The Perfect Protein
A new book by the CEO of the world's largest ocean conservation organization tells why robust fisheries may be our best shot at feeding the world and saving the oceans.
Although Oceana is the world’s largest,
there are many organizations fighting
to clean up the oceans, protect its
creatures and environment, and
create a sustainable fishing industry.
So there’s no excuse not to do
something, even if it’s just making
better food choices. You’ll likely
feel better about yourself, and
Want to help feed the hungry? Eat more fish. Want to help your heart keep beating? Eat more fish. Want to help save the rain forest? Eat more fish.
Why? Because the fact is that it takes a staggering 13 pounds of grain and 3,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. “And here’s a surprise, wild fish don’t live on land,” says Andy Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana, the world’s largest international organization focused on ocean conservation, and author of the new book The Perfect Protein: A Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World. He also notes that fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which scientists now agree can lower your risk of dying of heart attack by 30 percent when eaten twice a week.
“So, if you go into a McDonald’s and you’re choosing between a fish filet sandwich and a hamburger, you can make a decision that has a bigger impact on the world, and yourself, than people appreciate,” says Sharpless. “If you eat the hamburger, you’re eating enough grain to make more than 200 taco shells and you’re consuming enough fresh water to fill more than 10,000 glasses. If you eat the fish filet sandwich, you’re not.”
And if you’re questioning whether a McDonald’s fish sandwich is environmentally responsible, Sharpless says as far as the patty is concerned, it is. “That’s because it turns out that McDonald’s fish filets are made from pollack, which is a pretty well-managed and sustained U.S. fishery in the northern Pacific,” he says.
And the example works just as well in a fine restaurant. Choose the steak and you’re contributing to the problem. Choose responsibly caught seafood, you’re contributing to the cure.
But if you’re worried that reading The Perfect Protein will be nothing but 200-pages of dire predictions, don’t be. Based on decades of research, but written in an accessible way that gives everyday consumers, ocean lovers, and conservationists alike the knowledge and tools they need to make a difference in the future of our planet and mankind itself, the book is a song of hope that will inspire more than depress.
“One of the assets that I brought to Oceana was that I didn’t know the issues so I had to learn them and so I still remember what it’s like for regular people. I don’t fall into the trap of being too technical, too scientific, or getting bogged down in the details,” says Sharpless.
But, he says his 10 years as the head of Oceana, watching it grow, watching it gain major victories with numerous governments, and watching fisheries rebound, also gave him the hope and optimism that comes through on every page of The Perfect Protein.
But before we explore that hope, let’s touch on that despair that many people might feel when given simple facts about how we’re going about feeding the world and mismanaging our oceans right now.
According to the United Nations, by 2050, our current population of seven billion people will balloon to nine billion, requiring 70% more food production to meet the growing demand. Further, by 2025, 64% of the world population is expected to be living in water scarcity – hence all the talk over the next war being fought over water rights, not oil.
Couple that with the fact that it takes thousands of gallons of water and acres of land for each pound of farmed meat (chickens, cows, pigs, and lamb), and that more than half of the world’s crop yields feed livestock instead of people, and that livestock production demands defeed nine billion people in 2050, and we don’t want to destroy nature, we need to make sure the oceans are feeding as many people as they can,” says Sharpless.
Unfortunately, we’re not treating our oceans any better than the land. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and bycatch – catching, killing, and discarding unwanted fish because of indiscriminate fishing techniques such as trawling, gill nets and longlines – has had devastating consequences. For instance, since 1988, while the world population has increased, the global seafood catch has decreased by 18%.
Ironically, this is due to a bloated and sophisticated fishing fleet that is now 250% larger than is needed to fish sustainably.
In short, we are equipped to catch the last fish, and apparently, we’re not afraid to try.
Now, in case you thought aquaculture, or fish farming, was the answer, sorry to disappoint you but there are some equally alarming stats about that. For instance, one of the most popular farmed fish is salmon. And it sounds good, right? Raise the fish like tomatoes and supply the world with healthy doses of pink protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
And that might actually work if it weren’t for one thing: Salmon eat fish, too. So to create one pound of salmon, it takes approximately five pounds of fish meal – mostly made up of perfectly edible fish like sardines and anchovies, which are also vital to the ocean ecosystem. These are fish that, admittedly, are not high on the list of fine diner’s seafood choices, or even low on it for that matter. But they make the wild ahi and ono possible, and it’s likely that if you offered a plate of sardines to one of the world’s billion hungry people, they wouldn’t push it away. Besides, the concept as a business is a little absurd on its face: imagine going into the tomato business and using five pounds of tomatoes for fertilizer for every pound of tomato you produced. You wouldn’t be in the tomato business for long.
