Do you know if your seafood is “sustainable”? (Don’t worry, neither do I)

Seafood photo

Post by Lillian Brown, PhD student in Anthropology and Food Studies at Indiana University

I recently started a crowd-funding campaign for my dissertation research on sustainability in the seafood industry. I want to know if I can, and how I would, determine whether or not the seafood on my plate is “sustainable”. To answer this question, I need to have a pretty clear picture of where the particular seafood in question comes from. Then I need to decide how to define and measure its sustainability. Most consumer-driven seafood conservation efforts encourage individuals to engage in this type of informed decision-making, which is why I chose to start my research at this stage of inquiry.

Having already worked on sustainable food systems and seafood research for a notable portion of my undergraduate and graduate careers, I knew this would be no easy task—therein laying the research potential. But I also knew that by the time we consumers order seafood off a menu or a display case, someone else has already significantly narrowed our options. This process limits the access we have to information about how this seafood got to the marketplace, and what other options exist. Even the most intrepid consumers would have to work pretty hard to fill in the gaps.

The Author.

The Author.

I wondered where this hypothetical intrepid-consumer would start. So I decided to ask restaurants how they decide what fish and shellfish they serve. Imagine the seafood supply chain. Fishers and fish farmers capture and produce fish. Suppliers and/or distributors buy this fish and sell it to restaurants and markets, which in turn sell and serve it to their consumers. So when consumers purchase seafood from a retailer, the middlemen in this supply chain have already in large part determined our choices for us.  My question, then, is what can these middlemen tell us about sustainability in the seafood industry?

Working in restaurant kitchens, and with seafood distributors and wholesalers I will ask what really matters to them when they buy seafood to sell and serve to their customers. What are their options, and how do they determine their priorities? How do they quantify, or qualify, their criteria? I want to know if they care whether or not seafood is “sustainable”—if so, why, and how do they define it? Then, I will do an archival analysis of federal US and International policy documents, as well as popular conservation efforts and scientific research focusing on sustainable seafood to see if the rhetoric these groups use matches my results in the field.

I expect to find that industry professionals and fishers can talk about eating seafood as well as where it came from at the same time, even in the context of sustainability. A cook’s preference for fish, for instance, will depend on the cut of the fish (fillet or a steak), how it is preserved (fresh, currently or previously frozen, smoked, pickled, salted and dried), and its origin (cold vs. warm water, fresh vs. salt water, farmed vs. wild caught). It will also depend on the technology they plan to cook it with—whether they will deep-fry it, pan fry it, cook it on a grill, or put it in a soup. Many types of seafood taste better, cheaper, or only available at certain times of year due to seasonality, and will often correspond with holidays or family traditions. Specific types of seafood fare better in certain recipes, or culinary styles (paella vs. ceviche, for example). All of these factors contribute to the way a fish will taste on a plate. And, in any case, restaurants and fishers alike may value price and the ability to move product over other variables.

Most policy-makers and scientists consider seafood production and consumption independently from each other. And these conversations usually revolve around how much fish we are eating. But we don’t know very much about how seafood values shift in the marketplace. This is because current fishing research and policy focuses almost entirely on modes of production. What I would like to find is a way to bridge communication between the seafood industry, policy-makers, scientists through conversations about eating sustainable seafood.

For more information on the project, please visit the Microryza site here.

Note from the editor: Readers will notice that the author of this post has provided a link to a Microryza web site. This is a crowdfunding web site for science research. It seems that at least some graduate students in anthropology are using this as a way to fund their research. SAFN welcomes blog postings from graduate students whose work is related to the anthropology of food and nutrition that follow this model. Such postings must, of course, follow our other guidelines (see the Blog Contributors page for more details) for contributions to the blog.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, economics, fish, food policy, Food Studies, foodways, markets, SAFN Member Research, seafood

One response to “Do you know if your seafood is “sustainable”? (Don’t worry, neither do I)

  1. I like this idea very much. I would expect that you will find a huge amount of variation among chefs, and it would be great to know what kinds of things (or backgrounds, events, individuals) have made some chefs think more about sustainability. I suspect you will also find that there is a lot of conflict between wanting to serve fish that is sustainable, healthful, and local, an impossible combination in most places.

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