Environmental groups have long fought for animal rights, rallied against pollution and pushed back on overfishing, but a new message this week urged the nation to eat more seafood as it hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic.

Specifically, many are asking you to please buy American-caught seafood.

"Over the past 20 years, American fisheries have become some of the best managed and most sustainable in the world thanks to policy reforms and the hard work of fishermen," said Eric Schwaab, senior vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund's oceans program. "But now fishermen need our help. By incorporating more seafood into our diets, we can support fishermen and coastal communities that depend on seafood harvesting as a way of life."

The global spread of COVID-19 has triggered widespread economic chaos, and American fisheries are suffering because of restaurant closures and the collapse of export markets, advocates say.

Although U.S. fishing operations and environmentalists have spent decades butting heads, they have also worked together to develop smarter and more sustainable fishing practices — turning many fisheries from federal disasters into thriving comeback stories and promoting healthier oceans.

"The U.S. has some of the healthiest and most sustainable seafood in the world," Schwaab said. "By seeking out domestically caught fish, Americans can support fishermen and the ocean during this difficult time."

Coastal economies

Recent days have seen numerous public announcements in support of restaurants, independent bookstores and other local businesses struggling to stay afloat as orders to shelter at home increase across the country and all "non-essential" aspects of public life are shut down.

In California, fisheries make up a significant portion of the coastal economy. Dungeness crab alone — the most valuable seafood in the state — was a $63.5 million industry in 2018, according to the latest numbers by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Squid that year was the second-largest, at more than $35.5 million.

Seafood harversters across California were grateful for this week's support from environmental groups. Exports have already been hurting — especially exports to China, where California's Dungeness crab is usually a huge market. Other foreign markets and supply chains have all but disappeared as well.

Now, with dine-in restaurants shut down in California and elsewhere because of shelter-in place-orders, the crisis looms even larger. About 80% of U.S. consumption of domestic seafood takes place at restaurants — not at home.

"We're already feeling market impacts because of the overnight evaporation of the restaurant industry — that and our export market, which is also gone," said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Even in times of shelter-in-place and coronapocalypse, we need to remind people that they have a local, sustainable source of protein right in their backyard."

Fishing itself has not been affected in California, said Oppenheim, who noted that some shelter-in-place orders in Northern California have specifically carved out fishing as an essential sector. Seafood remains a safe option at the grocery store and local markets and for takeout, he said.

New ways of selling

Many fishing operations have started to turn to social media, delivery apps and selling directly to consumers from boats at landing docks. They're spreading the word that fish such as halibut, when stored properly in a freezer, can last for months. Salmon season is ramping up as well — the Sacramento fall-run king salmon is expected to be abundant this year — but many worry whether there will be a market for this catch.

So how do you know you're buying domestic seafood?

"Most supermarkets now are embracing best practices like traceability and can tell you whether the seafood was farmed or wild, and whether it was domestic or import," Oppenheim said. "So folks should simply ask. If it's not there on the sign, chances are pretty good that the person selling the fish will know the answer."

He also suggested looking into community fishing associations, or CFAs — similar to CSAs, the community-supported agriculture programs that deliver produce from local farms.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has put together consumer guides, broken down by region, to help people find ocean-friendly fish near where they live. Websites like localcatch.org also point people to places to buy fresh seafood straight from the source. The Environmental Defense Fund has a Seafood Selector that advises people on what kind of seafood to buy at stores or order as takeout.

Fishing communities have been proud of their work over the decades — with scientists and wildlife officials and environmental groups — to develop rules that balance fishing and help preserve the ecosystem.

"We've sacrificed lots, and we've learned a lot over the years that in order to ensure that we have access to this resource in perpetuity, we need to embrace sustainability practices," Oppenheim said. "When you buy an American wild-capture seafood product, you know it was caught in a manner that is protective of habitat and good for the environment and ensures that we'll be able to fish forever."

Recommended for you