To everything there is a season

BC spot prawns (Photo: Island Vittles/

by Wilf Swartz

Japanese call it shun (旬), the seasonality of food. It refers to the time of year when a specific type of food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or flavour. It is not unique to Japanese culture, as The Byrds reminded us in the mid-1960s with their, now classic, rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season).”

Unfortunately, at least in our modern culture, shun seems to apply to many kinds of food, but not to fish. Although we do enjoy various seasonal foods out of season, often the associations are still there. Strawberries bring to mind the early days of summer. Pumpkins, especially in pies – and sadly, Brussels sprouts – trigger the whisper of falling leaves, thoughts of turkey and Thanksgiving. Yes, turkey itself is seasonal, although in medieval times it might have been venison instead, roasted over a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night. And the list goes on, and on, and on, for all but seafood, or most seafood, which has somehow fallen through
the cracks.

As for the ocean’s bounty, what is the best time of year to eat, or not to eat, herring or cod or tuna, or you-name-it? We’ve stopped viewing fish as seasonal.

And it’s epidemic. Living in Vancouver, which is more attuned to fish and fisheries than most other cities in Canada, many of us are aware when salmon is in season; yet, few of us would hesitate to order salmon rolls at a local sushi joint in the middle of February.

The reality is not that seafood lacks seasonality. In fact, as one of the few remaining, large-scale forms of hunting wild foods, marine fisheries are, without doubt, more susceptible to seasonal variations in productivity than other major food sources. We’ve simply found it convenient to overlook that fact for a number of reasons.

Fish stocks migrate in and out of local fishing grounds. Sometimes they are locally plentiful, and sometimes they’re not. During the spawning season, a fish’s body chemistry changes, e.g. fat content declines, and consequently for the consumer, flavour differs throughout the year. However, with the advancement of freezing technology and the expansion of global distribution networks [1], retail markets are now able to supply select species (and their close substitutes) throughout the year from all corners of the world. This, in effect, masks seasonal variations in local fisheries. Our seafood consumption has gone from “fish of the day” to “fish of whenever” and doesn’t take its bearing from the season.

Furthermore, there are benefits to eating seafood in season that we’re not reaping.

Ecologically speaking, sticking to seasonal seafood would enable fisheries to diversify their target species and distribute fishing impact more evenly across the underlying marine ecosystem. Such a balanced harvest strategy, it has recently been suggested, would be useful in mitigating the adverse ecological effects of fishing, even going so far as to support sustainable fisheries [2].

In terms of economics, matching seafood demand to seasonal availability could moderate the potential for price collapses associated with oversupply during peak catch seasons. By creating a situation in which fisheries could capitalize on the pent-up demand that accrues during periods of little or no catch, the additional supply during seasons of plenty would be absorbed by additional demand. Here the example of BC spot prawns comes to mind.

Diversifying the “portfolio” of fish species targeted by fisheries would also help to mitigate the inherent risks involved with specialized fishing, allowing the fisheries to better cope with fluctuations of specific stocks. Moreover, the promotion of seasonal seafood may present new marketing opportunities for fishes that aren’t “mainstream” and are currently treated as by-catch, thus further enhancing the economics of multi-species fisheries.

What about the benefits closer to home? A shift to consuming locally seasonal seafood would logically lead to consumption of local fish, which would have a positive impact on local fishing communities. The versatility required to shift target species and gears from season to season throughout the year is likely to favour small-scale fishing operations, which are generally perceived to be – though not necessarily – more energy-efficient and ecologically sustainable [3]. Rather than operating over a greater distance and following the migration patterns of targeted species, vessels could remain closer to their local fishing grounds, enhancing the socio-economic conditions of fishermen.

The issue is how do we promote such a major shift in our purchasing and eating habits?

“Seasonal” versions of consumer guides like OceanWise ( and Seafood Watch ( would be a start. And the feasibility of a seasonal seafood campaign and its effectiveness in promoting sustainable fisheries certainly needs to be investigated more closely.

