by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fish

Mar 3 2011

NOAA’s new aquaculture policy

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed the nation’s first aquaculture policy, which it says it did in response to consumer demand for local, safe, sustainably produced seafood (FoodNavigator.com has a good summary).

Ah yes.  Seafood.  The wild west of the food industry.  Safe and sustainable sounds good, but the statistics are not reassuring.

As NOAA explains, U.S. aquaculture – meaning farmed – currently only accounts for about 5% of our seafood.  Get this: an astonishing 84% of U.S. seafood is imported. Of this, half is farmed.

Worldwide, farmed seafood exceeded catches of wild seafood for the first time in 2009.

NOAA guesses that with wild fish stocks depleting rapidly, we will see plenty more fish and shellfish farming.

NOAA quotes the depressing Food and Agriculture Organization report on world fisheries and aquaculture.  This says that worldwide per capita fish availability is about 17 kg per year, and supplies more than 3 billion people with at least 15% of their average animal protein intake.  No wild fish stock can keep up with that kind of demand.

NOAA’s yawn-inducing recommendations (edited):

  • Enable sustainable aquaculture…in harmony with healthy, productive, and resilient marine ecosystems
  • Ensure agency decisions to protect wild species and coastal and ocean ecosystems
  • Advance scientific knowledge concerning sustainable aquaculture
  • Make timely and unbiased aquaculture management decisions
  • Support aquaculture innovation and investments that benefit the nation’s coastal
  • ecosystems, communities, seafood consumers, industry, and economy.
  • Advance public understanding of sustainable aquaculture practices
  • Work with our federal partners to provide resources and expertise needed to address aquaculture challenges
  • Work internationally to learn from aquaculture practices around the world

It’s going to take a lot more than that to fix the fish situation.

Sep 21 2010

The GM salmon saga continues

The FDA has just concluded two days of hearings on the safety and labeling of genetically modified (GM) salmon. I’ve been collecting comments about this and will add a few of my own.

USA Today: Let’s begin with Elizabeth Weise’s clear, insightful summary of what this is about. She summarizes the situation with GM salmon in a nifty Q and A format:

Q: What happens next?

A: Nothing soon. Before issuing a decision on the application, FDA will publish an Environmental Assessment of the salmon, followed by a required 30-day comment period. The agency would then determine whether it would file a Finding of No Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statemen….then use those findings to make a decision on whether or not to allow the sale of the salmon. The agency has said it has no set timeline for reaching a decision. Were the agency to decide to approve the sale of the salmon, it would take two years before the first crop was ready, company officials say.

Food Chemical News (September 20):  reports that AquaBounty’s CEO has no intention of restricting GM salmon farms to Panama. At the FDA hearing, he “forecast a spread of transgenic salmon operations from a proposed site in Panama to other countries, including the United States.”

Oops. The FDA had to remind him that his company’s application is for Panama only, and any other sites would require supplemental applications from the firm.”  The FDA said it was “not interested in AquaBounty’s future business plans.”

FoodNavigator.com reporter Caroline Scott-Thomas predicts that the hearings will lead to no recommendation.

The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) did not vote or make a recommendation at the end of the hearings, saying that it does not yet have sufficient data…After two days of hearings, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has called for more research to decide whether genetically engineered salmon is safe for consumption.

The New York Times says that the advisory group favored approval of the GM salmon, but that this could take ages.

Food Chemical News (September 21) says that most speakers at the hearing on GM labeling did not want it to be mandatory. It quotes Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as opposing mandatory labeling. Apparently, Jaffe:

urged AquaBounty to require its customers to provide “real” voluntary labeling on food products, such as “AquaBounty salmon,” “fast-growing salmon” or “environmentally friendly salmon”….He agreed that “no ingredients from a genetically engineered source” would be acceptable language provided there’s a comparable GE product in the marketplace.

Why would a representative of a consumer organization oppose mandatory labeling?  For that, go to

Jill Richardson’s lengthy analysis of FDA’s actions, written for Grist.  She lays out some of the more complicated issues, and takes a tough look at the biases of the committee members.

Washington Post: Lindsey Layton writes about the debates over labeling (I’m quoted).

