Protein for All: Fish and the Future of Food

The seas that swirl around us are actually pretty resilient—despite what we often hear about the ocean and the ways it is imperiled. Ecosystems driven to the brink after things like oil spills can actually recover quite quickly. The greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere are, in large part, sucked up by our tireless seas.

There may be an even more profound way for the oceans to forgive our mistakes: by providing us lots of food. That’s the premise of a book that came across my desk, The Perfect Protein, by Andy Sharpless. He heads the ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana. There’s a lot of untapped potential swimming all over the planet. If only we managed the way fish are caught, and which fish we eat, there’d be plenty of food for the growing number of mouths on the planet.

Perfect Protein

If that sounds fanciful, it did to me too. Fish aren’t thriving; many of them—species like Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna—have been decimated by overzealous harvest. Countries with lax regulations on catch quotas effectively pillage the seas. Nearly every week I hear about another international conference where some countries are pushing others to stop abusing the ocean to let it recover.

Author Sharpless tries to get above the country-to-country bickering to make a simple point: Countries don’t necessarily need to agree. Most of the world’s edible fish aren’t in the high seas. They’re within 200 miles off coastlines, areas that are generally controlled by only one government. If about ten large countries (the U.S. would need to be a big player) set some basic limits, there would be plenty of fish to go around. And there’s good reason to believe that as America goes, other countries such as Chile, Brazil, and even fish-loving Japan may follow suit.

Still, the bigger change might need to come from addressing a sizable inefficiency in aquaculture. Fish farmers take highly nutritious, fast-growing species like anchovies, mackerel, and sardines and feed them to larger, less efficient fish like bass and salmon. Getting people to eat those small fish, which are packed with healthy Omega-3 acids, is the solution. And to help start the transition in a big way, Sharpless includes a few recipes from celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Jose Andres to spark readers’ culinary creativity.

Whether you can get excited about sardine tartar or sautéed mackerel is a matter of taste, of course. But if food volume is the issue, and feeding more people around the world is the goal—and how could it not be?—Sharpless’s sound argument is that changing our tastes to eat more of those small fish (and less of the big ones) could lead to much more protein to go around.