for a healthy diet.
That’s why it matters how seafood is caught. Our bodies depend on healthy seas, and so does the Earth itself.
The Environmental Impact of Industrial Fishing
The latest evidence for the harm from industrial fishing operations comes from a groundbreaking study published in the journal Nature this month (Sala et al., 2021). In the paper, which also earned ink from The New York Times, dozens of researchers from renowned institutions reached a counterintuitive conclusion. To maximize fish catch, global governments need to set aside more of the ocean for conservation. By preserving more habitat, fish and crustaceans will have a safe place to reproduce so the young can thrive and spread into the larger ocean.
The research also arrived at another staggering finding. One of the most destructive fishing techniques — industrial-scale bottom trawling — contributes more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the entire airline industry. Bottom trawling ships typically drag huge nets along the ocean floor, hauling in a vast range of fish and crustaceans. On a small scale, trawling can be sustainable, like Oregon pink shrimp fisherman who trawl without pushing their nets to the bottom, where they might catch sensitive species.
But the process is more commonly carried out at an industrial level, scraping huge stretches of the ocean floor bare while hauling in bycatch, which is typically killed.
The authors of this new study calculated that these bottom trawling operations scrape an estimated two million square miles of seafloor every single year. As a result, they release huge underwater plumes of carbon-rich sediment, which microbes eat and convert to carbon dioxide.
Beyond the greenhouse gas emissions, those carbon plumes acidify the ocean and block plankton and seaweed in seawater from being able to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere. Some research even indicates excessive CO2 in the water can “intoxicate” fish, causing them to lose their bearings and no longer recognize predators.
Cutting down on bottom trawling and increasing ocean protection significantly could help fight climate change while boosting fishery yields and preserving biodiversity.
The Future of Sustainable Seafood
Pushing through this kind of change at a global scale would be challenging, to say the least. But it’s not totally without precedent. A well-regulated, conservation-minded fishing approach has worked for decades in Alaska, where Vital Choice sources most of its seafood.
In the 1950s, mismanagement brought Alaskan salmon populations to the edge of destruction. It was only through collaboration between government researchers, policymakers and fishermen that the state turned things around. Now Alaska produces millions of tons of seafood every year while ensuring the health of future fish populations (Hillborn R et al., 2003).
Vital Choice’s Alaskan salmon are harvested by nets, both purse seine and gillnet, as well as by trolling with a hook and line. These methods are more selective in their catch. They also don’t involve scraping the seafloor, so they don’t harm entire ecosystems in the pursuit of fish.
And as the world’s population grows larger, we’ll need more and more of this sustainable seafood. Increasingly, studies show that our bodies depend on nutrients found in seafood for optimal health.
Wild-caught salmon — and other seafood — are a prime source of omega-3 fatty acids, which serve as building blocks for our cell membranes. We can’t make them on our own, but research shows key omega-3 benefits for our brains and bodies. Seafood is also an important source of other nutrients like vitamin D, selenium, zinc, iodine and vitamin B12.
The Key to Human Health and the Environment
Humans depend on these nutrients, and as Earth’s population grows, we’ll only need more of them. A report published in the journal Nature last year suggests the oceans are still a plentiful source of potential nutrition.
Theoretically, increases in wild seafood production and aquaculture (also known as fish farming) could contribute anywhere from 12 to 25 percent of the extra protein the world will need to feed 10 billion people by 2050 (Costello et al., 2020). But for that to happen, the study authors said, wild fisheries will need to be better managed. And aquaculture would have to somehow overcome its decades-long legacy of environmental degradation.
But fish farming, especially with certain species such as salmon, remains among the most environmentally destructive ways to source seafood (Changing Markets, 2020).
Farmed salmon are kept in small pens where they suffer from stress, disease and parasites. And these farmed salmon frequently escape, as happened recently in Scotland when over 50,000 salmon fled their pens. Escaped salmon expose wild populations to diseases while competing with them for resources. Farmed fish are also typically fed a diet of wild-caught feeder fish that have been ground up into pellets, depriving wild species of food. To supplement that costly diet, farmed fish are also given food packed with cheap, unhealthy vegetable oils. As a result, wild salmon has a far healthier fat profile than farmed salmon, with a smaller proportion of inflammatory omega-6 fats and relatively more beneficial omega-3 fats. (Look here for more on the nutrition profiles of wild vs. farmed salmon.)
In general, sustainably caught, wild seafood is a triple winner: better for you, better for the planet, and better for the people who catch it. To ensure that’s true of our products, Vital Choice works with fishing partners who share our commitment to sustainability and traceability. We limit our offerings to fish and shellfish from fisheries that are either certified sustainable, or considered sustainable by experts such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and/or the state of Alaska's Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) program.
More and more, research proves that it isn’t just marine species that depend on healthy seas. Humanity does, too. Sustainable fishing practices have to be part of the way forward for improving human health and healing the environment.