There are of course other issues keeping us from feeding the world while healing the oceans, and though Sharpless documents them in detail in The Perfect Protein, the book’s true intention is to give people a belief that we can turn things around and a roadmap of how we can do it.
“If people read the book, they’ll come away understanding that what they thought was an impossible task is actually very practical and very doable. So the core message of the book is: ‘We can do this; here’s how,’” says Sharpless.
In addition to everyday choices you can make to help, Sharpless also addresses the major, global concerns that make so many headlines. In fact, he demystifies many. For instance, one of the big myths that people believe is that in order to save the oceans, we need United Nations agreements, international conventions, or the planets to align just so.
“We all have that impression, and that’s just false,” says Sharpless. “We’ve been misled about what it takes to manage the oceans by the charismatic creatures of the ocean, by focusing on the whales and the sharks and the dolphins.”
To be clear, he wholeheartedly embraces the protection of those animals – it’s a major focus of Oceana. But these mammals and big fish are like the lions and tigers of the oceans, says Sharpless. They are predators that roam across vast expanses of ocean, and by focusing so much on them, Sharpless says we’ve lost sight of where most of the fish are.
“Most of the fish are more like rabbits. And the rabbits of the ocean are in the coastal zones, and from the point of view of feeding a hungry planet, a pound of sardines is as good as a pound of tuna. In fact, in some ways it’s better, because it’s less likely to have accumulated biotoxins like mercury,” says Sharpless.
The point is, coastal zones, up to 200 miles offshore, are controlled by their neighboring countries. Further, 10 countries control two-thirds of the world fishing zones. Twenty-five countries, including the European Union, control 90% of them. So each individual country, on its own, can do such forward-thinking things as set catch quotas based on scientific research, protect nursery habitats, and reduce bycatch for its waters. No UN agreements, no international conventions, no planets aligning.
And the really good news is that in 1995, President Bill Clinton worked with Republican senator Ted Stevens from Alaska to reform U.S. laws so our fisheries are now rebuilding and can boast some of the best-managed in the world, particularly in the Pacific. (Unfortunately, 90% of our seafood is imported, usually from less-well-managed fishing countries, so Sharpless advises eating U.S.-caught fish when possible.)
And there is ample evidence that this type of action can have amazing results, says Sharpless. “Fish that have been overfished will rebound if sensible quotas are put in place and habitat is protected. The rebound usually takes five to 10 years, so it’s quick compared to waiting for a rainforest to re-grow or trying to rebuild the population of tigers in Siberia, which takes hundreds of years. Fish are one of the most robust and strong parts of nature, so if you give them a little help, they come back very quickly,” he says.
And thanks to Oceana’s work, other countries are starting to get serious about sustainability too. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera just implemented new laws mirroring the U.S.’s, and the EU is in the process of doing the same for all of Europe.
Hopefully, this sort of sustainability thinking will migrate to the biggest fishing nation on earth: China, which catches and farms almost three times the fish, by weight, as the U.S. In fact, it was after a meeting Sharpless had with the Chinese ambassador to the World Trade Organization four years ago when the idea for his book really started. In that meeting, after Sharpless broached the subject of oversized fleets resulting in overfishing, the ambassador said in a blunt, businesslike tone, “We’ve got a billion people to feed; we’re going to feed them.”
Sharpless left that meeting thinking that feeding people is morally quite compelling, but so is protecting biodiversity. He also saw that on land, those two goals are at war with one another: Expanding agriculture means cutting down forest to plant the cornfield. But in the ocean, if fished responsibly, the two goals are in harmony because we eat the wild creature. And because of the size of the ocean and the resiliency of fish populations, scientists estimate that with a well-managed ocean we could feed almost a billion people a seafood meal a day, forever. Sharpless saw that fish were the answer for both the governments that must feed their people and the conservationists who want to save the environment, whether it be land or ocean.
“The oceans are robust, so if we get to work on it we can see results quickly, within a five- or 10-year period,” says Sharpless. “So, if you want to stop the pressure on biodiversity by 2050, you have to make sure there are as few pigs on the planet as possible. And one way to do that is to make sure people have enough fish to eat.”
The Perfect Protein by the Numbers
3,500 :: To produce one pound of beef, it takes 3,500 gallons of freshwater and 13 pounds of grain.
2,500 :: To produce one pound of pork (the world’s most popular meat), it takes 2,500 gallons of freshwater and 6 pounds of grain.
2,000 :: To produce one pound of chicken, it takes 2,000 gallons of freshwater and 2.3 pounds of grain.
2,700 :: Currently, we have the ability to feed the world. Add up all the world’s food and divide it by the number of people on Earth and each person would have 2,700 calories a day.
