According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Rising sea levels, ocean acidification, pollution, and population growth are all contributing to the collapse of global fisheries. As residents of California’s Central Coast, we are especially sensitive to changes in coastal ecosystems. We’ve all heard the statistics, but at the end of the day many of us are left wondering what we, as individuals, can do to help.
This piece features stories from three California based organizations working to promote sustainability locally and around the world: Ocean Futures Society, Salty Girl Seafood, and “The Smiling Oyster Cooperative” with support from Paso Pacifico. Their stories offer excellent insight into what communities can do to protect the world’s oceans.
Educate Yourself: Ocean Futures Society
Ocean Futures Society (OFS) is an internationally recognized, Santa Barbara based nonprofit dedicated to tackling ocean sustainability issues through widespread education and exploration. The organization, founded in 1999 by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau, strives to forge emotional connections between individuals and the ocean’s mystery, beauty, and splendor.
Holly Lohuis, Executive Coordinator for OFS, spoke about the role of education in ocean conservation, saying that education is a necessary component of any conservation program.
“There are various intangible problems facing our oceans,” Lohuis says. “But there are problems like single use plastic bags and unsustainable seafood consumption that have very tangible solutions where we can engage people. This is the best way to educate the consumer.” Lohuis says that reducing single use plastics and eating sustainably sourced seafood are two of the most effective actions consumers can take to protect our oceans.
“Local people can support grocery stores and restaurants that are specifically working with local fishers for sustainably caught or farmed seafood,” Lohuis advises. Communities with access to sustainably sourced seafood need to be taking advantage of this by making informed choices and rewarding those businesses that offer the best options. Lohuis remarked, “Jean-Michel only consumes sustainable seafood. I don’t consume seafood at all. This is not to say we expect everyone to make this radical of a choice, but we do all need to be more informed about where our seafood comes from.”
How do we, as consumers, do that?
“If we treated nature like we treat a business, we would be living off it’s interest, Lohuis remarks. “But instead, we are gobbling up its capital.” Despite this unfortunate truth, she believes in focusing on the positive and arming consumers with information.
“There are some really excellent tools out there for educating ourselves about our seafood options,” Lohuis says. SeafoodWatch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s education guide for restaurants, distributors, and consumers, offers its website, guidebook, and mobile application as educational resources with information on seafood choice categories “best,” “good,” or “avoid.” The guide also offers alternative options if you find yourself about to eat seafood from the “avoid” category.
“With every doom and gloom statistic, there is a positive action that people can take. We are a privileged community to have such a rich ecosystem right outside our doorsteps. Go out and take advantage of it – go and see for yourself.”
Connect with Producers: Salty Girl Seafood
What about the people who don’t live in Santa Barbara or near the ocean? Sixty one percent of the US population does not live near a coastline. Put differently, in 2010, counties directly on the shoreline of the United States constituted less than 10 percent of the total land area (not including Alaska) (NOAA, 2014). Is it really fair that individuals living in landlocked areas be deprived of the nutritional benefits and sensory enjoyment that comes from eating great seafood?
Norah Eddy, Co-Founder of Salty Girl Seafood, says no. “In this day and age, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to only eat locally and to only eat what’s in season. The truth is we are all used to having everything at our fingertips.” Eddy wants to change the seafood distribution mechanisms that currently promote the consumption of unsustainably caught seafood across the United States. “Salty Girl is exciting because it’s providing access to sustainably caught seafood in areas that wouldn’t otherwise have access,” she says – places like Nevada, New Mexico, or Northern Alabama.
Salty Girl Seafood is one of the latest companies to come out of UC Santa Barbara’s New Venture Competition. The company, founded by avid fishers and seafood lovers Norah Eddy and Laura Johnson, seeks to provide more transparency to the seafood supply chain. By linking fishers directly to their customers, Salty Girl Seafood is advocating for fisheries and fishing communities who pursue sustainability by increasing access to their products.
