Meeting our nutritional needs while caring for the ocean and the marine environment is a balancing act. While it is necessary to eat a healthy diet, food serves more functions than simply providing nutrition to build a healthy body and mind, including facilitating social interaction, strengthening cultural and familial bonds, not to mention the food-memory-emotion connection. I have always believed that we should allow ourselves to indulge in the foods we enjoy, because the stress of denying ourselves what we love creates more dis-ease in the body than avoiding that food in the first place! Nutrition for a healthy ocean means eating a fruit-and-vegetable-based diet, going organic, eating seasonally, eating locally, and choosing sustainable seafood and marine Omega-3 EFA supplements.
Be a locavore
A locavore is someone whose diet consists of foods predominantly grown and produced locally, not obtained from distant locations. The term was coined by Jessica Prentice of San Francisco on World Environment Day 2005. The term is more commonly expressed in the concept of the 100 Mile Diet, where only foods grown or produced within one hundred miles of your geographic location are included in your diet. I think this idea works well in theory but would be difficult to adhere to all the time, although I believe we should try to eat as locally as we can as often as we can.
I think if most of our food is locally grown and produced, we are on the right track. Occasionally, we can enjoy foods that have been transported from a greater distance. We all eat foods that are not grown in our geographic location – for example, raw cacao and coconut oil are not grown in Australia. The distance these ‘exotic’ foods travel to our plates will differ depending on our location, so we need to ensure these foods are sourced as close as possible to where we live.
I use Niugini Organic Coconut Oil that is wild-harvested in Papua New Guinea by indigenous communities and is the brand that travels the least amount of food miles to Australia. I use Loving Earth’s Raw Cacao from Peru. I buy organic Australian Olive Oil, which doesn’t travel great distances from Spain or Italy. Avoid buying whole fruits and vegetables imported from overseas – get to know the produce growing in your own country. During my travels in Peru a few years ago, I fell in love with the beautiful, exotic fruits and vegetables being sold at the local markets. I have fond memories of drinking tuna (prickly pear) juice and chica morada (made from purple corn).
It’s what we do most of the time that has the greatest impact, not what we do now and again. The less food miles an item has to travel, the less fossil fuel is required, which means fewer greenhouse gases are generated – this translates to a healthy marine environment. It’s important to eliminate or reduce unnecessary offshore purchases. Oil spills are a major hazard for the ocean. It’s estimated up to 706 million gallons of oil from human activity enters the ocean every year. The ocean has absorbed over half of the carbon dioxide from human carbon emissions in the Industrial Age.
It’s not about denial and deprivation; it’s about taking responsibility, finding a balance, cutting back on unnecessary items and purchases, making more sustainable choices and considering the effects of our actions on others and on the environment. I prefer to buy ‘Australian Made’ but the one exception I make is when my purchases involve supporting indigenous communities economically. This is an issue of great importance to me and I will channel a portion of my available financial funds into companies such as Loving Earth and Niugini Organics who work with indigenous communities around the world.
Choose sustainable seafood
All marine organisms provide energy for other marine organisms for survival, growth and reproduction, and how they do this can be conceptualized with food chains, food webs, and trophic levels. Eating seafood (and the particular species we choose to eat), has an effect on other marine species, the ocean, and the Earth. Seafood consumption is increasing around the world, but the way we are harvesting the ocean is unsustainable. Many fish populations are already fully exploited. If we overexploit a species of fish, this will affect other species in relationship to that species of fish, whether as predator or prey.
Good Fish: Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide is an initiative of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and is an excellent resource listing species of fish we should avoid, species we should consume less of, and species representing a more sustainable choice. I’ve recently decided to stop eating tuna because their populations are over-exploited. Several species are on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable, Near Threatened or Critically Endangered. This concerns me greatly. Yeah sure, it’s a tasty fish, and I love it, but I don’t particularly want to be responsible for contributing to their decline.
I also recommend the excellent book Dead Seas (the title of the Australian edition) by Taras Grescoe, a self-confessed ‘bottom-feeder’. This book is a very enjoyable read, but it’s brutally honest. Our voracious appetite for seafood is harming the ocean. He recommends eating lower on the marine food chain, opting for smaller, more abundant species that are not currently overfished or exploited. Great advice, except we need to ensure we don’t exploit these smaller species in the same way we have exploited the larger species. We need to avoid the larger predatory carnivorous species but also eat less seafood overall.
Other issues associated with the way we currently harvest seafood include farmed fish, bycatch and bottom trawling. Aquaculture has its advantages and disadvantages. Are we better off choosing the wild versions (and eating less of them)? Or is there not enough wild fish left in the world to feed the human population? Large-scale fishing practices targeting preferred species also catch other non-target marine species. Millions of tons of bycatch are ‘accidentally’ caught every year, and the dead, dying or injured marine animals and birds are thrown back into the ocean or disposed of once the boats have returned to shore. Choose fish caught by pole and line fishing methods from small fishing boats and fleets (and eat less of them). Bottom trawling devices that collect seafood by scraping the ocean floor destroy everything in their path, in much the same way entire habitats are lost when trees are cut down via clear felling in a forest.
Avoid (most) marine Omega-3 EFA supplements
Marine Omega-3 EFA supplements include krill, fish oil and algae powders.
I cringe when I see krill oil advertised – I’ve never used it nor will I ever use it, especially when there are alternatives. Krill is harvested in or near whale feeding grounds. Baleen whales require krill as a food source, and I think the whales have enough to contend with, from whaling, cargo ship strikes and seismic testing, without having to deal with human competition for their food supply. This is not just about us, but about others too.
Fish oil is extracted from whole fish, but a better alternative is to eat the whole fish. As far as Omega-3 EFA supplements go, Calamari Oil seems to be the most sustainable choice, and contains more Omega-3 EFAs than krill or fish oil.
Green algae powders are a great source of chlorophyll and Omega-3 EFAs (in fact, fish at the bottom of the food chain obtain their Omega-3 EFAs from the marine algae they eat, and predatory fish obtain theirs from eating smaller fish), but there are land-based alternatives available. If we take marine Omega-3 EFA supplements, we need to ensure they are sourced sustainably, but in a way that’s sustainable for the oceans, not a company’s bottom line.
I hope these ideas and suggestions have provided some ‘food for thought’ and serve as a general overview of some of the potential issues facing the marine environment when it comes to deciding what to eat. I would like to explore this area further, and investigate these issues in greater depth, do a wider literature review, and develop a more robust argument. Whether the alternatives I have suggested are more sustainable in the long-term needs to be scientifically tested and evaluated, however I do believe the way we currently manage the oceans needs a different approach, because for the most part, the current approach clearly doesn’t work.
There are many important issues to consider when it comes to our nutrition, and when our food choices potentially have an adverse impact on the health and sustainability of the ocean and marine environment. We have briefly discussed some of these issues and explored the links between what we eat, how we eat and the impact of diet on the ocean, of which we may not be immediately aware. We need to reduce our impact and our carbon dioxide emissions, and ensure that marine species are not depleted, because all species on Earth, including humans, rely on a healthy marine environment.