But maybe the best science is no science. Yes, those left brainers, right brainers, or as we jokingly refer to them, “no brainers” may offer a key part of the solution. Eating what’s in season is a concept that intrinsically appeals to people at an emotional level. And the message should not be “eat the fish that’s in season for the ecological benefit,” but rather “eat the fish that’s in season for the emotional benefit.” In other words, because it will make you feel good.

For example, where was the chestnut industry, before a songwriter wrote, “chestnuts roasting by an open fire”? We need to find some brave, bold artist to write a song praising “pilchards pickled on a picnic table.”

All jokes aside, it is time to re-introduce the seasonality of fish into the social conscience and into local diets. The consequences of standing by idly are too terrifying to contemplate. Going back to The Byrds, “I swear it’s not too late.”

[1] Swartz W, Sumaila UR, Watson R and Pauly D (2010) Sourcing seafood from the three major markets: the EU, Japan and the USA. Marine Policy 34: 1366-1373.
[2] Garcia SM, Kolding J, Rice J, Rochet M-J, Zhou S, Arimoto T, Beyer JE, Borges L, Bundy A, Dunn D, Fulton EA, Hall M, Heino M, Law R, Makino M, Rijnsdorp AD, Simard F, and Smith ADM (2012) Balanced harvesting: reconsidering the consequences of selective fisheries. Science 335: 1045-1047.
[3] Pauly, D (2006) Towards consilience in small-scale fisheries research. Maritime Studies 4: 7–22.

Can restaurants encourage sustainable seafood consumption?

Leah Biery, M.Sc. student with the Sea Around Us Project, asks this question in the most recent newsletter. Her article is also reprinted here.

When you dine out, how do you decide what to order? Do you head to the restaurant with a clear idea of what you want to eat, or are you influenced by the daily specials and suggestions from your server? While living in Southwest Florida, where the tourism-based economy revolves largely around seafood restaurants, I became interested in how vacationers decide which seafood items to consume. I frequently overheard people announce that they were going out for grouper (or oysters or snapper…), apparently already certain of what they would order before even sitting down at a table. Others seemed less sure about what they would eat, but knew that after a long day at the beach, they were in the mood for some kind of seafood. Around the time I made these observations, I was working on a local sustainable seafood initiative, so I wondered if and how those who sat down in a restaurant without a specific dish in mind could be influenced to choose a sustainable option.

After considering the many factors that influence customer choices in a restaurant, I decided to look at server suggestions and daily specials, two elements of the dining experience that often influence my own menu decisions. I recruited two high school students associated with the organization I was working for to help me design and distribute a survey for tourists on Sanibel Island. What follows is a summary of what we learned.

Of the tourists surveyed, 52% usually or always order seafood when they dine out on Sanibel Island. An additional 33% sometimes order seafood. This indicates that the local demand for seafood is high, so even a small increase in the proportion of people who make sustainable choices could contribute to the recovery of popular, rapidly declining species like grouper and queen conch (in 2008, queen conch and five grouper species were listed as overfished or subject to overfishing in the Southeast region of the U.S.*).

We found that 43% of tourists surveyed rarely or never knew which seafood they were going to order before dining at a restaurant. These consumers have not made a decision before sitting down, so some of them would likely be receptive to seafood recommendations from restaurant staff. On this note, 45% of tourists surveyed responded that they were sometimes or usually influenced by server suggestions. Furthermore, 45.5% responded that they were sometimes influenced by the seafood specials. An additional 14% were usually or always influenced by the seafood specials.

