The better way to be pescatarian

If you’re going to eat animals, fish are a great option—as long as you choose the right ones.

I’ve always dismissed “pescatarian” as a section of the menu, not a dietary discipline. Fish are animals, so eating them just makes you another omnivore, right? Sure, creatures of the sea are way different from land mammals, but so are birds. People who consume chicken as their only source of animal protein don’t go around calling themselves pollotarians, so why should the fish people get a fancy Italian portmanteau?

I have no idea why I cared so much about this, (it really bugged me) but I’m over it. A lot of us eat this way, a lot of you have asked about it, and we’re gonna look to the sea. As soon as I peered beneath the waves, I found some instances in which ordering fish is actually better for the environment than skipping to the vegan option. 

Justifiers of animal-protein-consumption, rejoice! It’s Christmastime in March. Let’s gather ‘round the olde holiday kelp and start unwrapping our salty gifts. Better invite the whole clan, too, or Grandma’s gonna feel left out:

Before we dive in, I need to address the sixth IPCC Assessment Report, released this week. It’s easy to read even the 36-page summary and come away thinking that we’re totally screwed and no single person can change that. After all, we’ve got till 2050 to basically eliminate all fossil fuel use if we want to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming; our governments aren’t moving with anything close to enough urgency. Might as well fire up the old coal oven and bake a bald eagle pizza.

No. This is history, a bright and blinking road sign on the way to ruin. It’s a moment that each of us will look back on when we’re older; we will either have done our best to try and fix this mess or not. I don’t quote Armageddon lightly, but this just happened in real life:

The government just asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?

If you’ve ever imagined yourself as the kind of person who would dash into traffic to save a puppy or have used the phrase “the right thing to do” to explain your actions, this is your moment. If you’ve ever told yourself that, hell yeah you’d grab your shit and rush out the door if a friend asked you to go save someone or something, that’s happening right now. But instead of dying on an asteroid, all you have to do is skip the cheeseburgers, keep the heat set to sweatshirt weather, and get as many people as you can to subscribe to this newsletter. (I had to.)

As we’ve established over the past month, your choice of food absolutely makes a difference. And I will say this again: Eating plant-based is the easiest way to lower your personal emissions. But if you’re going to consume animal protein—and you’re not going to hunt it yourself—fish is a good way to go. The caveat here is that you need to pick the right fish, harvested the right way, from the right place. Going plant-based makes a difference, but you might live closer to sustainably produced seafood than a tofu factory. 

When it comes to selecting your fish, some of the environmental issues are the same as with land-animal consumption: emissions, impact on the surrounding ecosystem, and energy required to produce a given quantity of food. But what’s unique about seafood is how much of what we eat isn’t cultivated. Ninety percent of the seafood the U.S. produces is wild-caught, [PDF] and you can’t evaluate the sustainability of a wild-caught fish the same way as a farmed one. 

“We actually have three different standards for sustainability,” says Erin Hudson, Seafood Watch program director at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We have a standard for wild-caught fisheries; we have a standard for aquaculture; and we have a standard for salmonid species.” You might want to bookmark seafoodwatch.org. The scientists and staffers there spend their days crunching data and reports in order to qualify the impact of any sea creature you could imagine eating. They package that information in a series of guides and tools that are free and available for anyone to use. And you should use them, because this shit is complicated. 

For wild-caught animals, Seafood Watch evaluates four factors; for aquaculture, it looks at 10; for salmonid species it considers five. The organization weighs what gear is used to catch the wild fish, how farmed ones are fed, how the surrounding ecosystems are affected by the harvesting, and more. You don’t need to memorize the individual criteria, but they are worth reading. On a practical level, Seafood Watch’s recommendations tool is great for at-the-counter (or table) decisions, and the seasonally updated regional guides are fast-glance gold for keeping the better options at the front of your mind. 

These are terrific resources, but they do leave out one major thing out: carbon emissions. You will have to factor these in yourself. (SW’s team worked on a tool, but it’s not a variable in their recommendations.) According to Hudson, the complex web of global trade, among other considerations, makes it incredibly difficult for them to calculate the emissions accrued by your particular piece of fish. It may have been hand-caught by a vegan angler on the shores of an Elysian river, but if that water was halfway around the world and that filet was shipped overnight to wherever you’re eating it, you might have been better off going for the product of a nearby inland salmon farm. 

Fish farms, of course, have their own challenges. In an inland operation, you need to power all manner of systems, including the pumps, filters, and aerators that keep the fish healthy. That’s a lot of electricity. Open-net pens, which are giant, cordoned-off operations sited in the sea, aren’t plugged into the local electric grid in the same way, but they face other environmental issues. “There are severe pollution problems, often caused by antibiotic use, but also simply by the fact that all the waste goes into the ocean,” says Boris Worm, professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University. “It’s like having a pig farm that pipes its effluent directly into the ocean.”

Just like a pig farm, the animals need more food than they can scavenge themselves, which adds to the inefficiency. “The feed conversion ratio is often less than one to one for farmed fish,” says Worm, “so you are actually reducing the total amount of food by feeding them something that could be consumed in the first place.”

