BOULDER—It was the weekend of 4/20, and I was in Boulder, Colorado. There were few things my heart desired outside of some legal pot, mountain trails, and good food. So I headed to Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, a joint that prides itself on “sustainable seafood.” Yes, in the middle of land-locked Colorado.
So, how the hell is its seafood sustainable? As I discovered, it all depends on how you define “sustainable” and what impact you’re trying to reduce.
When I sat down in the cozy, romantically-lit dining area, the menu informed me that Executive Chef Sheila Lucero’s “concern for the health of our oceans and the state of our global fish stocks” drove her to partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which has been around for 20 years. The program recommends seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that keeps fish stocks healthy and minimizes the amount of bycatch. What’s key is the use of fishing methods that allow stocks to be harvested for generations to come.
“Addressing the way a piece of fish is farmed or produced, caught or farmed, has a more direct impact on the oceans,” Ryan Bigelow, the senior program manager at Seafood Watch, told me.
Overfishing is an obvious problem as it prevents populations from maintaining healthy levels and can lead to their collapse. Then, there’s the issue of bycatch, when non-target species get caught in fishing nets. Though unintentional, bycatch threatens creatures like turtles and dolphins. On top of all this, some fish farms are poorly managed and can cause disease to spread to wild fish, all while contaminating the environment they’re in when the fish are treated with medicines or pesticides.
Monterey Bay’s program helps restaurants like Jax Fish House ensure that the fish they offer customers do little to none of the above, by offering guidance on where to avoid purchasing their fish from and where’s best. While the aquarium does not offer certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which actually assess and accredit fisheries or farms, sourcing fish that the Monterey Bay deems “best choice” or a “good alternative” is still a solid first step.
“We want to continue to be able to serve seafood for generations to come,” Chef Lucero told me. “If we aren’t mindful about it, it’s going to go away.”
But the seafood world’s definition of sustainability leaves some holes, especially when it comes to climate change. Like everything we consume, seafood is responsible for some carbon emissions related to the fuel fishing vessels use and any energy that powers farming operations.
Those carbon emissions can vary widely depending on the type of seafood. For instance, a study published last year found that catfish aquaculture is very carbon intensive—on par with industrial beef production—while farmed shellfish and mollusks had among the smallest environmental impact of any type of meat when accounting for energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution. Overall, Dutch North Sea Foundation estimates that global fisheries account for 1.2 percent of the world’s oil consumption.
Part of those emissions is the transport from ocean to table. When I bit into my chilled, lightly dressed octopus and my buttered, perfectly cracked lobster, I knew they were fresh. That level of juice, texture, and taste made me suspect the food didn’t sit in a freezer for very long—and that hunch turned out to be right.
While Jax sources its fish from some of the best fisheries and is sure to only offer fish that’s in season, it flies in its fish fresh daily from the coasts. Every single day, someone has to drive to the Denver International Airport, pick up their shipments, and drop them off to the various restaurants in the Colorado chain. That’s after they’ve flown hundreds of miles from the West or East Coasts. And flying has the largest carbon footprint for transportation when compared to ocean freighter, rail, or truck transit.
Still, buying “local” seafood isn’t always that much better on your carbon footprint, explained Bigelow. For example, sardines caught in California may get shipped overseas to be canned. So a person living in California who buys those sardines isn’t exactly buying a local product when it had to travel some thousands of miles before arriving at the dinner table.
“It’s very difficult to know how far your fish has traveled,” said Bigelow.
That’s why Qi Lee, a researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Sustainable Fisheries Group, judges sustainability in terms of species. Farmed oysters are a great choice environmentally, she told Earther, because they help clean up the environment whenever they grow. As for shrimp, a favorite in the U.S., some of their farms have a history of wiping out important habitat like mangroves. Lee says that for Americans, it’s generally better to buy from fisheries based in the U.S., because they’re regulated more stringently than many of those abroad.
So, while carbon footprints are something to consider, Lee likes to think of every seafood choice relative to the alternatives—like beef that’s flown in or, well, unsustainably caught seafood.
Chef Lucero acknowledges the impact of flying, and her restaurants attempt to offset its footprint by purchasing wind energy credits. Also, the chain composts its oyster shells and has even used some to decorate columns in its restaurants.
“People are going to eat seafood in Colorado, and we’ve been doing a really good job of supplying them with really healthy sustainable seafood, and I don’t want to stop doing that because of a carbon footprint,” Lucero told Earther. “We’re trying to continually figure out ways to offset that energy cost.”
Seafood lovers who care about the environment got a lot to think about. What’s key is to recognize what it takes for that dungeness crab or mussel to land on your dinner plate. Some options are better than others, and consumers have the power to choose.