It has come to my attention that farmed mussels have received a “best choice” seafood watch rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You ask, “What does this mean?”
Some hippies out in California think we are doing something right, and they’re usually critical of animal protein for human use, so thank you hippies. I agree with you wholeheartedly that farming shellfish is sustainable, but want to trim the fat off the word sustainable; it seems to have evolved into a trendy marketing campaign for the masses.
Natural, native, local, non-GMO, gluten free, organic, wild caught, free range, certified whatever… They are all fancy words with confusing connotations. The true nature of sustainable food has to do with how much input of natural resources goes into growing the food, what are the adverse environmental impacts of harvesting over a long term basis, and in short will a food source be available for my grandkids and their grandkids?
Shellfish farming meets these requirements, as shellfish themselves have been a part of Native American diets for as long as we can recall. Archaeologists have found shell middens or mounds up and down the eastern seaboard where oysters were consumed by ancient people then tossed into a pile and still sit to this day. The early settlers enjoyed the bountiful fish stocks of New England, including shellfish, and later on in the early 20th century was the heyday for oyster aquaculture in Rhode Island. There were local wars over different shellfish beds in the upper bay and the great salt pond and eventually the resource was over exploited and became exhausted and dormant for several decades.
Currently, we are in a renaissance of oyster culture in the Ocean State due to the cleaner environment, hatchery production of baby oysters and the need for the water-men on the bay to make a decent living. That is what I consider a sustainable food; one that’s been around forever and one that can be around forever if we take care of our environment.
The bivalve molluscan animals, or shellfish, are filter feeders that eat plankton, algae and dissolved nutrients in the water column, which both cleanses the water and creates a nutritious animal protein. Excess nitrogen is a common occurrence in the estuaries of the east coast, often caused by fertilizer runoff from the nice green lawns bordering the water and cattle waste from the scenic farms also bordering the water, among other things.
The fertilizers work the same way in an estuary as they do in a backyard, providing the algae with an incredible food source that allows them to flourish. These prolific phytoplankton blooms will eventually deplete all the oxygen in water, die because of lack of oxygen, sink to the bottom, decompose using more oxygen, and create an anoxic (without oxygen) environment that kills all living organisms in the area. This leads to fish kills, stinky beaches and an unbalanced, unhealthy ecosystem.
Filter feeders combat over nitrification and thrive on the nutrient rich waters of our local bay. They are one step above photosynthesis and known as grazers because they eat very low on the food chain meaning there is minimal risk of toxicity build up associated with some seafood. Some of the best reasons to eat cultured shellfish in the future are they do not require fresh water, herbicides or pesticides. Fresh water will be a precious natural resource in the coming years, and growing food with poison is a disgusting practice that is very common since the 1980s.
Shellfish essentially eat by cleaning the water, but there are other positive effects on the marine environment like creating an ecosystem on the farm itself. Each oyster cage we put in the water has a plethora of marine organisms living in and around it, ranging from soft invertebrates to large predator fish like striped bass and bluefish. The structures provide shelter for juvenile fish to hide, substrate for other mollusks and seaweeds and homes for trillions of crabs.
It is great to see a thriving natural resource being put to good use and to make a living as a small business in the competitive big business American culture.