Learning to love local (and sustainable): Reconsidering where our seafood comes from

We have a terrestrial bias at the College. Yes, we live in Williamstown, about 150 miles from the Atlantic, but we are inherently linked to the health and fate of the oceans. The oceans are one of the main climate regulators and its organisms contribute around 70 percent of our atmospheric oxygen. In this way, our well-being and our planet’s well-being are inextricably tied to the oceans’. Yet, we often neglect mentioning the oceans when discussing sustainability, especially regarding food.

We’ve come a long way with our food; students have spearheaded a 50-percent industrial beef reduction and a fair-trade banana implementation, and the campus celebrates local products and “150-mile” meals. But considering we spent nearly $200,000 on seafood during the 2016 fiscal year, talking about where our seafood is from and how it’s caught is an integral part of sustainability discussions.

“Today, over 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are overexploited, fully exploited, or have collapsed” (United Nations First Global Integrated Marine Assessment). We have managed to turn what was once considered an infinite, impossibly vast resource into one in danger of running out. Yet, it is often the species that have been decimated the most that we are intent on eating: cod, salmon and tuna, to name a few.

When the Atlantic cod fishery was nearly driven to extinction, we turned to the Pacific cod. When wild Atlantic salmon disappeared, we began farming them instead and retreating to more and more distant stocks. And these are likely the fish that we’re all most familiar with. But when taste-testing various whitefish — cod, haddock, sole, and tilapia — only 4 percent correctly identified the species as cod (Contract Testing “Whitefish”). Thus, perhaps we are only dedicated to continuing our current seafood tradition because of familiarity.

Plus, in the United States, up to 90 percent of the seafood we utilize and consume is imported despite the fact that the U.S. exports about three billion pounds of seafood each year (U.N. Assessment). With Americans consuming 4.8 billion pounds of seafood annually, there is an enormous disconnect between consumers and their local seas. Rather than harvesting and consuming seafood in the same area, we often import seafood from other nations that have much more lenient fishery policies than the United States. “Between 20 and 32 percent ($1.3-2.1 billion) of the wild fish we import to the United States is provided by illegal or unreported fishing” (Pramod et al., 2014). We’re not immune to this trend at the College. The tuna that is omnipresent in dining halls? It’s imported from Thailand. The cod we eat, though not imported from abroad, is still shipped across the nation from the West Coast. And, of course the list of issues facing fish and shellfish stocks goes on and on — bycatch, invasive species, eutrophication and hypoxia, and climate change for a few of the big ones. Perhaps we can’t tackle ocean acidification in one year of “Confronting Climate Change,” but surely we can shift our purchasing power to supporting sustainable solutions. We do have the power to change our consumption behavior.

Right here, in New England waters, underutilized species like dogfish, redfish and mackerel are being caught by local fishermen at sustainable levels. Many of these species are exported, like dogfish, to Europe for fish and chips. But the cycle of importation and overexploitation can be broken while helping our local coastal communities and ecosystems. We can shift to purchasing local, sustainable and underutilized species and decrease our consumption of overexploited, imported ones.

We are fortunate to have the Dining Services staff we do.. It is receptive to student input and are, like many students, searching for ways to adopt more sustainable practices. But it takes more than just changing what fish we serve in the dining halls to tackle this issue. We must have consumers willing to try new fish, even if they’re not familiar with it. When you see “scup” or “hake” on the menu, give it a try. Perhaps pass on that tuna melt at Lee’s. It’s time that we think more about where our seafood is coming from, how it’s caught and why it matters. It’s time for a sea change at the College.

Erica Chang ’18 is a biology major from Pittsburg, Pa. She lives in Prospect.