A Washington Post poll found 78% of respondents to be worried about the health and safety risks of GM salmon.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the new government has stopped a scheduled public dialogue about GM foods.  That’s one way to handle it. All those pesky consumers don’t want it? Too bad for them.

My interpretation: of course the public does not trust genetically modified foods. The foods are not labeled. If the biotech industry and the FDA want the public to trust them, they need to label the GM salmon and all the other GM foods in the marketplace.

The public wants the right to choose.  The public should have the right to choose.

The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety.

My mantra on this one: Even if genetically modified foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable.

I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1993 when, under pressure from Monsanto, the agency rejected labeling of GM foods.  I wish the FDA had listened to me and the other consumer representatives on the committee, all of us convinced that labeling is essential for promoting trust, and giving the public a choice. And, we said, it’s the right thing to do.

The FDA now has a chance to redeem it’s bad decision.  I hope they take this opportunity and decide to require labeling.

Footnote: I wrote about all this in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, just published in a new edition in July.  In preparing the second edition seven years later, I was surprised by how little about food biotechnology had changed.  The issues have not changed.  The field is stuck.   Labeling is one way to break the stalemate.  Let the public have a choice.  I’ll bet doing that will solve a lot of problems.

Sep 2 2010

Fish fight: FDA to hear comments on GM salmon

The FDA has scheduled meetings September 19-21 to hear advice about whether the agency should approve GM (genetically modified) salmon.

These, you may recall are Atlantic salmon bioengineered by AquaBounty Technologies.   Atlantic salmon only grow for a few months per year; they do not produce growth hormone in non-growth months.  AquaBounty scientists combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout fish.

The result is that the GM salmon produce growth hormone throughout the year and grow at twice the rate of non-GM salmon.

In preparation for these hearings, a coalition of 31 advocacy groups issued a statement urging the FDA not to approve the fish.

Each year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems…We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts….FDA’s decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous, and is made worse by its complete lack of data to review…FDA has been sitting on this application for 10 years and yet it has chosen not to disclose any data about its decision until just a few days before the public meeting.

According to press accounts, salmon are only the first in a long line of potential GM fish and animals.  AquaBounty also raises GM trout and tilapia.  Other companies are working on GM pigs and cows.

AquaBounty lost no time in responding to the Coalition’s objections:

This press release is inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and intended to create fear and misunderstanding. AquAdvantage salmon are, quite literally, the most studied fish in the world. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has spent the last fifteen years creating a robust regulatory process to ensure these fish and other transgenic animal applications are appropriately evaluated and regulated.

Comment: In the early 1990s, I was one of four consumer representatives on the FDA’s 30-member Food Advisory Committee.  This was the time when the FDA was considering approval of the first GM crops.   All four of us voted to delay the decision until more information became available or to make sure that GM foods were labeled as such.  Obviously, the FDA did not listen to our excellent advice.

Indeed, when our term on the committee was up, the head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained to us that our committee had not really been advisory.  The FDA had already decided the issues that it brought to the committee for discussion.  All the agency wanted from the committee was some indication of the kind of public reaction its decisions might raise.

Is this still the case with FDA advisory hearings?  I really don’t know, but I hope the FDA will listen carefully to concerns about these fish.

Aug 8 2010

Why public health matters

I received a couple of requests to define “public health” last week from readers Anthro and MA.  As MA puts it,

Maybe…we need a definition of “public health.”  I view my health as a private matter, my food choices as a private matter, and an expression of my freedom.  To me, public health is not an individual concern, it’s a corporate (group) concern – government, schools, companies, farms, etc.  Public health includes things like properly working sewer systems, sanitation, water quality, and air quality.   Marion – can we get a definition of ‘public health’ from you, as Anthro suggested?

My definition of public health isn’t much different from mainstream definitions.  But to me, public health is a critically important expression of democracy, and the antithesis of  a “corporate” concern.  Public health approaches promote good health for everyone, not just those who can afford it or are educated enough to make appropriate choices.

A standard definition such as the one given in Wikipedia, says that public health is about promoting health and preventing disease through societal choices and efforts.   Public health deals with health at the population level, rather than at the level of individual personal responsibility, and it emphasizes prevention rather than treatment.

