Au revoir farm-raised salmon, bon jour sardines

Au revoir farm-raised salmon, bon jour sardines

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Coquille St. Jacques from a public market (photo by Steve Dolinsky)


One of the things you’ll notice on local menus lately — along with the words “local” and “organic” - is “sustainable.” It can be used to reference produce, but also seafood. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed the menu at Prasino, in La Grange, makes special mention of their “sustainably raised” seafood. What the hell does that mean?

I’m in Paris to find out. More precisely, I’m attending the annual Seafood Summit here, a three-day seafood geek-fest that brings together the world’s leading authorities from the seafood industry and the conservation community, and then attempts to bridge the gap between the latest science and the reality of the marketplace. It’s a Trekkie convention for seafood junkies. The kind of place wigged-out fans would beg David Pasternack for an autograph.

One of the hottest topics here has been about Target, which‚ announced last week it was‚ discontinuing the‚ sale of farm-raised salmon at all of its stores, citing environmental concerns. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Jill Schwartz, “stay away from salmon that’s been farmed in Chile. They are less environmentally-friendly than say, Norway.” The problems have stemmed from what the industry calls “net pen farming,” whereby a giant net sits in open ocean water, just off of the coast. ‚ The feed that gets tossed into the pens - stocked with salmon or tilapia - often contains chemicals (traditionally, it’s fish feed or fish oil). The waste from the animals is then concentrated on the ocean floor, affecting plant life, not to mention other wild species swimming around the nets.

“There’s no question that salmon is the poster boy for an industry that’s having some issues now,” said Peter Bridson, the Aquaculture Research Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Food and Agriculture Organization at the U.N. now says half of the seafood we eat comes from farms, so there’s a lot of talk here about sustainability as well as third-party certification. The WWF’s Schwartz says her organization is leading a discussion of some 2,000 industry experts - many of whom are here in Paris - and hopes to have an industry-approved seal for farm-raised fish that meets certain sustainable criteria, called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC, by mid-2011. That seal would parallel the existing Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seal that currently exists to certify wild-caught fish.

fish market in Paris (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

As I’ve been gathering, “sustainability” has several meanings, and, like our sometimes haphazard definition of what is truly “organic,” the term can mean different things if you ask a social anthropologist who researches small-scale fisheries in Spain, versus a research director from Norway.

“The North Sea is somewhat in trouble, and the stock is decreasing,” said Dr. Reidar Toresen, the Research Director at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway. “In the 1960s, nylon nets contributed to the collapse of the herring population. It was almost wiped out. But the fisherman learned a lesson. They started doing proper assessments; managers learned to establish criteria to help bring the population back.”

Today, those Norwegian fishermen are running a sustainable fishery — harvesting cod, haddock and Norwegian Spring-spawning herring — by implementing a number of controls:

  • they have a harvest control rule
  • there is an analytical assessment in place
  • there is a minimum size to the fish they catch
  • they manage the mortality rate of the fish they catch

Toreson says there are three primary ways governments can work toward sustainable fisheries (like the one in the Northeast Atlantic):

  • have a knowledge of the ecosystem and its resources
  • put a management system in place, including enforcement and control
  • be sure politicians have the ability and the will to manage the fisheries

Sustainability isn’t just about managing the catch. It’s also about providing a safe environment for well-trained employees, limiting energy usage and reducing emissions, as well as being equipped to be able to track the fish from the water to the plate.

sardines = good to eat (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

One of the most obvious questions is how do you know what’s o.k. to eat? A couple of years ago, we heard that Chilean Sea Bass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) was off limits, thanks to a “take a pass on sea bass” campaign. More recently, bluefin tuna has been on the Do Not Eat list. High demand by sushi fans have severely-depleted the supply. Greenpeace’s Paul Johnston says there are a couple of reliable sources, if you’re really interested in ordering fish from sustainable sources that are not on any watch lists, there are a few organizations that now routinely research and update their recommendations, based on reports of fisheries around the globe:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Marine Stewardship Council


On Thursday, my weekly podcast will talk about the issue of sustainability, especially as it applies to Chicago restaurants and markets. There are a couple of representatives here from the Shedd Aquarium, so I’m hoping to track them down to get their take on it.