The Future of Seafood: Is Wild Catch Going Extinct?

On a quiet Wednesday morning in Newport Beach, locals line up at the only fish vendor open mid-week at the Dory Fleet Fish Market: Scott Breneman’s West Caught Fish Company. The vibrant red snapper and shimmering black cod that came in around 3 a.m. lie lifeless on a boat-shaped wooden table next to a tank filled with live ones.

“It’s $6 per pound, $10 per pound for the live,” says Breneman’s fishmonger, who reaches into the tank to clean and gut the fish for the waiting customers.

“It’s all hook and line here,” Breneman says. His West Caught Fish Company, along with the Dory Fleet, is a local partner to the Aquarium of the Pacific’s nonprofit seafood advisory program, Seafood for the Future.

This idyllic image of local fishermen selling fresh, responsibly wild-caught fish to locals at low prices is unusual. In fact, the Dory Fleet Market, established in 1891, is the last surviving beachside cooperative of its kind in the U.S. On Saturday mornings, when the fish market is packed with vendors, throngs of people line up at the crack of dawn to get their hands on the fresh wholesale seafood.

Kim Thompson, who heads Seafood for the Future, explains that the program is “celebrating the responsible players and raising the bar for the industry as a whole.” But promoting responsible fishing like Breneman’s is only part of the big picture.

The aquarium is looking ahead to the future of our oceans and stressing that not only should we be eating more fish, but also opening our minds and palates to a more diverse range of sustainable seafood. Jellyfish has been a popular topic for this reason, and the aquarium’s cafeteria has added it to its menu. Thompson also stresses the important role farmed fishing should play in the future of sustainable food.

“Aquaculture can be more efficient than most terrestrial animal protein production in terms of resource use and carbon footprint," Thompson says. "The ocean covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet less than 2 percent of our total food supply comes from the ocean. A balanced food supply will require us to eat more seafood from well managed, wild-capture fisheries and environmentally responsible aquaculture.” 

Farm-raised mussels off Pacific coast
Farm-raised mussels off Pacific coast
Seafood of the future

Chef Andrew Gruel, who formerly managed Seafood for the Future, decided it was time to put the advice of the program into action by opening Slapfish, a fast-food seafood shack that encourages diners to broaden their diets by serving a diverse range of what he calls "underutilized" fish. The company, which prides itself on serving both sustainably wild-caught and sustainably farmed seafood at low prices, is growing fast, with a half dozen franchised locations.

Gruel is enthusiastic about incorporating farmed fish and highlights the importance of switching out controversial fish like salmon for farm-raised trout. “Trout is a phenomenal fish," he says. "It’s farmed in the U.S. The farms are incredibly well-managed. There’s no run off into the ocean and the waste is well-managed by multiple agencies."

But not everyone is on board with farm-raised fish.

Chef Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Connie and Ted’s), who advocates for sustainable seafood and has testified before Congress on the matter, has his doubts. “I definitely understand the need for aquaculture, but flavor-wise it doesn’t compare to wild fish," he says. "And there are still big players in the industry whose priority is not the environment.”

Cimarusti, who grew up fishing and maintains a love for the sport, knows where and how every piece of fish on his menu was caught, and none of the fin fish is farm-raised. Cimarusti stresses that it’s only by supporting sustainable fisheries that we can build a bigger economy around it. “Unfortunately, the American fisherman is an endangered species," he says. "We need to buy wild American fish to point the compass away from using farm-raised fish.”

The Dory Fleet Fish MarketEXPAND
The Dory Fleet Fish Market
Heather Platt

In addition to the strain of competing with low-priced, farm-raised fish, fisherman also are faced with the expensive processes to ensure sustainable fishing practices. Breneman has satellite tracking devices on his boat that show where he is at all times. He takes observers with him to do catch analyses. Every fish is also weighed, recorded for species and where he caught it. "It’s pretty intense," he says. "It’s a little more difficult every year, plus the price, operating costs, permits.”

The reason Breneman is able to sell his fish for such low prices at the Dory Fleet is due to the high volume of fish he catches and because the customers come to him to buy it wholesale. He doesn't have the added operating costs of transporting his catch or overhead the way a store does.

Thompson stresses that the bottom line is that "we need to eat more seafood, and wild-capture fisheries alone cannot meet the growing demand. Aquaculture does and will continue to play an important role in meeting the demand." Also, when it comes to shellfish, there are fewer if any downsides to farm-raising. Oysters, clams, mussels and various other shellfish are filter feeders and actually clarify the water they inhabit.

So how can the average conscious consumer navigate through their local grocer's fish counter?

“The answers are complex, but the questions are simple," Cimarusti says. “Whether you’re in a restaurant or at a seafood counter, always ask these three questions: Where is the fish from? Was it wild-caught or farm-raised? And what method of catch was used?”

Fish at the Dory Fleet Fish Market in Newport BeachEXPAND
Fish at the Dory Fleet Fish Market in Newport Beach
Heather Platt

Cimarusti is opening his own sustainable seafood market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, on Fairfax this summer. Similar to local fish markets like Santa Monica Seafood and McCalls Meat and Fish, Cape Seafood and Provisions will only sell sustainably sourced seafood. But as with the aforementioned shops, don’t expect it to be cheap.

“It’s too important to me, this whole issue of buying wild fish and supporting wild fisherman," Cimarusti says. "I can’t let market forces effect me. It’s just so important. I have a deep love for the sport and for the people who make their living as fisherman. I feel like it would be a betrayal to serve anything farm raised.”

Chef Gruel's advice for the sustainably minded is different. "Buy local-ish. Buy U.S. If it’s harvested or caught in the United States, it is guaranteed to be sustainable." He explains that the massive U.S. coastline and the 200 adjacent miles of ocean are very well managed and highly regulated. "Not all countries have the same management plans in place."


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