Images like the one above are nothing short of horrific. It’s so easy to abuse our environment and shrug off the consequences when we don’t see them. And then a tragedy like the Gulf Oil Spill happens, and we start seeing images like this one, and I cringe. This isn’t just BP’s fault, or an inept U.S. Government’s fault. It’s my fault. This is the cost I pay for choosing the lifestyle I do, even when I try to mitigate the effects of that lifestyle by paying extra for renewable electricity sources, walking places as often as possible, reducing use of plastics, etc.
These images have far-reaching consequences. Not just for oil, or for the environment, but even for things as simple as the food we eat. I see images like this one, and I have to ask: how does the Gulf Oil spill affect seafood safety? I don’t really know the answer to that question, so I asked Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable to help.
HQ Sustainable raises farmed tilapia. I know. I know. Wild-caught seafood is supposed to be nutritionally superior, but it’s often quite toxic and environmentally irresponsible thanks to heavy-metal toxins and over-fishing. If you want to read my take on which seafood choices balance nutrition and sustainability, please check out this post on Healthy Seafood: What To Buy.
Here’s Norbert’s response about the Gulf Oil Spill & Seafood Safety:
The recent oil spill in the Gulf indicates the need to really examine our seafood, where it comes from, and how safe the products are that we consume. Many questions have arisen regarding the safety of our seafood and how this will impact our daily consumption, and I’d like to address several of these concerns below.
How will the oil spill affect the seafood we consume in the United States?
The Gulf oil spill has been environmentally and economically devastating. In terms of the seafood industry, about 80% of the seafood Americans consume is imported from overseas. Domestic seafood makes up approximately 20% of our consumption, and even then, a large part of this number is due to the fishing of Pollack in Alaska, not seafood from the Gulf. The Gulf oil spill only impacts a very small percentage of what we eat, so it is unlikely that we will experience a shortage of fish in the U.S.
Will there be price gauging?
There will always be people who try to take advantage in consumers in a crisis situation. However, as I mentioned above, I do not think there will be a shortage of seafood, due to the fact that the vast majority of the United State’s seafood comes from other countries. Perhaps there will be a slight bump in price of shrimp from the Gulf, but across the board, it is doubtful that prices will increase significantly, if at all.
How do you ensure the seafood you’re consuming is safe?
There are inherent problems with fish caught from the ocean due to the pollutants they are exposed to. Seafood safety is a big issue and there are several agencies designed to ensure that we are consuming the safest products available. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces regulations to keep our food safe for consumption, and food processors are held to HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) standards developed by the FDA. Foreign processors can opt to have the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDC) inspect their processing facilities for further health and safety assurance.
Are there other alternatives?
Absolutely. Ocean-caught fish are often romanticized as a superior, fresher, and more desirable product than farm-raised fish – yet this is an unfounded notion supported by interest groups with ulterior motives. There are definitely other alternatives to ocean-caught fish and, especially in light of the Gulf oil spill, these other alternatives should be taken seriously. Farm-raised fish are not exposed to the types of pollutants that filter into our oceans. Furthermore, in many aquaculture operations, neither antibiotics nor hormones are used, feed can be controlled, which means that fish can be raised on an organic, herbivore diet, and the entire operation is often sustainable. Farm-raised fish present a healthy and safe alternative to fish caught in the ocean.
When will Gulf seafood be safe again?
It’s hard to say when it will be completely safe, all we can do is hope that the clean-up effort will be thorough and the wildlife, including fish, will be safe post-spill and going forward. Even when the Gulf is completely cleaned up, it will be hard to combat the perception that the seafood has been exposed to these pollutants, which it has. If you are ever wary about what you are consuming, I suggest looking into other options, as I mentioned, farm-raised fish as opposed to ocean-caught fish, and taking extra care with what you, your friends, and your family are consuming.
I also asked Norbert specifically about HQ Sustainable’s farming operations (most of which are in China), in light of many of the downsides of much farm-raised tilapia (such as fish being fed GMO-corn & soy, or being fed testosterone to create mostly male fish). Here are his responses:
Does HQ Sustainable feed their tilapia corn? I noticed they don’t feed corn from recently deforested areas, but what about other corn (is it genetically modified)? And exactly what is in the HQ Sustainable farmed tilapia’s diet?
The diet is principally corn and soya. We source this from China. The other ingredients are vegetable based vitamins and amino acids. We source GMO free soya and corn (something mostly European buyers are interested in.) This is also more costly.
Does HQ Sustainable administer testosterone to their tilapia to produce males? If yes (or no), what’s the thinking that leads to this decision? Are there any known health/safety issues arising from this?
Sexing is done through a natural cross of two species of Tilapia which gives a 90% offspring. Female are separated out by two methods, by hand after the introduction of a food dye which colors female genitalia, and female are eliminated in the ponds as food for the Snake Head (predator fish) which feeds off of fish which do not grow as quickly as a healthy male, including the female.
With Tilapia, the breakthrough a few years ago which allowed commercially viable operations, was the ability to sex the Tilapia. Tilapia are mouth breeders. Since the female can spend much of their time and energy breeding the fish, the commercial viability can be compromised without sexing. The male hormone involved in Central and South America in sexing Tilapia is Methyl Testosterone. This product is illegal in China.
If we were to use Methyl Testosterone, the thinking is that it dissipates when the fish grows, since it is found in the animal naturally and is administered at a very young age. It in fact has no lasting impact other than inhibiting the expression of the female characteristics in a juvenile fish. Some people do not like the idea of eating eunuchs. Wholefoods has come out against such sexing. Like many things, science can endorse certain things which the public may not be ready for. Anyways for us it is not an issue.
Norbert Sporns is the CEO of HQ Sustainable, an aquaculture operation headquartered in Seattle with farms located in China. For more information about HQ Sustainable visit their website at: www.hqfish.com.
(top photo by Charlie Riedel)