In my experience teaching public health nutrition, the concept of public health is sometimes hard for people to grasp, especially since populations are made up of individuals. I like to explain it this way: public health makes it easier for individuals to make healthful food choices for themselves and their families. Or to put it another way, public health makes better food choices the default.

The classic example of a public health intervention is water chlorination.  As individuals, we could all boil our own drinking water to kill harmful organisms but this requires us to have stoves, pots, and fuel, and to know how to boil water.  For many people, having to do this would be an intolerable burden and responsibility.  Instead, some societies choose to take public health measures to ensure that drinking water is safe at the tap for everyone.

Other food examples: milk Pasteurization, banning of trans fats, food labeling.

The particular example that elicited the question has to do with food safety.   We, as a society, could insist that food producers take measures to ensure that their products are free of harmful microorganisms (public health), or we could teach individuals how to manage food safety in the home or restaurants and cook foods properly (personal responsibility).

Preventing obesity is another example: We could, as a society, take measures to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully and be more active (public health) or leave it up to individuals to do this for themselves (personal responsibility). Many of the arguments about suggested public health measures to prevent obesity are about how best to balance society’s needs with individual rights.  But as I see it, the proposals aim to tweak societal choices that have already been made: which crops receive farm subsidies, for example.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

Obviously, both public health and individual approaches are necessary, but the overall objective of public health is to make it much, much easier for individuals to make better health choices without having to think about them.

Because public health applies to everyone, it is essentially democratic.   And that’s one of the reasons why I think it matters so much.

Jun 22 2010

Enough about Alaska. What about Gulf seafood?

A reader, Lucas Pattan, writes:

I’m writing to ask if you could do a post over the next few weeks about what you expect the impact of the Gulf spill will be on America’s seafood industry.  GQ has an amazing piece about fishermen and rigmen affected by the Deepwater Horizon, and the information about the fishing industry is pretty frightening [for the GQ piece click here].

I don’t have a crystal ball about the impact of the BP disaster on the Gulf seafood industry, but I’m assuming its effects will cause problems similar to those that happened as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill—only worse.

The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989 in cold Alaskan waters.  Fish and wildlife stocks have not fully recovered 21 years later and it will be years before they do.  According to the Wikipedia entry on this event:

Both the long- and short-term effects of the oil spill have been studied comprehensively….The effects of the spill continued to be felt for many years afterwards. Overall reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations….Almost 20 years after the spill, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina found that the effects are lasting far longer than expected. The team estimates some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.

The Wikipedia continues with a comment on corporate responsibility:

Exxon Mobil denies any concerns over this, stating that they anticipated a remaining fraction that they assert will not cause any long-term ecological impacts, according to the conclusions of 350 peer-reviewed studies. However, a study from scientists from the NOAA concluded that this contamination can produce chronic low-level exposure, discourage subsistence where the contamination is heavy, and decrease the “wilderness character” of the area.

It looks to me as though the ecological, economic, and corporate effects of this one will be even worse and longer lasting:

  • It’s a bigger and longer lasting spill.
  • The economy of the Gulf states have yet to recover from hurricane Katrina.
  • Oysters don’t swim.
  • Much of the Gulf was already a dead zone created by agricultural runoff and industrial pollution.
  • The waters are warmer and less rich in nutrients.
  • U.S. energy policy still focuses on oil.

At the moment, is seafood from the Gulf region safe to eat?  President Obama says it is.  I hope he’s right

The FDA is sampling oysters, crabs, and shrimp and doing more inspection of seafood processing plants, closing down waters that seem to be contaminated, and doing what it can to make sure that tainted seafood is not getting into the marketplace.

According to a report in Food Chemical News II (June 21), the FDA says it will not re-open oil-contaminated waters to fishing until:

oil from the spill is no longer observable and seafood samples from the area successfully pass both sensory analysis by trained screeners and chemical analysis to ensure there are no harmful oil products found in them.

Smelling the fish to see if it’s OK?  I don’t think so.

Jun 21 2010

Wild Alaskan salmon: food politics in action

On a tour arranged and paid for by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute (see Note below),  I spent last week observing salmon fishing and processing in Anchorage and at remote places 600 miles to the southwest.

