But What Fish Should I Eat: A Conversation with Tim Fitzgerald of Environmental Defense Fund

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This interview blog was transcribed from the OCTOPOD podcast episode here. Not all of the podcast episode has been presented in this transcript so please go give the episode a listen.

Tim Fitzgerald works in the oceans program of the Environmental Defense Fund. He works on sustainable seafood and conservation finance "and figuring out how to get big international organizations to work with us making fisheries more sustainable."

OCTOPOD

So just to get started, let's talk about sharks briefly. So back in graduate school we saw that you were on Shark Week and on National Geographic Explorer. So you lived a really cool life because obviously sharks are amazing. And you mentioned before we started this that you almost had your hand bit off once. So can you tell us a little bit about that and also about maybe some of the less scary experiences you've had?

TIM
Well I went to graduate school in Hawaii and if you're going to be a poor graduate student, Hawaii is a pretty great place to do it. I went there because I wanted to study a very specific aspect of shark biology and that was one of the few places in the country where you can do that and where you can have year-round access to sharks and be able to catch and study them with regularity. So given that, we were a really popular lab and program for TV crews who wanted to shoot shows about sharks. So we had the privilege, or the burden I guess depending on how you look at it, of hosting a lot of TV crews and taking them out shark fishing and teaching them about the tagging and tracking and population work that we were doing with different kinds of sharks. And the most popular project was was on tiger sharks. So we would go out fishing for tiger sharks right near the Honolulu airport actually, just a couple miles from there, and we would go set lines right before sunset. We would leave them out overnight and come back in the morning and see what we got. And usually when we had film crews with us we got nothing and when we didn't have film crews with us we caught tons.

I think one of the last film crews we took out was for BBC and shark week and I think it was probably the most sharks that we'd ever caught. It was something like 10 or 12 sharks and everything from seven or eight foot tiger sharks all the way up to like a 14 or 15 foot tiger shark. And we were kind of having trouble keeping track of all the sharks. So we were trying to measure them and tag them and take samples from them as quickly as we could and in the process of doing that, we were working up the biggest shark and for that one I was holding the head, that was the business end, and you know I got a little bit careless and actually when you measure large sharks, you turn them upside down and that kind of puts them into a bit of a coma almost. They call it tonic immobility. So we had this big tiger shark upside down and we were measuring it and this big wave came and kind of rolled the boat that we were in back and forth a little bit. And it was enough to wake the shark up and it jumped out, or didn't jump that's silly. Came aware of what was going on and snapped and luckily didn't get anything. But, there's a pretty silly clip of me jumping away as that happens. I think that was my final TV shark appearance.

OCTOPOD
What year is this and what show is this? So I can like not look this up on YouTube or anything.

TIM
It was called 10 Deadliest Sharks and I want to say was probably like 2002 maybe. It was back in the infancy of the internet.

OCTOPOD
So all these sharks they're just on line's underwater until you guys get there in the morning and then you pull them in one at a time?

TIM
Yeah, each of the hooks has about 10 or 15 feet of line and so if they get caught in the middle of the night, they have enough line to just swim around in a circle until we come back to pick them up. And then when we're pulling the main line in, if we have a shark on any of the hooks, then you unclip it. You put a float on it and then you go work up that shark while you're pulling in the rest of the line. So it's kind of like there's a tender boat and then there's a processing boat.

OCTOPOD
That's an amazing story. I'm excited to see that clip and to see your terrified expression and not post a GIF of it anywhere. But, I did want to ask you about something, I heard that you were invited to testify to the president's commission on the BP deep water horizon oil spill. Is that accurate?

TIM
That is true. That's probably also a clip on the internet that I don't want a lot of people seeing. Probably my one and only C-SPAN credit. When I was first starting at EDF, I did a lot of work on seafood safety. So I was studying mercury and PCBs and other contaminants in seafood and helping create resources and tools for people to choose seafood based on the lowest amount of contaminants. So when the BP oil disaster happened, we needed somebody to figure out what the seafood safety issues were with oil and what I had been working on was kind of the closest thing that we had and so I got designated to figure this out. So that was somewhat of an academic exercise, but then also we actually work a lot with fishermen in the Gulf and helping to make fisheries more sustainable down there and you can imagine being a Gulf fisherman who was working really hard on sustainability and all of a sudden this environmental disaster threatens to wipe out your fishery and undo all the hard work that you had been putting in for years and years and years. So, one of the projects that we came up with was to essentially help create a new seafood brand in partnership with these fishermen that addressed the safety concerns that the consumers were having about just being freaked out in general about fish, but especially fish from the Gulf, and doing voluntary testing on top of what the government was already doing and developing a traceability system so you could see pinpointed on a map where your fish came from, that it wasn't from inside a area that was covered in oil or anything like that. After a year or two this became something that I knew a little bit about, and so there were a series of these hearings on the response to the oil spill and one of them was focused on seafood safety. And I was invited to talk about the health concerns about oil spills and seafood generally, but also try to tell a positive story about this partnership work that we did with fishermen and universities and testing labs to try to essentially save the market for the fishery. And that program is still going today it's called Gulf Wild. Depending on where you live, you can go and find snapper and grouper with Gulf Wild tags in supermarkets and restaurants and you can either enter the unique codes or scan the QR codes and find out where your fish was from, who caught it, what kind of beer the captain drinks, anything you would want to know about your fish.