“We want to reward sustainable, small scale fisherman by connecting them to the overwhelming demand [for sustainable seafood],” Eddy says. “For example, close to 90% of landed catch in Santa Barbara is exported, which means that we really only ever see 10%.” We, as Santa Barbara residents may assume that our seafood dishes are sourced locally, but the truth is that even Santa Barbara consumers need to be pressuring restaurants and grocery stores by asking the question ‘where did this seafood come from?’
“In my experience, the most important thing we can do is ask the questions: ‘Where did this fish come from? Who caught it? Was it obtained in a sustainable way?'” Eddy advises Santa Barbara locals to work to stay informed. That’s the way to change the industry. Lohuis also echoed this sentiment, saying that asking a server about the seafood special at a favorite restaurant goes a long way toward self-education and may also help educate the server, the cook and others.
“Fish feed the world – we need to continue to have fish so that we can continue feeding the world, ” Eddy says. “Fish are our last wild food, the last frontier really, and we need to get serious [about managing the resource properly].”
Support Global Efforts: The Smiling Oyster Cooperative
Sustainably sourced seafood isn’t just something that wealthy people in the United States and Europe are concerned with; it’s also an imperative for individuals in developing countries across the world. Seafood is the primary source of animal protein for over 1 billion people on the planet, and constitutes livelihoods for many of them. A growing global population, combined with escalating pollution and climate change, make sustainably sourced seafood even more critical for establishing food security in the developing world.
Without access to a sustainable supply of protein from seafood, many coastal communities in the developing world face food insecurity and economic collapse. Rural communities have to find creative ways to secure a long-term supply of sustainable seafood for the future survival of their cultures, heritages, and traditional ways of life. One such example lies in the small, rural village of Ostional, Nicaragua.
Since at least the fifteenth century, women in this region have relied on oysters as a primary source of protein and income for their families. But climate change, increased development, and fishery mismanagement has impaired their access to oysters as a renewable resource. The women fishers of Ostional are determined to restore native oyster populations in order to maintain stable food security, sustained economic development, and environmental replenishment of the community’s depleted coastal ecosystem, but they can’t do it alone.
With technical and financial support from the Ventura based conservation nonprofit, Paso Pacifico, the women fishers of Ostional are working to create “La Cooperativa Ostras Sonriente”- “The Smiling Oyster Cooperative” and shellfishery. “The Smiling Oyster” will give women fishers in Ostional the opportunity to provide locally caught and sustainably cultivated oysters to their families and the wider coastal community. They, too, will have the opportunity to enjoy the nutrient rich benefits sustainable seafood has to offer, while reaping the environmental benefits of a fully functioning coastal ecosystem. Their aquaculture farm will act as an intertidal reef, providing much needed critical habitat for snails, conchs, sea grass, and other native creatures. Choosing to support local, community-based fisheries in the United States, and around the world, can make all the difference – not only for the environment, but for human beings as a species.
To hear more about this project, or to get involved, email “The Smiling Oyster Cooperative” project developer here, and follow Paso Pacifico on Facebook and twitter (@pasopacifico).
Realize Your Potential: Be Introspective
While consumption of sustainably sourced seafood may seem like a matter of preference for some, it’s a way of life for others. Millions across the globe are dependent on the choices we make as consumers, donors, and advocates for ocean conservation and sustainability. As residents of California’s central coast, we can make a difference by championing efforts to create and maintain sustainable sources of seafood both locally and abroad.
Our choices have ripple effects, and it’s up to us to decide what those effects will be. Whether we work toward consuming only sustainably sourced seafood, help a local business connect small scale fishers to end consumers, or make the effort to aid in sustainable seafood production in developing coastal communities, each of us has the power to be an agent for ocean sustainability.
We simply have to start by asking the question: “Where did my seafood come from?”
By Juliet Taylor. Juliet received her Master’s Degree at the University of California Santa Barbara. She specializes in sustainable development and the environment and has spent the past several years studying the economic benefits of adopting environmental sustainability principles. Juliet also works with Paso Pacifico as the project developer for “The Smiling Oyster Cooperative.”