I could not help thinking about federal dietary guidelines.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has just filed its report.  It recommends consuming two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week, preferably fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Develop safe, effective, and sustainable practices to expand aquaculture and increase the availability of seafood to all segments of the population. Enhance access to… information that helps consumers make informed seafood choices.

This, among other fish, means salmon, particularly wild Alaskan salmon because they have higher levels of omega-3 fats than the farmed fish and because Alaska is working hard to maintain the sustainability of its wild fish.

Wild Alaskan salmon caught 6-19-10. Top to bottom: King (Chinook), Red (Sockeye), Chum (Keta), Pink

To be sustainable, fish have to remain in the sea and steams long enough to reproduce. This means controlling the number of people who are allowed to catch fish (through licenses and permits) as well as the number of fish they catch (through restrictions on fishing methods and times and places).

The Alaskan system for doing this works fairly well but is under constant pressure.  Commercial fishers want to be able to catch all the salmon they can with no restrictions. Communities that have always depended on salmon for sustenance want to be able to continue doing so, and do not want fish caught before they get to community spawning streams.  Hence: salmon politics.

Here are some thoughts about what I observed:

Labor conditions in the processing plants: workers were imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and worked 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, for months at a time.

The amount of hand labor involved: Fishermen haul nets and sort fish by hand, and processing plant workers remove heads and guts, fillet fish, trip fillets, and debone by hand. In canneries, they weigh cans and clean the contents by hand. Some of this work is highly skilled and so meticulously done that it qualifies as artisanal. All of it is hard and repetitive

Peter Pan salmon cannery, King Cove, Alaska, 6-20-10

The huge numbers of fish that can be caught by commercial fishers: Alaska regulates how fish can be caught (boat size, types of nets), but even so a purse seine picks up thousands of pounds of fish at one time. It is hard to imagine how such fisheries can be sustainable, even when tightly regulated.

Purse seine bringing in the catch

The waste in the system: Some plants had arrangements to supply fish heads, guts, backbones, belly fat, skin, tails, and other parts to be used for pet food or fish meal, but some just ground up the leftovers and flushed them into the water system or back into the ocean. If the wrong fish get into nets, they get tossed back into the sea.

The cold chain (temperature controls): fish stay fresher longer if they are held temperatures just above freezing throughout every step of processing. The tenders (collecting boats) do “RSW,” hold fish in a tank filled with Refrigerated Sea Water. High quality fish are sampled at arrival at plants to make sure their flesh is below 35 degrees. Two of the three plants we visited were careful with temperature controls. The third, however, allowed fish to sit in holding tanks for days or to remain on stopped processing lines at room temperature while workers went to lunch.

The role of science: Geneticists are madly working on methods to identify salmon by stream of origin as a means to settle arguments about who gets to catch which fish. This, of course, could backfire if the salmon turn out to be from Russia or Canada.

The love of fishermen for what they do: The ones we met love their work and have been doing it for decades. They just wish they got treated better by processors and paid better for the fish they catch.

As fish eaters, we don’t need to consider where fish comes from or how it gets to us. I will be looking at fresh, frozen, and canned salmon in grocery stores and fish markets with new appreciation for what it takes to get them to us.

I haven’t said anything about methylmercury and PCBs, fish safety, international disputes over fishing rights, or issues about organic or farmed fish. For these topics, see the five chapters on fish in What to Eat.

If we want to continue to have fish to eat, we must pay attention to such issues, uncomfortable as they may be to contemplate.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association supported by the seafood processing industry:

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

Jun 20 2010

Wild Alaskan seafood: sustainability

One point of the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute’s invitation to visit remote fishing and processing operations was to publicize the state’s fish sustainability initiatives (see Note below).

Everyone wants to catch fish.  But who has the right to catch them?  Fish swim long distances and pay little attention to political borders.  The commercial fishing industry is highly efficient at using technology to catch fish (the fish hardly have a chance).  And cultural issues are involved, as well as economic issues.  Indigenous communities have long standing cultural traditions related to fish.

Fish stocks are not infinite.   Hence, the need for management.

In Alaska, fisheries management is so complex that it takes a chart to explain how it works.  The goal is to have enough seafood available so all the stakeholders in the fish system can make a living.  Salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab each require a different agency to manage stock conservation, set policy (local, national, and international) for who is entitled to fish, and enforce the rules.