OCTOPOD
That's incredible work, especially now with our current administration wanting to expand with offshore oil drilling. I feel like that's such a fear among fishermen that because we're going to expand or wanting to expand the possibility of more deep water horizon spills is just looming. I know you don't really work in oil now, right? Tell us what you do now.

TIM
I'm in the oceans program of EDF. Our goal is essentially to end overfishing around the world and we do that in about 13 or 14 different countries everywhere from the US and Mexico to Peru and Chile and Myanmar and Indonesia, Philippines, Japan, China. The reason that we picked these places are that in total they account for almost two thirds of the global catch of wild fish. So the theory is, if you can get fishing right in this relatively small number of places, you have a chance to tip the global system towards sustainability. And that's one of the reasons I love working in fish so much. I think it's probably the best environmental issue to work on because, like I said you can really have a big impact in a relatively small number of places, but also when you get it right, whether science or management or incentives or partnerships or whatever, when you get that right, the recovery time for fish is amazingly quick. My colleagues have done a lot of research and modeling on this and they've been able to show that you can recover almost 80% of overfished stocks in less than 10 years. So if you're thinking about the timeline for a lot of these environmental challenges that we're facing right now, that's a pretty attractive number. And the great thing is it's not like we don't already have the tools to do this. I mean we royally, like the conservation community, fishermen, scientists, etcetera. We've done it in lots of places and we've seen it work. We generally know how to do it. Political will isn't always there and a lot of times that's a big hurdle for us to get over, but we know how to do it and when we're able to put everything together into the secret sauce and see it play out, it's really incredible.

OCTOPOD
What sort of indicators are there for a sustainable fishery. What makes a fishery sustainable basically?

TIM
It's definitely not easy, but I like to call it relatively straightforward. There are a few key ingredients to getting fisheries sustainable that if you're successful, you're likely going to be in pretty good shape. So good science is always the first thing, right? You want to know how much fish is in the ocean and how much is sustainable to take out. Or how much can you take out over the long term without hurting the health of the stock or the population. So science is the first thing. Using that to set the right catch limits, but more importantly making sure you have a mechanism to enforce those catch limits is the second thing. It's one thing to have a good science-based catch limit. It's another thing to be able to keep fishermen or a fishery or a cooperative or a community or whatever within that catch limit. Then the third thing, which is related, is having the right incentives in place to foster that accountability and to foster that monitoring and enforcement.

A lot of the trajectory that we've had for a lot of fisheries around the world is, especially after World War II, is build up fishing fleets, fish a lot, grow the economy, strengthen the domestic capacity of your fleet and then 20 years after you realize that you've been overfishing all this time. Try to fix everything retroactively and do so highly imperfectly. And so usually what happens is you get into this cat and mouse game of, "You're fishing too much. We want you to fish less." And then the fisherman say, "Okay, we'll fish less, but we're going to fish with twice as many boats" or "We're going to fish with nets that are twice as big." And I say, "Okay, well you have to use smaller nets or you have to use fewer boats." "Okay, well I'm just gonna do that, but I'm going to fish more days." "Well you have to fish fewer days." "Okay, well I'm gonna fish harder during this fewer days then I would have." So you don't really end up catching less fish in a lot of these scenarios and it's because you're trying to control people's behavior and that is often a recipe for disaster. So on the incentive side, it's really important to figure out what approaches are going to buy fishermen into the solution. And if you don't have something that works for fishermen, then you don't have a solution. So a lot of the work that EDF does and other conservation groups do is to work directly with fishermen, not only collecting data and doing science and helping to participate in fisheries management, but also to figure out how to create fishing quota systems, how to make sure the allocation of that quote is fair, how to make sure people are staying within those quotas, etcetera. That's all super wonky stuff that all my colleagues down the hall work on day in and day out.