Eating seafood near the ocean is undoubtedly an essential part of the beach vacation experience, but for many people, the specific type of seafood may not really matter. Our results indicate that server suggestions and daily specials could potentially be used as effective tools for influencing diners to make sustainable choices. As a means of boosting sustainable seafood sales and reducing the demand for red list species, sustainability initiatives could educate local restaurant management about sustainable seafood and encourage them to advertise only sustainable options as daily specials. Additionally, servers could be trained to routinely suggest sustainable options to customers. This would only work with sufficient interest and participation from dining establishments. Although our findings are specific to Sanibel Island, a similar approach might be effective in other locations as well.

While working to promote sustainable seafood in a tourist town, it became apparent to me that most vacationers want to relax and not obsess over sustainability. First and foremost, consumers want their meals to be tasty, so I am not implying that restaurants should recommend certain items solely on the basis that they are sustainable. Restaurants interested in operating sustainably could take a backstage approach by purposely selecting and buying sustainable items for special recommendation, but presenting them to customers as they would any suggestion – delicious. Sustainability should be mentioned as an additional perk, but not forced upon patrons as the only reason to choose the special. If a proportion of diners will order the special whether it is sustainable or not, it makes sense that restaurants concerned about the future of fish should always offer a suggestion or special that is.

These ideas are just small steps on the path to recovery for depleted fish stocks, but it is apparent that seafood restaurants hold important influential power when it comes to which menu items they recommend to patrons. Especially in areas frequented by tourists who are often on vacation from the stress of thinking about sustainability, dining establishments should take more responsibility for protecting the future of ocean resources. Restaurants with good foresight should be willing to use their power to reduce pressure on overfished species so that eating seafood can remain an essential part of beach vacations for generations to come.

Thank you to Sanibel Sea School and Lena and Natalia Horvath for their help with survey design and data collection.

*NMFS, 2009, Annual Report to Congress on the Status of U.S. Fisheries-2008, U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, Natl., Mar. Fish. Serv.,Silver Spring, MD, 23 pp.

MSC Critique Chosen As Part of Nature’s Top Six of 2010

Seafood stewardship in crisis, by Sea Around Us Project members Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly, as well as David Ainley, Sidney Holt, Paul Dayton & Jeremy Jackson, was chosen as one of Nature’s top six comment pieces of the year. The piece criticizes recent seafood certifications by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and makes suggestions on how the certification could be improved. Read the full piece here.

Scientists Question MSC

The Marine Stewardship Council, the fisheries eco-certification taken most seriously by consumers and scientists around the world, is failing to fulfill its promise, write six scientists, including the Sea Around Us Project’s Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly, in last week’s issue of Nature. Read their opinion piece, Seafood stewardship in crisis, or some of the media coverage, such as Why your sustainable fish may not be as guilt-free as you think at The Independent, Scientists criticize system of certifying fisheries at The New York Times Green Blog, or Sustainability certification fails to protect environment: report in the Vancouver Sun.

Daniel Pauly Delivers Keynote at Seafood Summit

Daniel Pauly recently gave the keynote address at the 2010 Seafood Summit in Paris. His talk compared industrial fishing to a Ponzi scheme, where instead of extracting a sustainable interest from invested capital, we use up the capital itself, and hope for other ‘investors’. He discussed the three-way expansion of fishing through the 20th century: geographically, by fishing in distant waters and getting access to African, Caribbean and Pacific waters; by fishing in deeper and deeper waters; and a taxonomic expansion. Pauly then addressed aquaculture and its limitations, particularly the double accounting of carnivorous farmed fish. He finished by talking about conservation efforts and the need to include the small-scale fisheries in the developing world in conservation efforts. His full talk is available through the Seafood Summit website.

Consumer Campaigns, Pig Feed, and Conservation

wholefoodsAn article titled Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts appeared last week in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation authored by Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Pauly, Rashid Sumaila, and Sherman Lai of the Sea Around Us Project, along with five additional colleagues. Its publication led to an article in the Vancouver Sun on how domestic farm animals are devouring the world’s fish stocks and an AFP piece explaining that consumer campaigns don’t save endangered fish.  The article addresses the effects of consumer campaigns in an increasingly globalized market for seafood.