A pescatarian diet may just be the least sustainable way of eating on the planet
A pescatarian diet may just be the least sustainable way of eating on the planet
Image: 123RF / mladich

Increasingly, I encounter people who tell me that they want to eat more sustainably and are, therefore, eschewing meat (by which they mean landbased animals) in favour of seafood (which, in this scenario is — curiously — not classified as meat).

It’s pretty weird, because a pescatarian diet may just be the least sustainable way of eating on the planet. The stats around the rapid decline in marine life are so freaky, so doomsday, you’d think we’d all cut seafood-eating down to the minimum, and save it for a very special dinner once a month or so. But we’re human, so that’s not what’s happening.

In fact, for most of us, this is all happening on another planet. We’re against plastic pollution in the sea; we’re against oil spills. But the truth is that most everyday fishing practice is no less harmful to the marine world.

And actually, as a pescatarian, the chance is that you’re an involuntary omnivore anyway: massive amounts of by-catch and collateral damage comes not just in the form of fish, but also in the form of turtles and marine birds, plus dolphin, porpoise, and more in the mix. Aqua-culture is tricky too: most fish farms require 2kg of fish-meal to get out 1kg of edible fish. That makes sense?

Many fish eaters aware of these issues are choosing only sustainable seafood. The little blue and white label with the Nike-like tick, from the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), which indicates sustainability, appears on more and more supermarket seafood, whether wild-caught or farmed. But even this picture is far from simple. The MSC is a rather conflicted body. It is trying to please environmental groups, retailers, and big business (Unilever was its initial funder).

The industry must change far, far more dramatically

Certification is often given to fisheries just for being the slightly lesser evil of a bunch, as pressure increases for the MSC to find enough sustainable seafood to fuel demand from all parties (retailers and fisheries can both charge more for MSC catch). In many cases, fisheries have been given MSC certification based on their promise to change fishing practice in the future. They’re usually given a good couple of years.

So, that sole we just bought with the MSC label today may well still be bottomtrawled in a way that destroys sea-bed life and landscape; the swordfish fishery may still be killing as many sharks (inadvertently) as swordfish. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t sustainable fisheries, both wild and farmed, but you might need to do some digging yourself. Bottom line, the industry must change far, far more dramatically. And damn quickly. Like 10 years ago.

FISHY READING

A great piece on the MSC on the NPR website, called Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable? Also look at our own Sassi website for local good and bad choices. And read Eat Your Heart Out, by brilliant Guardian journo Felicity Lawrence. I love her discovery of the “salmofan”, a sort of pantone chart that shows salmon farmers how much dye to put in the fish-food to achieve a certain flesh colour.


Burgener is chef at The Leopard at 44 Stanley Avenue. She has been restaurateuring and food writing for 20-odd years. She is passionate about ocean sustainability (stop eating prawns and salmon, please, everyone), and — unrelatedly — is petitioning to have the words “foodie”, “veggie”, and “choccie” banned.

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