OCTOPOD
What are some of the incentives that you give these fishermen to follow along?

TIM
Well it depends on where you are in the world and what kind of fish you are talking about. In some places, countries like the US or New Zealand or Iceland, you see a lot more of these quota systems where you would allocate a portion of catch limits to either individual fishermen or individual fishing vessels or captains. And a lot of times it's based on what they caught historically. And so you're granting this right, or this privilege, which has value. And so you say, "Okay, fishermen X, we're going to give you 3% of the catch of this species and it's yours. And you can fish it whenever you want as long as you tell us when you're fishing, where you're fishing and provide us data when we ask for it." And you can attach other provisions to it also, but basically it allows fishermen to plan their businesses in a much different way than Deadliest Catch style when they're just rushing out to catch as much as they can before the storm hits and getting back to the dock with the same product that 25 other boats have all caught at the same time. Fishermen behave much differently in those sorts of scenarios compared to when they know what they're allowed to catch over the course of a whole season or a whole year. And they can go out when the weather is good or when the market conditions are good, or when their engine isn't broken. And then a lot of times if you're in the tropics or in most small scale fisheries, instead of doing quota, you can say allocate a portion of a fishing area to a community or to a cooperative. So they have kind of dedicated access to an area as opposed to a certain number of pounds of fish. And you can say, "This community gets this part, the next community gets the next part," and again, that incentivizes those communities to not only stay within sustainable limits, but also to a lot of times even do some of the monitoring and enforcement themselves. Because if they're bought into this area, they don't want people coming in and fishing what they're not supposed to be. So you can develop kind of a co-management situation where the users are bought into the system so much that they're helping to patrol it or police it if that's something that's needed.

OCTOPOD
And then that fish comes into the market. And then what? How do consumers know which fish to get at the grocery store? Do we even eat fish anymore? Should we stop eating fish?

TIM
Don't stop eating fish, eat more fish! Eat more sustainable fish. I'm not a medical doctor. I'm not a public health expert. But I think the science is pretty good that eating more fish is generally good for you. Especially if you're a climate conscious consumer, fish is one of the lowest carbon footprint animal proteins that you can eat. So if you eat a lot of red meat or you eat a lot of mammals essentially, and you substitute some of that for seafood you're actually able to reduce your carbon footprint in a pretty substantial way. There's a really cool carbon footprint tool from Seafood Watch and Dalhousie University. So you can see what is the difference between say, eating beef and eating salmon or crab or shellfish or things like that. So if, if you're eating with climate in mind, seafood is a great option especially if you're able to substitute for some meat. Also there are just so many great sustainable seafood options that if you're a foodie, sustainable seafood should be for you. If you're cost-conscious, sustainable seafood should be for you. If you're climate-conscious, sustainable seafood is for you. If you just want to be that annoying person at dinner, sustainable seafood is for you. So yes, please eat more, and I'm sure we're going to talk in a minute about how to do that.

OCTOPOD
Yes. You already segway-ed yourself into it! So how do we eat sustainable seafood? How do we know it's sustainable? Are there any species to avoid? Are there any species that are good to go almost? What are some good indicators at the store?

TIM
So I think it's worth acknowledging I think about fish all day, every day, right? So I don't give a second thought to this kind of thing, but I admit that I am not most people when it comes to thinking about and buying and eating fish. I think it's okay to recognize that fish is confusing for people generally, just in terms of what to buy and how to cook it and what's good quality and what's a good price and all that stuff before you even get to sustainability. So giving yourself a pass or a break on that is an important first step. Saying like, "all right, there's a lot of this out here. I'm going to figure this out. I'm not going to have all the answers." And also if you think about it, how many species of cow do we eat?

OCTOPOD
One.

TIM
How many countries does our beef come from?

OCTOPOD
The American beef comes from America.

