Fishing Boat, W-E Digest
Written by Judith Klinger

Go Fish? Would that be wild or farmed?  Trawled, or line caught on a day boat?  Is there a war going on between Culture & Tradition v. Industrial Fishing? What is bycatch?  Is commercial fishing sustainable or just species eradication? Brain food or cat food?

These buzzwords swirl around like flotsam in a tidal pool, drifting against each other in a running flow of confusion and contradiction. If you care about what you eat from the ocean, if you’re trying to eat responsibly from the sea, it’s nearly impossible to determine just what is going on.

Marinated Anchovies Fish
Photo Credit: Judith Klinger

We know fish tastes good and it’s good for you, but there’s more than pleasure at stake.

Is there anything more deliciously satisfying than eating seafood right at the seaside? The image of a salty dog fisherman burnished bronze by wind and salt, off-loading his catch and striding in the back door of a restaurant kitchen with his pristine catch in hand. The wonderful mirage of marketing casts its hazy net over our imaginations and wallets.


Sushi in Siena Fish
Photo Credit: Elaine Tin Nyo

In coastal towns all over the world, fishing is part and parcel of the culture. We read about the ingrained Sicilian and Sardinian tradition of mattanza, where the tuna swim into ever smaller nets until they are hauled out of the water and speared. We are shocked and horrified at this brutality, but gleeful at finding a good price on tuna in the market without questioning how it got there, or what compromises were made to satisfy our hunger for fish.

Maybe it’s the novelty of a sushi bar conveyor belt with its fast moving offering of all the fish we know and love that makes us believe all those fish are there for the taking.

It is awe inspiring to stand in New York City’s famed Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. The oyster menu has offerings from every corner of the world; all shipped by air to be as fresh and pristine as possible. Are we preserving and encouraging oyster culture? Does the efficiency of volume offset the impact of air freight? There’s really no way to know the answer. It’s not black and white, and it’s not as simple as checking the Seafood Watch app on your phone to see if your dinner has been certified sustainable.

The seas cover about 71% of our planet, and contain around 96% of the water on the planet. With that huge amount of water, it’s almost possible to understand why we’ve treated the oceans as a huge dumping ground. How could we manage to overfish a breeding ground that huge? How could we manage to pollute and change the temperature and acidity levels creating vast swathes of dead zones? Is it because we became incredibly efficient at scooping up any fish in the path of a trawler? Could it be because the oceans seem so vast we thought they could always absorb and recover?

Sadly, we’re learning the ocean’s resources are limited, and we need to pay attention, or we will be unable to recover those vanishing species and the have clean water we need to survive.

Take heart, it’s not all gloom and doom.Fishing Boats, Fish

Concerned fishermen, chefs, cooks, and activists are raising our awareness.  Although, this raised awareness can send you right back into that whirlpool of confusion.

Here’s your crash course on attempting to understand the issues surrounding fish and ocean sustainability:


Farmed fish v. wild fish.

Illustration Credit: Hannah Stephey, Fish
Illustration Credit: Hannah Stephey

Your mind tells you ‘wild’ must be better. That salty dog fishermen out there at 3:30 am catching your fish, has to be better than fish raised in a farm.

Why is it, when you think of a farm on land, you think of rolling hills and the scent of fresh cut hay?  But, when you think fish farm, you picture conveyor belts of fish in pens being fed left over parts of their brethren.

Neither picture is accurate. When wild caught means a trawler scooping up everything in its path; when sophisticated sonar can locate and catch an entire school of fish; when quotas are ignored, wild caught can be equally damaging.

Meanwhile, there are farmed fishing operations that take sustainability, flavor, and resource management very seriously.

Fisheries like “Veta La Palma” near Seville, Spain, have caught the attention of influential chefs like Dan Barber. Reading about his experiences with Veta La Palma in his book,“The Third Plate” will help anyone understand the ecological challenges as well as the marketing challenges for sustainable raised fish.

Photo Credit: David Seigal, Sterling Halibut Fish
Sterling Halibut, Photo Credit: David Seigal

Chef David Siegal at NYC’s Cull & Pistol introduced me to Sterling’s “Hand Selected Salmon” in British Columbia. Sterling is reaching out to educate chefs on how they sustainably raise their salmon. They are justifiably proud of their salmon and are working to become even more sustainable.

