Under the Sea
Food Issues Book Club - The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 9

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 9: Seafood

Peter and Jim,

I am glad for the opportunity to write to you regarding the ethical issues of the seafood industry.  I write of course in response to the ninth chapter of your book The Ethics of What We Eat, titled simply Seafood.

I was surprised when you mentioned in the first paragraph that shrimp are now a more popular seafood than tuna, though I suppose I shouldn't have been.  I have also seen very few estimates of how many sea creatures are harvested for food each year such as the one you provide of 17 billion; the common numbers of 55 to 65 billion animals killed for food annually generally exclude sea life, as aquatic animals are so often measured by the pound rather than as individuals.  There is a logic in this, I suppose: while one pig or cow, or even one chicken, will provide multiple meals, crustaceans and mollusks are often eaten a dozen or more (sometimes many more) in a sitting.

Having spent nearly 2/3 of my life on the Gulf Coast, seafood is an integral part of my culture (even though I don't eat animals anymore).  Shrimp were my favorite food as a child; I was a master peeler.  For this reason, I spent a long time believing that we on the Gulf were somehow immune from the industry's worst practices.  Honestly I still cling to this idea, despite knowing about labor abuses and racial tensions in Louisiana seafood production.  To shrimp in the Gulf we use bottom trawlers, and I'm relieved that you state that it's not as damaging to do this in the Gulf as it is in areas with different biogeography.  But as you explain, the 90% of domestic shrimp that come from the Gulf of Mexico accounts for only 13% of shrimp eaten in the US.  We are mostly eating imported shrimp.  How foolish.

The idea of eating imported seafood here in New Orleans is fairly absurd, particularly when it comes to sea creatures that we could obtain locally.  Eating imported shrimp here is contrary to deeply held cultural values.  I can have no respect for locally owned restaurants that serve imported shrimp.  Even worse are the restaurants fraudulently claiming that their shrimp come from the Gulf - indicating that it's important enough to locals that business owners are willing to lie about it.  Indeed, over 66% of readers polled by New Orleans newspaper Nola.com | The Times Picayune chose "yes" when asked "Do you care where the shrimp you buy comes from?", with another 27% answering that they "want to support our local fishers."

If only 13% of the national shrimp supply is even from the US, and 30% of shrimp claiming to be sourced from the Gulf are mislabeled, how can our residents be sure that they are living their values when they choose to eat shrimp?  Well of course we have a certification program.  The Certified Authentic Louisiana Wild Seafood (CALWS) program, run by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is the only way I know to guarantee that your shrimp and other seafood items are actually from Louisiana Gulf of Mexico waters.

Alarmingly, only 11 restaurants in the New Orleans area are listed in the CALWS database as having obtained this certification.  (One of them is Carmo, a favorite of mine which strives to offer numerous vegan items and hosts special dinners featuring "trash fish" that so often go to waste.) That's not to say that other restaurants aren't serving local seafood, but it's harder to be sure of your dinner's provenance without the assurance of the certification.  Notably more grocery stores have obtained the credentials including all Rouses locations, but noticeably absent from the list is Whole Foods.

And yet here's some weirdness.  As of April 2014, Deanie's Seafood (a huge name in New Orleans local seafood dining) claimed to be serving CALWS-certified seafood.  Their name, though, does not appear in a search of restaurants on the CALWS website database.  Why might this be?  There are many potential reasons, and this casts doubt on the usefulness of the database.  Humph.

But wait.  Do we want to be eating Louisiana seafood in the first place?  Possibly yes.  As of July 2015 Louisiana shrimp are no longer on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "avoid" list, moved over to a "good" rating - as long as they're caught with an otter trawl and not a skimmer trawl.  I'm not sure how consumers would be able to determine what kinds of nets were used in catching the specific shrimp on their plates, however.  According to data collected by NOAA, at least, Louisiana shrimpers were most often using otter trawls by 2004.

The change in rating occurred because a law prohibiting inspection or enforcement of federal turtle excluder device regulations was finally repealed.  Why would we ever make such a law?  Welcome to Louisiana good ol' boy politics.  How did it stand for so long (nearly 30 years)? Likely because no one filed a lawsuit about it.  If I'm not mistaken, passing a state law that prevents the enforcement of a federal law is in direct violation of the supremacy clause of the constitution.  But I digress.

None of this addresses the ethical quandary of whether it's "right" to eat shrimp and other sea creatures.  From a staunch vegan standpoint the answer is "no," even when it comes to likely-not-sentient animals such as oysters.  We don't eat animals, period.  But as you know, veganism is not the end all be all to food ethics.  I like your proposal that "if we are uncertain whether lobster, crabs, and shrimp {and presumably other crustaceans} feel pain, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as if they are capable of suffering, as long as the costs of doing so are not too high... For anyone who has other food choices, it cannot be ethically justifiable to risk supporting the infliction of such agony on beings who may be able to feel pain."

Loss of enjoyment from eating certain foods, the only "cost" to most of us in not eating seafood, could only be considered too high a price by someone deeply selfish, I'd say.  (Someone like Mary Ann, for instance?)

For people who take an ethical stance that allows them to consume animals who likely don't suffer, I agree with your statement that it seems better and simpler "not to buy seafood at all, with the exception of sustainably obtained simple mollusks like clams, oysters, and mussels."  Simpler still, of course, is to not eat seafood at all.

Seafood indeed.  What an exhausting and complicated subject.


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