tl;dr: Buying packaged fish in a supermarket is very wasteful.
When I lived in Barcelona, the way I purchased food was very different from how most of us in the US do it. Here in the US, the majority of people get their food from one-stop supermarkets. In Spain, it was the exact opposite. Shopping for food was an almost daily occurrence because I would typically only buy enough food for what I needed for a day or two. Also, going to a supermarket was a relatively infrequent experience, because I would purchase the majority of the food at specialty shops the way everyone else did. If I needed fruit, I would go to my neighbourhood fruit stand. Bread came from the local bakery, meat from the local butcher, and vegetables from the local grocer. Most importantly, seafood was purchased from nearby fishmongers. Many Americans would see this process as remarkably inefficient in both human energy and fuel, but the beautiful thing is that all of these shops were very close by and I was fueled by caffeine from the “necessary” cup of café con leche that you just had to have when you bumped into someone you knew. Altogether, if you did it correctly, food shopping in Spain could take you up to three hours, and that was perfectly ok. Can you imagine taking three hours to purchase your food AND doing so on an almost a daily basis? It boggles the mind for most Americans.
Buying local is an essential element of both carbon reduction and overall sustainability efforts. Nowhere is this more crucial than in seafood. As we are becoming increasingly aware of the negative aspects of red meat, many people are searching for protein alternatives. According to IntraFish, US per capita seafood consumption is at an all time high, around 19.2 lbs of seafood per person. For comparison’s sake, in 2010 it was 17.7 lbs and in 1980 it was 12.4 lbs. This is a very scary situation, because one of the most inefficient industries is fishing.
It is estimated that every year, almost 50 million tons of all captured fish are either discarded or rot on the deck before they are ever sold. US consumers account for 1.3 billion pounds of that wasted seafood every year. If you watched the Zac Effron series Down to Earth on Netflix, you would have learned that half of the typical fish caught is wasted and doesn’t even make it to the store. Think about how many whole fish you purchase. If I had to guess, you’re not buying whole red snapper, tilapia, salmon, etc. Much of the fish we buy will either be frozen, or in nicely packaged fillets in Styrofoam containers tightly sealed in plastic wrap. For a moment, consider just how much waste and effort goes into delivering that nice rectangular cod fillet to your supermarket. Where is the rest of the fish going? How much is actual waste? Is it being repurposed into pet food, fertilizer, or oil? Is it going into landfills? Did you know that permits are required for seafood waste to go into a landfill? If there is no permit, where is it going then? Too many questions are simply unanswered.
In Barcelona, if I wanted fish, I was getting either the whole fish or a good chunk of it being wrapped in paper. My fishmonger was nice enough to trim the fish, but he was very careful to do the bare minimum resulting in the least amount of waste. Most of the fish was either caught earlier that day or the previous day in the Mediterranean Sea or Atlantic Ocean and there was no Styrofoam or plastic cling wrap to be seen. Just mounds of ice and unpackaged seafood.
It is great that more people want to consume less red meat, however, until there are serious changes made to how we harvest our fish, seafood might not be a responsible alternative. There are very few people who would state that inventories of fish are doing well today. There are many highly publicized cases of overfishing threats ranging from Chilean Sea Bass (sounds so much better than what it really is, which is the Patagonian Toothfish) to every single species of tuna, sharks, halibut, sturgeon, orange roughy, grouper, etc. What do you think will happen when even more demand is placed on these stressed populations?
If you are determined to buy seafood, please consider doing it the way I did it in Spain. Buy local. Buy just what you need for your meal. Buy fish and seafood you know didn’t travel thousands of miles to get to you. You know what you didn’t see in even the largest fish markets in Barcelona? Snow crab legs. I am a huge fan of them, and for almost 4 years, I didn’t eat any because they just weren’t available. Go to any supermarket in the US and you will be able to buy a bag of frozen snow crab legs. It took a lot of carbon to get that to your local Kroger, Target, or Walmart. It’s far better to consume those crab legs at a restaurant where more crab legs being delivered lowers the carbon per cluster.
Seafood is the most urgent food that should transition from global to local, but other food groups can benefit from it as well. Bread does not need to come wrapped in a plastic bag. I found it far more delicious when it was freshly baked and I could stick the loaf in my reusable farmers market bag and then run over to the cheese shop and pick up just the right amount of Manchego or Roncal. After a friendly cup of coffee, of course I had to go pick up some olives at the olive stand and go get my tortilla (Spanish tortilla is like a potato omelet) and head home to start preparing dinner. I know that if you live in rural or suburban areas, doing this is not as easy because nobody wants to walk miles to do all of this shopping and driving all over the place seems counterproductive. I understand that it might be impossible to perfectly copy this approach, but finding specialty stores is not nearly as difficult as you might think. Local farmers markets are literally everywhere.
A lot of the protest is because people don’t want put extra thought on how this can be achieved. Life is not so hectic that all you can find time for is the weekly trip to Piggly Wiggly. The less you use a shopping cart, the better off you'll be. Go find a local bakery to support. Give a local butcher a shot. Buy your eggs from a farm nearby. And most definitely purchase your fish as close to direct from the sea as you can. Do not buy packaged seafood, because for every fish that we buy, another one probably was killed wastefully. Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t plenty of fish in the seas.