SNV Netherlands Development Organization is working with the Mangroves and Marketing Project in Vietnam to foster the growth of sustainable shrimp farms in their mangrove ecosystems.  Lately, the press has latched onto the sensational stories about slave labor on shrimp boats in Thailand, while Vietnam is quietly leading the way in sustainable shrimp farming. Is all shrimp farming in Vietnam sustainable? Absolutely not.  But companies like Min Phu Seafood Company are making an effort to maintain the mangrove forests, keep a local industry alive, and pay their fishermen fairly for a premium product.

What’s the scoop on ‘bycatch’?

Judith Klinger, Cooked Fish
Photo Credit: Judith Klinger

Bycatch is when you catch fish you didn’t mean to catch. Commercial fishing operations whether they are mega trawlers that literally scoop up everything in their path, or line caught, bring up fish they can’t use or keep. Why can’t they use the bycatch? They may not be licensed for that species, or there may not be a market for that fish so they know they cannot sell it.

What happens to bycatch? It gets tossed back into the sea; the fish die and it’s all a big waste. Maybe it winds up in a cat food can. Maybe we should consider starting a movement like the Ugly Fruit movement, and learn to love fish we’ve never heard of. There is actually a number of chefs who are focusing on getting us to learn to love “trash fish”.

FakeRedSnapper, Angelica Guevara, Fish
Illustration Credit: Angelica Guevara

What is ‘fish fraud’ or mislabeled fish?

It’s fish that you expect to be one thing like red snapper, but it turns out to be tilapia. But really, is that such a big deal? It might be, if you are considered at risk for high mercury toxicity, or if you had opted to buy orange roughy because it’s on the ‘Yes you can eat it list”, and it turns out to be a severely overfished Atlantic cod. has done extensive testing and research on fish mislabeling and the statistics are staggering. Overall, nearly one third of all fish sold in the U.S. is mislabeled, with barely 1% of it being inspected by the USDA.

On one hand, we are justified in feeling tricked by fish wholesalers, shops, sushi restaurants and grocery stores. We should be getting what we paid for. On the other hand, what if the fishing boat brought in a fish that was very similar to snapper, but you’d never heard of it? Chances are you wouldn’t buy that strange fish and you’d look for something you are familiar with. Then what? That fish, could be just as tasty as the red snapper, and goes to waste.

Paul Greenberg, author of the excellent book, Four Fish, The Last Wild Food, was interviewed on NPR and he summed up the situation like this, “People in the U.S. like bland flavored fish. They want fish they know.” The result is we toss away perfectly good fish as trash fish, or we turn up our noses at that strange fish in the market.

Hannah Yata Monarch, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery, Fish
Hannah Yata Monarch, Courtesy Arch Enemy Gallery

What can we do?


  • 1) Make noise! Ask questions at your fish store, at a restaurant, on the fishing dock. Ask for fish from specific fisheries that you know are doing their best to be sustainable. Be prepared to pay more for your fish.
  • 2) Support traceability. Ask where your fish is coming from, but be prepared to get vague answers. The guy behind the counter may not know the answer, however, if enough people ask the counter guy, he bugs the fish store owner, who bugs her wholesaler, who bugs the supplier to get answers.
  • 3) Support accountability. Right now the seas are like the wild west or outer space. What happens out there may not get reported, noted or managed. Slavery on ships, illegal fishing, illegal dumping, and ships that fly under flags that don’t give a damn what happens on that ship: all this is happening right now. Fortunately the international press is catching on and making this into front page news.
  • 4) Pay attention to what your policymakers are doing. Climate change is going to make a huge difference in where fish migrate and their ability to reproduce. Politicians need to get the message that short term profits aren’t going to cut it anymore; we need long range planning and international cooperation if we are going to pass along our love of seafood to another generation. Along with an app that tells us which fish are safe to eat; someone should invent an app that tells us which politicians and public figures we should be supporting.


We have the power to make changes.

It’s not only chefs who have the power to influence sustainable fishing trends. Every one of us has the power to create change. That power is in our wallet as we support sustainable fisheries, it’s in the voting booth, and it’s in schools as we educate the next generation of fishermen and women. We no longer have the option to let things continue as they are, do we?

-Judith Klinger is a Founder and Director of