This was the winning bid for a 467-pound bluefin tuna sold at auction this past January.
In 2013, Kiyoshi Kimura—the victorious bidder and owner of the Sushizanmai chain—paid a landmark $1.76 million for a bluefin tuna. The output from the world’s fisheries seafood was valued at $246 billion worldwide in 2010. Needless to say, there is money in fish meat.
But the profit comes at a cost. Bluefin tuna stocks are calculated to have fallen below three percent of their historic levels, and this story of depletion is echoed throughout the ocean. Overfishing and global warming have thrown fish stocks into global crisis, which will disproportionately affect developing nations, and the antibiotics designed to support aquaculture for wealthier nations will take a major toll on consumer health, all while risking the total collapse of entire ecosystems.
Our oceans are straining under the extraordinary pressure of global demand. Humans eat seafood, and so do our livestock. Even our seafood eats seafood. It’s unsurprising then that ninety percent of our marine fisheries are fully fished or overfished. The repercussions of our insatiable hunger for seafood are both environmental and economic. The industry now loses more than $80 billion annually due to overfishing and decreasing fish stocks.
Creating sustainable alternatives is not only an environmental imperative but also a remarkable economic opportunity. The expansive, lumbering seafood industry is calling for mission-minded entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors to stem the tide of ecological destruction.
An obvious way to decrease global pressure on fish stocks is to cut seafood out of our diets if we have the means to do so. Thankfully Eugene Wang, founder of Sophie’s Kitchen, FoodFutureCo Cohort 1, has built his company on sustainable seafood protein alternatives for the flexitarians among us who are as happy to eat vegan smoked salmon and toonafish salad as they are to have the real deal. Catering to vegans and omnivores alike, Sophie’s Kitchen provides an innovative and delicious option for alleviating the mounting stress on our global fisheries.
Beyond the typical suspects of high-demand fish like salmon, tuna, and shrimp, smaller forage fish—which are dietary staples for larger marine animals and which play a vital role in aquatic ecosystems—also face tremendous pressure. Forage fish, such as sardines and anchovies, are caught both for human consumption and to be processed into fish feed for aquaculture or fishmeal to support livestock. Forty billion forage fish are removed from the food chain every year. Consumers who choose plant-based alternatives to sate their seafood cravings could rapidly decrease that number because even ostensibly “gentler” forms of seafood cultivation, like aquaculture, are still pushing our oceans towards crisis.
Entomologist Philip Taylor has a plan to relieve pressures on forage fish used for aquaculture and even agriculture. Taylor’s business, Mad Agriculture, cultivates insects on food waste to create an alternative to fishmeal. According to Taylor, demand for both fish and animal meat will increase to between 220 and 450 million tons by 2050, and Mad Agriculture is addressing the urgent need for a more sustainable animal feed. Taylor told us “insect-based feed is a breakthrough solution for feeding fish well…Sustainable aquaculture must be rooted in love and care for the place—two words rarely used in farming and corporate board rooms.” If consumers are able to choose fish raised on insect meal instead of unsustainable fish meal, aquaculture could really be a viable solution to saving our oceans.
The problems with the $90 billion aquaculture industry run deeper than their negative impact on forage fish stocks, though. As in all types of animal farming, antibiotics are needed to control diseases that spread among creatures kept in close quarters. China, which produces sixty percent of global aquaculture, is guilty of using some of the strongest antibiotics on its farms—so strong that scientists in Shanghai conducting random seafood samples found that forty-three percent of the seafood contained multi-drug resistant strains of bacteria. While farmed shrimp from China get shipped through Malaysia to deflect investigations into antibiotics usage, shrimp production in Thailand has recently been connected to slavery. In fact, there is strong proof of slavery and child labor throughout the fishing industry, both farmed and wild caught.
Stateside, Gary Beatty, founder of InLand Shrimp, is working on an antidote to the societal and environmental ills of the aquaculture industry. Founded in 2012, InLand Shrimp focuses on raising shrimp inland in “an environmentally friendly facility using disruptive farming techniques.” Beatty’s innovative methods require fewer resources while capitalizing on the “big gap in the domestic seafood sector.” If aquaculture is going to meet our future food needs, it will need to do so in an environmentally sustainable way and rely less on murky international standards— that’s just what Beatty is aiming to do.
The shrimp industry, in particular, pose an acute challenge. Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in America, with the average American consuming four pounds of the crustacean per year. However, for each pound of wild-caught shrimp up to six pounds of other marine animals are discarded as bycatch. Beatty’s shrimp helps diminish the deleterious effects of bycatch in the shrimp nets. Meanwhile, Mad Agriculture’s alternative feed can relieve pressure on the forage fish populations currently used to fuel aquaculture. And products like Sophie’s Kitchen vegan shrimp (which eliminate the fish element altogether) achieve both. But Sophie’s Kitchen isn’t the only wholesale solution to decreasing our reliance on fish.
Enter Michael Selden, co-founder of Finless Foods, the company whose mission is to develop and mass manufacture marine animal products for human consumption using fish stem cells to produce fish meat without the fish. Selden believes Finless Foods will sate the global hunger for fish humanely, safely, and in an environmentally conscientious way. Selden imagines a more transparent future for seafood, where fresh fish can be created on demand without harming the environment, killing animals, and risking the intake of strong antibiotics or heavy metals. And that future is sooner than one might imagine—American and Dutch scientists working on lab-cultured meat believe the products will be available in restaurants and grocery stores within the next few years.
Improved transparency in seafood is urgently needed as fish stocks dwindle and consumer demand for specific types of fish continues to rise. The dire state of our oceans is indicated not only by the ninety percent of global fisheries that are fully exploited, overexploited, or collapsed but also by the high rates of fish fraud. In 2012 Oceana found that thirty-nine percent of fish samples in New York City were mislabelled and in 2015 another group found that sixty-eight percent of sushi in Los Angeles and New York City was mislabelled.
While policy change will be necessary to save our oceans and protect consumers, we cannot rely on this alone. Policy develops over time and must filter through global bureaucracies. Its slow pace dictates its goals, which are usually set fifteen to thirty years in the future. If we invest and support passionate entrepreneurs and their innovative solutions now we can drive change in the immediate term. Why? Because consumers can and do operate at a much faster pace than the government. As we wait for policy makers to convince disparate nations to change their fishing practices, technologies, methodologies and mindsets, conscious consumers must seek out businesses that can relieve the immense pressure on our oceans now.
Globally, fish comprise at least twenty percent of animal protein consumed by over three billion people. The World Wildlife Fund found a forty-nine percent decrease in marine animal populations in just one generation and anticipates global demand for seafood to increase by another fifty million tons by 2025. Oceana believes that if we restore the oceans one billion people could eat a healthy seafood meal everyday. This is why we put our faith in determined entrepreneurs who will bring their hearts to the boardrooms and collaborate with investors on making desperately needed (and often times lucrative) changes to our current methods of consuming seafood.