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"The fact is that we don’t eat diversely from the oceans."

Barton Seaver
January 23, 2018

If you only make one change to your diet in 2018, eat more seafood, says Barton Seaver, sustainability expert and author of the new book American Seafood. Here, Seaver talks with Cooking Light's editor in chief about why we should rethink our approach to seafood—for our health and the planet’s.

HUNTER LEWIS: How are you feeling about this big seafood bible of a book that you’ve just published?

BARTON SEAVER: I feel a great sense of gratitude that I am in a position where I can contribute to the story of seafood—and celebrate fishing as a food system.

What do you mean by food system? Seafood always has been seen simply as “other.” You close your eyes and think of a farm, and you’re instantly there. Any American can recall the amber waves of grain and the fruited plain—it’s woven into the fabric of America’s identity. Now I ask you to do the same thing: Close your eyes. Envision a fishery. Most people can’t. We think of a fishery as something beyond the horizon of our attentions. It happens elsewhere. And therefore, we don’t recognize the system or have a human connection to it. And that’s what this book is really purposed with—showcasing the people, product, and places, adding to the dialogue about why seafood matters.

Could our supermarkets do a better job of telling the story? Certainly. But the fact is that we don’t eat diversely from the oceans. So when we as consumers make acute demands upon oceans and fisheries, we negate the ability to tell stories. But if we go to the supermarket and ask, “What’s the catch of the day?” we are asking for the story. And we go home with something that, hopefully, we’re excited to discover.

New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here, with the Cooking Light Diet.

Is salmon still the top seller? Salmon is one of the most consumed seafood in America, along with shrimp and tuna. Those three categories represent more than 55% of the total consumption. Then if you look at the rest of the top 10 species, we have tilapia, swai, catfish, pollock, cod, clams, and crab. But five of those are flaky, white-flesh fish. And for culinary purposes, they’re really the same thing. The opportunity here is to stop looking at seafood as species choices, but to look at it for its culinary characteristics. When we make choices based on culinary character—rather than just on species—we diversify the marketplace. And we create an inherently more sustainable economy. Instead of telling the oceans, “I’m going to eat only pollock,” we ask of the oceans, “What flaky, white-flesh fish are you able to give me?”

Try this restaurant-worthy dish with mussels—a surprisingly affordable and sustainable seafood options that's quick and easy to cook at home:

What other changes can consumers make? From a public-health standpoint, we need to eat more seafood, period. From a sustainability standpoint, we need to think about seafood in the context of protein as a means to understand where it fits in our diet. When we do that, seafood is often the most sustainable choice of the common animal proteins— [when] measured by greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use, land use alterations, and fresh water use.

What kitchen tool will make home cooks more competent seafood cooks? It’s not so much a tool. The best thing a home cook can do is buy seafood from a person. We are not practiced in recognizing and choosing high-quality seafood. So leave it to the professional. There’s nothing I can teach you, no technique I can use, no ingredients I can add in that can make up for poor-quality seafood.

Great advice. We hear concerns from readers about farmed fish. What should they know about aquaculture? That it is an industry worth supporting. Sure, it’s been rightly accused of unsustainable and unwholesome practices. But the vast majority of seafood that is farmed is done so in ways that, from an environmental perspective, compare favorably to other proteins, and it is nutritious and usually very tasty. Wild and farmed seafood are equally necessary in our diets and equal sources of optimism for the future of our food systems. I’m not dismissing the issues the industry needs to improve upon, but we need to understand that the aquaculture industry is only about 45 years old. The first salmon farms were put in the water in the late 1970s. Aquaculture has evolved. A study just came out that said that if we take an area of the ocean the size of Lake Michigan, in it we can farm equal the amount of the current global wild capture in a sustainable manner. So when we talk about nutrition, jobs, environmental stewardship, and food security, we have to look at 71 percent of our planet and rethink aquaculture and acknowledge that it is a very viable path to feeding 10 billion people.

How do you define healthy? Healthy means diversity. This is the pillar of strength of any system, from the health of our bodies, to our economies, and to our society. Eating healthy means opening ourselves up to diverse new experiences. It is when we eat seasonally, colorfully, and diversely that we empower food systems that sustain our environments, economies, and ultimately ourselves.

BARTON SEAVER is the chef and director of Harvard’s Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative. Look for his new column starting in Cooking Light’s March 2018 issue. As one of our “Ask the Experts” contributors, he’ll share tips and tricks for buying seafood, plus a recipe, in every issue. Eating more seafood has never been so simple.