Sunday, March 9, 2014

Is Tilapia a Sustainable Alternative?

Is Tilapia a Sustainable Alternative?

The ubiquitous tilapia is the broad name for nearly one hundred species of fish. Farmed tilapia, a lean white fish with a generic flavour, is the second-most popular farmed fish, after carp, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. China is the leading producer of tilapia, British Columbia and Nova Scotia also produce it commercially.
Tilapia has earned a reputation in the food circles as “aquatic chicken” because it reproduces easily, matures early, tastes bland and is an inexpensive alternative. Tilapia is the model factory-farmed fish; it consumes pellets made largely of corn and soy, easily converting a diet that is similar to cheap chicken feed formulated to maximize growth and weight gain into into low-cost seafood.

Tilapia appearing on a restaurant menu is generally my litmus test to determine whether or not the kitchen is sourcing generic products from a commercial distributor.
Sustainable Seafood
I became a proponent of sustainable seafood with the inception of he Endangered Fish Alliance, when a group of concerned restaurateurs, chefs and environmentalists joined staff members of the Toronto Enviroguide to encourage its members to make environmentally wise choices by not serving four endangered fish: swordfish, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and certain types of endangered caviar-egg-producing sturgeons.

Other endangered fish  and seafood to avoid include: red grouper from the Gulf of Mexico, blue and striped marlin, Atlantic cod, red king crab, imported mahi mahi, , shark, swordfish, Atlantic halibut, imported shrimp, red snapper and several varieties of non-canned tuna.

The collapse of the cod stocks off Atlantic Canada in an ocean once thought to be an inexhaustible supply of food epitomized one of the most contentious environmental and natural resource management disasters of the 20th century. Fishing has always been a vital part of Canada’s economy and has shaped the foundation of the social fabric of many of our coastal communities.
 In 1992, the moratorium on cod fishing plunged 40,000 Atlantic Canadian fisherman and processing plant employees into unemployment. In 2003, the Canadian government finally declared the northern Atlantic cod an endangered species. 

It was thirty years ago that I first saw migrating salmon in the Fraser River in British Columbia, abundant and teeming in their awe-inspiring journey upstream to spawn at Hell's Gate. On our Pacific coast, one of the world’s great gastronomic luxuries — and once considered to be an everlasting resource — wild pacific salmon is disappearing.

I fear few people are aware that Atlantic salmon is now predominately a farmed fish raised in Pacific coastal farms. The practice of farming salmon began in Norway in the late 1960s and in Canada in the 1970s, in response to the depletion of wild fish. Farmed salmon, once hailed as the solution to the endangered stocks of wild salmon, have become among the most ubiquitous and affordable fresh fish in North American kitchens and restaurants. But along with farmed tilapia and farmed shrimp, farmed salmon is among the principal aquaculture controversies that we should be paying closer attention to.
Salmon is bred in ocean based pens rife with relentless organic contaminants, anemic-looking farmed salmon are fed chemical growth agents and dyes to give them their colour and enhance their appearance. Farmed salmon is also generally acknowledged origin of the prevalence of sea lice and attendant diseases in our wild fish stocks. Fish farmers use pesticides in their fish feed pellets to stop the threat of sea lice. Practices such as these make me question whether or not the variety of fish we eat may be less important than what the fish we’re dining on has been fed or eaten itself.

Several years ago, Sustainable Seafood Canada, a national coalition of non-profit environmental groups, initiated SeaChoice (, a comprehensive Canadian program that raises awareness and delivers solutions for sustainable fisheries. Part of the SeaChoice mandate is to rank seafood by sustainability and educate consumers, retailers and suppliers about the country of origin, how it is caught, its journey from sea to market, and how to effectively manage their inventory.

Choosing seafood wisely requires developing an awareness of the environmental and moral issues at hand, and informing ourselves about which species are and are not being overexploited. At the same time, as consumers we need to be mindful of which varieties are fished (line or trawl net) or farmed in an ethical manner that is renewable and won’t jeopardize the future of the species or the destruction of marine habitat and attendant bycatch. (Bycatch being the fish and marine life that is caught and most often killed as a side effect of fishers pursuing a targeted, more commercial, species.) The more ethically minded consumers, chefs and culinary enthusiasts that informed, targeted boycotts of endangered species can make a significant difference in our eating preferences. An estimated 70 percent of fish in North America is consumed in restaurants.

We should avoid catch from the top end of the deep-sea food chain and think about fish and seafood that are less commercially important and underutilized. At the top of the food chain are big luxury fish like blue fin tuna, Chilean sea bass, shark and swordfish. All have been seriously depleted and are not good ethical or sustainable choices.

There is also a need for labeling laws that state country of origin, whether the fish has been farmed or fished, whether it has been previously frozen and thawed, and whether or not the fish is certified sustainable. It has become increasingly important to continue to raise awareness and bring about self-imposed moratoriums on purchasing and supporting restaurants that continue to serve endangered fish stocks.

A partial answer to finding the best environmental and sustainable choices for seafood is a program run by the Marine Stewardship Council ( The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a self-determining, non-profit organization that has established global environmental criteria for sustainable and well managed fisheries. .

The MSC has developed standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability. Both standards meet the world's toughest best practice guidelines and are helping to transform global seafood markets. The MSC seeks to connect consumer preference for products from sustainable fisheries by the use of its blue MSC eco- label. When fish is purchased that has the eco- label, it indicates that the fishery operates in an environmentally responsible way and does not contribute to the global problem of overfishing.

In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a treatise on the greater moral issues surrounding what we choose to eat and the impact of our choices, author Michael Pollan states, “Fishing is the last economically important hunter-gatherer food chain, even though this foraging economy is rapidly giving way to aquaculture, for the same reason that hunting wild game succumbed to raising livestock. It is depressing though not at all difficult to imagine our grandchildren living in a world in which fishing for a living is history.”

It is important to know where your fish is sourced and what you are eating underneath all that batter. 

 Read more about sustainable fish on Ocean Wise.




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