TIM
Exactly. And the same thing for chicken and pork. You're talking about one species from maybe two or three different countries. For fish, you're talking about a couple of hundred species from every country on earth that's caught or farmed in dozens of different ways, right? So there is complexity there. There is definitely some rules of thumb for how to get through some of that complexity and just have a go-to list of 5 or 10 things that you can buy with confidence. One of them is buying fish at places not only that you trust, but that are willing and able to answer your questions. So you know, they may not have all the answers either, but if you have questions and they can't answer them or more importantly they won't answer them, do not buy a fish there. That goes for markets or restaurants. It's worth noting that grocery stores are required to label their fresh and frozen fish with two really important pieces of information, what country it's from and whether it's farmed or wild and that's by law. Restaurants, unfortunately, are not subject to that law. So if they do it it's voluntary, but they're not required. The good thing is most grocery stores, big national chains anyway, have some sort of sustainable seafood policy. That's been one of the real victories of the sustainable seafood movement over the last 20 years or so in North America and Europe. Which is that something like 80 or 90% of the grocery industry is covered by a sustainable seafood policy that's informed by a conservation group like EDF or Seafood Watch or somebody else. So if you're buying fish in those places chances are they will have sustainable seafood options. If you're eating at a restaurant it's a little harder, but that's where asking questions becomes more important. And again, once you find a great restaurant or a couple of great restaurants that offer sustainable seafood and change their options a lot, stick with them and, even more importantly, thank them for doing it and encourage them to keep on doing it.

OCTOPOD
So what kind of questions do you ask at those restaurants? I mean, can you just ask, was this sustainably caught? I don't think I trust the answer to that.

TIM
You can, but they are going to say yes. In some ways sustainable seafood or sustainability generally has jumped the shark a little bit. Like everybody has it. So if everybody has it, is it really sustainable? I don't know the answer to that. I would say a couple of things, asking farmed or wild and which country it's from will usually get you 80% of the way there for most types of fish. So that's the first thing. And this gets to another rule of thumb\ that I wanted to mention before, which was given the complexity of seafood, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it's okay to have a little companion or a cheat sheet or a guide. So all of the seafood guides you can get on your mobile device now. Some are apps, some are just kind of mobile enhanced sites. EDF has one called The Seafood Selector. Seafood Watch from Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great one. So if this information isn't being presented to you at point of sale then it's super easy to go on one of these sites or these apps and just type in albacore tuna or blue crabs or blue mussels or whatever, and that that should be able to steer you towards good choices. Then if there's still a question, I think then there are some questions you can ask depending on how comfortable you are talking to strangers or servers or counter staff. Just things like, "all right, well how are you determining that this is sustainable? What is your sustainability policy? Can I see it? Is it online somewhere?" Things like that. Also at least on the wild side, the US has done a really good job over the last decade or two getting its fisheries house in order. So that's not to say that every wild fish caught in the US is 100% sustainable, but on average if it's US caught it's probably following pretty decent standards and that can be said for some other countries as well.

OCTOPOD
I just want to touch briefly on lab grown seafood. What is lab grown seafood? What's it made out of? We're trying to figure that out, is it like tofu?

TIM
That's a good question. There's actually two kinds. So you know all these new burger products out there. There's plant-based and then there's lab grown. I guess probably the plant based ones are lab grown too. So seafood is a little bit behind some of the other proteins. So you can go into the supermarket now and get some of these burger products. Seafood isn't there yet, but there are two different kinds, there are "seafoods" that are plant based and then there are ones that are lab grown. I don't know the plant-based side that well, but the lab grown ones are essentially cultured from muscle tissue that they extract from live fish. So there are three or four companies and they each specialize in one or two different types of seafoods. So there's one that does Bluefin Tuna.There's one that does Mahi Mahi. There's one that I think is trying to do shrimp. And as I understand it, they extract some cells and the quality is better if the fish are alive. So they extract these live muscle cells, they bring them back to the lab and then through a proprietary process, they culture them into more and more muscle cells that eventually they can portion into, I guess what looks like a filet of fish.

It raises all sorts of interesting questions like, if you don't eat fish for ethical reasons, if they're not killing the fish anymore, is this something you would then consider eating? I haven't really thought a lot about it, but some people have asked me about that. Or is this really going to improve food security if we're growing all this fish in the lab and we're not catching fish from the ocean? I think it's too early to tell and the answer is maybe in some near future, but there's also millions and millions of people around the world who rely on fishing for their livelihoods and for their subsistence that this product probably isn't going to touch or impact for some time. What I've heard from a lot of my colleagues is this is a big yes and situation where yes, we should continue to develop these alternative sources in the hopes that they might reduce pressure down the road. But in the meantime, we still need to do all the hard work of fixing fisheries in all these places that are really dealing with these challenges. So I am actually gonna be on a panel with one of these lab grown seafood companies next month and I'm hoping he brings along some samples because I'm really eager to try it.

If you want to learn more about any of this stuff we have lots of things on our website and we have lots of stuff on Twitter (EDF Oceans Twitter, Tim's Twitter) and Facebook. So find us and tweet me questions. Would love to keep the conversation going on any of these topics.

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