There may be fish farms powered by renewable energy with no harmful waste entering the ecosystem and conversion ratios that makes the added inputs totally worth it, but I do not know how to find them easily; Seafood Watch does not factor emissions or energy use into its recommendations. So the next time I fire up the recommendations tool to look for something to eat, I’ll exclude anything farmed. Worm, who worked on a groundbreaking paper that calculated the carbon released when fishing boats stir up the sea floor (huge), is with me in spirit. “I buy my fish from a fishmonger here in Halifax that only deals with local, wild-caught fish,” he says. 

That’s not to say that every local, wild-caught fish is fair game for those of us concerned about greenhouse gasses. “Some forms of fishing, like trawling or dredging, tend to be carbon-intensive,” says Worm. “And some fisheries, such as Lobster here in Nova Scotia, are sustainable from a stock perspective—they’re not overfished—but they have a huge carbon footprint because it’s a lot of small boats chasing fairly small animals with not a lot of food in them.” According to Seafood Watch’s carbon tool, wild-caught lobsters, shrimp, and crab are the emissions kings of the ocean. Boooo.

I asked Worm and Hudson for safe bets to take shopping, but both answered with something that we’ve been talking about for the past month: Do your research. “You get stuck playing this old tape in your head, that X seafood is all good or all bad, but conditions change,” says Hudson. “We release new recommendations every month.” 

Worm agrees that “the devil is very often in the detail,” but he also has solid advice that you can apply to any animal you might consider eating. “Just like on land, species lower on the food chain tend to have a lower carbon footprint,” he says. In the ocean, that’s “fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.” Large predator species like tuna and swordfish, meanwhile, are the lions and tigers of the sea.

The most specific endorsement I could get was for farmed mollusks: oysters, mussels, and clams. Based on current factors, these are about the best animals you can eat—period. “They filter food out of water, so they live without external inputs, improving water quality in the process,” says Worm. And if that wasn’t enough to point you towards Hog Island, “they also build shells, and those shells are made from calcium carbonate,” he says. “That locks up large amounts of carbon, removing it from the environment.” They pair very well with French fries and beer, says Brown. I see no downside.

This might seem like a lot to keep in your head when you’re just trying to score dinner, but Hudson sums up what you should find out before you put anything in your reusable shopping bag (or belly): “You need to know what kind of fish it is, where’s it from, and how it was caught or farmed,” she says. Between Google Maps and Seafood Watch’s recommendation tool, you can make an educated decision about what impact your catch of the day will have on the future of the planet. 

How do you find all that out? You have to ask questions. The other day, I spent a little time trying to source pink salmon, a species that’s abundant to the point where, according to Worm, there are some worries that it’s outcompeting seabirds for food. The fishery could actually use a little human pressure. I found a place that sells it in bulk online and makes broad claims about the business being sustainable. The company doesn’t display an MSC certification, which is one of the more widely-used standards for sustainability, so I called them. Long story short, I didn’t buy anything. Five minutes well spent. 

I asked my local fish guy if he could get pink salmon, and he said it’s not as tasty as coho or sockeye, so he doesn’t buy it. I told him I’d order 10 pounds if he did, and, when he asked why, I relayed to him what Worm told me: It’s an abundant, deep-water fish that the boats don’t have to scrape the bottom to catch.

He was surprised that I actually cared enough about the environment to take a taste hit, but said that if I could wait for the summer season, he’d see if he could get me some directly from Alaska. That would be better for the environment, he explained, than just buying it out of a warehouse in Pennsylvania. It would taste better, too, he said.

These kinds of conversations are crucial. “Make it clear that we put value on this information,” says Worm. And if you think that all you’re doing is hassling some poor unfortunate soul who’s just trying to sell some fish and get by, you’re wrong. Seafood Watch works with businesses ranging from Whole Foods to the Cheesecake Factory to help them make procurement policies, and “these questions trickle up to a greater extent than you might think,” says Hudson. “They come to us and they say ‘oh yeah, our customers—everyone in the store—they are demanding sustainable seafood.’” Worm sees the same factors at work. “The market pressure that comes from sustainable seafood commitments has been a substantial force in fisheries over the last decade.”

During our conversation, Worm said something to me that’s been playing on loop in my head nonstop since we talked. It has completely re-framed the way I think about seafood, and I want to plant it in your brain as well:

Fish is marine wildlife. You are eating something that is akin to a moose or an alligator, so it’s not something we should consume mindlessly—and probably also not that often. Because there’s not enough out there to feed the whole world. It’s something we should use as a treat, as a special meal, as something we prepare with a lot of care. 

Fish are wild animals, the inhabitants of a vast, untamed, underwater savannah. Imagine if you saw a giant ship swoop down from the sky and scoop up hundreds of lions, gazelles, and elephants out of the Serengeti. You’d be horrified. And yet, that’s basically commercial fishing. This is not to say that we can’t eat any fish, but Worm’s appeal to treat them as something special is poignant. It’s a necessary challenge to the human propensity to overdo anything we enjoy.

Speaking of overdoing it, I never want to write about food again. I’ll follow up next week with a cheat sheet—a quick reference that summarizes what we’ve covered over this past month—and then I’m going to move on. I’ll be digging in to plastic soon, and probably some stuff about driving to time with the upcoming travel season. But if there’s anything you want to know about, this DJ takes requests. Please reach out, either in the comments, via email, or on Instagram or Twitter.

Take care of yourselves—and each other