For example, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulates the amounts of fish that can be taken, the Alaska Board of Fisheries decides who gets permits to fish, and Alaska Wildlife Troopers make sure everyone follows the rules.

The main management tools limit the time and place where fishing is allowed, and limit the number of commercial groups allowed to fish.  Alaskan fisheries are closed unless the Department of Fish and Game says they are open.   Nobody can fish in a closed area.

The number of fishing permits is fixed and finite, making them a market-driven commodity.  They are often handed down from generation to generation, but also can be sold.   A king salmon permit, for example, might cost as much as half a million dollars.  Yes, this allows rich commercial fishers to work in Alaskan waters.  But fishing area controls are democratic.  A closed fishing area is closed to rich and poor alike.

This system creates some tricky situations.  On the day we observed fishing in action near Sand Point, the area was open to salmon fishing. But it was closed to cod fishing.

Catch from a purse seine, Shumagen Islands, Alaska, June 2010

The boat shown here was out salmon fishing.  It caught salmon, but also picked up an almost equal number of cod (we were told this was highly unusual).

The salmon would go to the cannery to be processed.  The best salmon would be processed with special care by Aleutia, an organization specializing in high quality Alaskan wild salmon getting high prices for fishermen.

The salmon were caught legally.  The cod, however, were by-catch.  They were not supposed to be caught in the salmon nets or, for that matter, at all that day.

What happened to the caught cod?  We ate one of them for dinner that night, prepared for us by Michael Cimarusti, chef owner of Providence (Los Angeles), who conveniently was a member of our group. It was worth the trip.

The others went for personal use or were thrown back into the sea to become food for crab or other seafood.  Under the rules, they could not be sold.

Does this complicated management system work?  It looked to me like it does the job pretty well.

  • Stocks of major Alaskan seafood—salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab—are holding their own.
  • Everybody who fishes or depends on fish complains that they don’t get the chance to get enough of their fish.

Now, if only this system could go international, we might have a shot at keeping fish in the sea.

Tomorrow: Wild Alaskan salmon, from ocean to table.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association for seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

Jun 19 2010

Alaska fishing politics: fish processing

I’m writing this while on an Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute press trip (see note at end).  We are at Sand Point, Popof Island, Shumagin Islands, Alaska, about halfway out the mainland part of the Aleutian archipelago.  Sand Point is the largest town around, population 800 to 1000.

The town has a grocery store, coffee shop, bar, cafe, and a Chinese restaurant (the Aleut China), but centers around a seafood processing plant run by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods.

The fish arrive at the plant from “tenders,” fishing boats that collect fish caught by other boats, weigh the fish, and store them in ice cold sea water until they reach the plant.

Workers at the plant eviscerate the fish, clean them, and cut them into clean fillets.  These will go to Costco and Sams’ Clubs (Walmart) in the lower 48.

Trimming Halibut, Trident plant, Sand Point, AK, 6-18-10

The men and women doing this work are mostly seasonal workers from the Philippines.  They work 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week.

Several people who have lived here all their lives told us that when they were kids, they could hardly wait until they were 16 so they could work in the cannery.  They made good money.

When Trident came in, the company lowered the wages to minimum or just above, discouraged locals from working there, and outsourced the labor.

The company also reduced the price it paid for fish  from just over $2 per pound in the late 1980s to today’s just over $1.

If I remember correctly, wild Alaskan salmon costs nearly $30 per pound in New York City grocery stores.

The fishermen aren’t getting much of that.  The people who work in the processing plant aren’t either.

We met people here who are trying to help the fishers get more money for their work.  We haven’t met anyone lobbying for higher wages for workers in the processing plant.

The rationale?  Fish come in seasonally when they can be caught.  They have to be processed as soon as they come in.  If the workers were paid more, the wild fish would be so expensive that nobody could afford to buy them (and everyone would turn to farmed salmon).

I will be thinking about all this the next time I’m in a Costco or read about recommendations in the dietary guidelines to eat more fish.

I needed five chapters to talk about issues related to fish in What to Eat. I will have more to say about Alaskan fish politics in the next two posts.  Stay tuned.

Note: the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association paid for by seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

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