Should an eco-friendly diver eat seafood?

A novice diving gourmet’s guide to environment-friendly seafood dining

So I’m doing my daily eco-friendly scuba diving again around the Great Barrier Reef. Today I’m headed to Cod Hole, near Lizard Island. A grizzled old-time scuba diver called Davis at the resort told me to look for potato cods there, also known as gropers. They’re not beauties, like parrotfish or clownfish; they’re stone colored, with large regular polka dots. Davis said a big one can be as long as 8 feet, and they don’t bite. He showed me a picture of himself petting one.

I’m new this eco-friendly diving business. I’m definitely all worked up about global warming and want to do my bit. I don’t feed the fish, I don’t touch reef corals and I practice good buoyancy — and I’m willing to learn. Today I learnt (Davis again) that corals are spineless animals, which was total news to me. I’ve always thought corals were just these colorful ‘things’ in a busy underwater ‘place’ where amazing ‘stuff’ happened.

I wondered what fried, salted coral would taste like.

Let me be honest: I love food almost as much as I want to stop global warming. The real and completely illogical reason why I wanted to see the potato cod was that I love potato chips and I love baked salt cod. When I see those gorgeous reef fish, I wonder what they would taste like nicely grilled, with sea-salt and a squeeze of charred lemon.

So here’s my question: should an eco-friendly, environmentally conscious diver eat fish at all? Wouldn’t it be the height of hypocrisy?

Millions of coastal peoples have depended on reef fish as their main protein source for generations. There is growing evidence that local fisheries are rather good at conserving fish, protecting species and ensuring a stable ecological balance. In short, when you leave reef management to the locals, humans eat all the fish they want plus the fish do extremely well too.

A recent study, published in Current Biology, found that the offspring of protected coral trout breeding in community-managed fisheries in Papua New Guinea were abundant both in the managed area and in nearby fisheries. The locals ate well and the fish thrived.

List 1: Do not eat!

But all fish are not created equal, and not all of them hang around coral reefs. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s famous Seafood Watch list, the most widely cited source for such things, includes the following in its Do Not Eat!! list—

  • Sharks: Overfished all over the planet.
  • Red snapper: Overfished, sometimes caught and killed as a by-catch by shrimp trawlers.
  • Imported caviar from wild sturgeon: The Caspian Sea sturgeon is already close to extinction.
  • Orange roughy: This very slow-growing species of shark is nearly gone and may take decades to return to healthy levels.
  • Chilean sea bass: Almost gone through unregulated overfishing and rampant poaching.

List 2: Bob appetit!

The good news is that there’s a long list of seafood that you can eat without harming the environment. Included are —

  • Mahi mahi/dolphin fish;
  • Organic farmed salmon;
  • Squid (they can withstand heavy fishing pressure because they breed rapidly);
  • Anchovies, sardines;
  • Atlantic herring and smelts (also rapid breeders);
  • Pacific cod;
  • Atlantic and Spanish mackerel (in one word, abundant!);
  • Farmed bay scallops (found in Asian markets and farmed in safe systems).

List 3: I’ll pass for now

Some fish are recovering thanks to conservation and restocking efforts, and you’d do well to let them recover in peace. Included in this list —

  • Atlantic salmon;
  • Atlantic flounder, plaice, halibut and sole;
  • Caribbean-imported spiny lobster;
  • Monkfish;
  • Pacific rockfish;
  • King mackerel;
  • Imported swordfish;
  • Endangered sea turtles.

Davis had just two big rules to add to my list.

  1. Prawns, go easy. Mussels, no holds barred. Davis told me prawns in some places are farmed by slave labor who are caged in fishing boats between shifts. Most Pacific prawns are fished through trawling, a most destructive method. Mussels are a super-delicious alternative to prawns: farmed sustainably, and the wild ones are arguably yummier.
  2. Bye bye Bluefin Tuna, hello Holy Mackerel. Yes, you adore the texture and flavor of the Bluefin but that whole species is disappearing before our eyes. Current stocks in the Pacific are estimated to be down by 90% and there’s growing chorus of voice who want endangered species status for the BlueFin. My preferred alternative is the Mackerel. It’s also dark-fleshed, has lots of omega fats and it’s swoon-worthy however you eat it. 

I got to see a potato cod, by the way. It allowed me to touch it briefly. Very moving moment. That evening at dinner, I just decided to skip seafood entirely. I opted for a double cheeseburger.

I know. Totally destructive to the environment.