64% :: The UN estimates that by 2025, 64% of the world will live in water scarcity.
1 Billion :: Although we have plenty of food, because most food goes to wealthy nations, 1 billion people go hungry while another billion are obese.
30% :: Scientists now agree that consuming omega-3-rich seafood two times a week can cut your chance of dying from heart attack by 30%.
0 :: Amount of arable land wild seafood takes up.
700 Million :: If properly managed, our oceans could provide a meal a day for 700 million people.
5 to 10 :: Many fish populations are incredibly resilient, so many fisheries can rebound from depleted to robust in just five to 10 years with sound fishing practices.
25 :: Just 25 countries, including the European Union, control 90% of the world’s wild fish catch, meaning reversing overfishing is completely doable.
50%+ :: More than half of the world’s crop yields – mainly corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans – are used to feed livestock, not people.
60 Million :: That’s the amount of people one scientist estimated we could feed with the grain saved from reducing meat production in the U.S. by just 10%.
70% :: Global agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater and is the single largest source of greenhouse gases.
7 Billion :: World population is growing faster now than any time in history, passing 7 billion in 2011, a mere 12 years after hitting 6 billion.
9 Billion :: The UN estimates that 9 billion people will inhabit Earth by 2050, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says demand for food will increase 70% above today’s levels.
Clear-Cutting the Ocean
Commercial fishing bottom trawlers and dredges cause more damage to the ocean floor – think rainforest under the sea – than any other human activity. Just like bulldozers in the Amazon, they clear-cut the bottom of the ocean floor. Trawlers catch shrimp, cod, haddock, flounder and rockfish. Dredges catch scallops, clams and similar species.
But trawlers aren’t enough for top-of-the-food-chain humans. We need supertrawlers,
and in 2000, the world’s largest supertrawler hit the high seas. Named the Atlantic Dawn, it is nothing short of a floating factory of destruction, with a trawl opening 200 feet wide and 40 feet tall. It’s so big that a 747 could fly through its metal-doored mouth and so heavy it can shove aside 25-ton boulders. The cod and shrimp just don’t have a chance, not to mention anything else in its way.
Of course, supertrawlers only make up 1% of the world’s fishing fleet. But trawlers, combined, rake a seafloor area twice the size of the continental U.S. every year. And yes, they still operate in U.S. waters, off the New England coast, one of the hardest hit, and most depleted, fisheries in U.S. waters.
Six Simple Steps to Help Save the Oceans, Feed the Planet and Stay Healthy
Eat Wild Fish, Not Farmed || Grinding up pounds of perfectly edible fish from poor countries to fatten up farm-raised fish for rich countries makes no sense. “For instance, each pound of farmed salmon requires five pounds of wild fish to produce,” says Sharpless. He adds that one-third of all the wild fish caught on Earth end up as fish meal or oil. Of that, 81% goes to feed farmed fish. That’s the definition of unsustainable.
Eat Smaller Species, Not Larger Ones || “Smaller fish are lower on the food chain so they reproduce more quickly and are a more resilient part of the ocean ecosystem,” says Sharpless. In addition, the popular big fish, such as bluefin tuna, ahi, and swordfish are higher in biotoxins such as mercury. Finally, smaller, oilier fish are often higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which help in everything from lowering heart disease to fighting depression.
Eat Local, If Possible || “American fisheries tend to be better managed than other fisheries in the world. But, we import 90% of our seafood, so if you eat local, you are probably eating fish from a better managed fishery than if you eat an imported fish,” says Sharpless. In addition, the closer your seafood is caught, the less pollution-causing transport is needed. Besides, it’s probably fresher, too. A win-win-win.
Eat All the Farmed Shellfish That You Can Stomach || “Wait a minute,” you’re saying right now. “Didn’t you just say farmed fish are bad, bad, bad?” Yes, but shellfish are completely different. “Farmed mussels, clams and oysters grow by filtering the ocean and therefore help clean the ocean and are an ally in the battle against pollution,” says Sharpless.
Swear Off Eating Shrimp || “There’s really no way to eat shrimp and feel good about it,” says Sharpless. Why? Oh, let us count the ways. Wild shrimp is caught using very small mesh nets that produce three or four pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp that they catch. And farmed shrimp are typically imported from tropical places where the regulations are very weak. “So the shrimp are cultivated in shallow coastal ponds where their fecal matter builds up and high levels of pesticides and antibiotics are dosed to the ponds,” says Sharpless. Ultimately, he says the pond becomes so contaminated that the farmer has to move on – to another pond to contaminate. OK, shrimp appetite gone.