It’s a dangerous world for fish and other marine life. Populations are coping with climate change, pollution and fishermen armed with high-tech devices that make it easier than ever to harvest the sea.
So what can consumers do to help assure sustainable fisheries?
At the Virginia Aquarium, visitors delight in watching wide, flat rays glide by in a shallow pool. There are dozens of exhibits here designed to educate the public, but the Virginia Beach attraction is also reaching into the community – hoping to inspire fish lovers to do their part in protecting the marine environment.
Karen Burns is manager of Sensible Seafood -- modeled after a program created by one of the nation’s leading aquariums in California.
“The Seafood Watch program out of Monterey Bay had the Southeast and the Northeast covered," she says, "but we’re the mid-Atlantic, where there are a lot of fishes coming and going, some species that were not covered.”
Sensible Seafood provides a color-coded card that lets consumers know which fish are a safe choice. Some species like striped bass may be struggling in Virginia but are marked green, because they’re plentiful coastwide.
“Rockfish, also known as striped bass, are very sustainable," says Alex Mason, the program's coordinator. "Blue crabs in this area are an outstanding sustainable choice, as are clams and oysters.”
There are lots of spots and croakers off Virginia’s coast, while catfish, salmon, trout and tilapia are widely farmed. The program also considers how the fish are caught or raised.
“Farming practices are really changing across the globe, meeting higher standards," Burns explains. "There are certification organizations looking at not only wild caught but also aquaculture species.”
That’s key, because more than 90% of the seafood in U.S. markets is imported. Carey McPhee, the executive chef at Waterman’s Surfside Grill, uses the Sensible Seafood guide and asks lots of questions.
“I’m very interested in where that came from, when it was caught, how it was caught, how long it sat in Costa Rica before it got to Miami and went through customs, then flew here," he says. "You know we try and buy local as much as we can, but in the middle of the winter there’s not a lot going on.”
Beware, he tells consumers. Virginia may be known for blue crabs, but much of what you get in restaurants here is from poor countries in Asia, where cheap labor does a better job of removing shell.
“If you go out to a restaurant here in Virginia Beach and you don’t get a shell or two in your crab cake or your she crab soup, you’re eating imported crabmeat.”
His eatery joins more than 70 other businesses and non-profits in the Sensible Seafood coalition, marking their menus to advise customers, using recyclable containers for carry-out, and doing away with single-use plastic.
Program coordinator Alex Mason says being part of Sensible Seafood is good for the marine environment and for business.
“Millennials in particular, people 34 and younger, are very willing to pay a little bit extra for any product that they know is sustainable,” he says.
In the freezer section of supermarkets you can also find products made by a company called Gardein. Crabless crab and fishless fish taste pretty much like the real thing, but they’re made with pea protein.
For purists, however, there’s nothing like the aquarium’s annual Sensible Seafood Fest in the spring. Visitors can sample sustainable dishes including some made with invasive creatures like blue catfish, snakehead and the dreaded lionfish – recently spotted in Virginia waters. Karen Burns says they’re tasty, and eating them will help to prevent the damage caused by those non-native invaders.