In case you’re not keeping track, it’s National Seafood Month. While there are many “food months” of varying degrees of importance, seafood is unique in that its only equivalent would be “Land Food Month,” which thankfully doesn’t exist. Seafood is far more than just an ingredient. It’s the sum of our culinary, social, and national histories. It's incredibly, inarguably crucial for the future of our food systems.
Telling people to eat more seafood may seem antithetical to sustainability, but I would argue that increasing seafood consumption will help bring about comprehensive improvements to environmental, economic, and human health. Chefs in particular have a significant role in this: nearly 70% of seafood eaten in America is eaten outside of the home.
So why should we all encourage people to eat more seafood? Three reasons:
Environment: Seafood is the go-to choice for sustainability.
When we judge the sustainability of seafood, we often analyze it through the lens of seafood-specific data. But seafood is equal to beef, pork, chicken, and lamb in the ways that we create dishes and offer them to our guests. When we measure seafood in context with these other ingredients, it proves time and again to be more sustainable.
This is partly because of physiology and environment. Land animals are busy fighting gravity. They build strong bones and connective tissue to counteract atmospheric pressure. They are warm-blooded, and require a lot of land dedicated to their production. Seafood—most of it cold-blooded—lives underwater in a buoyant environment requiring a less energy-intensive existence. Consider that as it relates to land use, freshwater use, feed conversion ratio, antibiotic use, and greenhouse gas emissions, seafood has a fin up in the sustainability game.
Economics: Seafood sustains communities.
I consider seafood to be North America’s original heritage food. First Nations and Native American peoples have sustained themselves with the bounty of coastal waters throughout history. Long before colonists were farming heirloom tomatoes or Berkshire pigs, Europeans sailed here for cod. In the 18th century, New England fisheries became a principle economy through which we grew wealth and took steps toward economic and political independence.
Though we have become disconnected from communities that provide seafood for our tables, it remains one of America’s greatest resources, sustained through best-in-class science-based management. The industry supports 1.7 million jobs and contributes $100 billion to our national economy. In my home state of Maine, seafood contributes more than $800 million annually to the economy. For our population of just over 1 million people, that’s a big deal.
One of the best ways to honor our maritime heritage is to support wild fisheries, but also to be vocal champions of sustainable aquaculture. There’s a misconception that farmed seafood and wild seafood are somehow different. Seafood is seafood. All of it is worthy of our culinary attention.
Health: Seafood sustains people.
While the food we serve is certainly entertainment, it’s also life and love. What we serve directly affects the health of our guests, and seafood is among the greatest tools we have to ensure that our guests are thriving. From helping to reduce cardiac mortality, to the cognition benefits it brings, serving more seafood is a true act of hospitality. Seafood is so important to human health that it’s said that the 3 S’s of public health are “Don’t Smoke, Wear your Seatbelt, Eat Seafood.”
No chef is worth their sea salt unless they serve delicious food. That’s where seafood truly delivers. Aside from all this responsibility talk, the bottom line is seafood is simply the best. The diversity of flavors, textures, colors, aromas, and narratives we experience through seafood are extraordinary. Seafood offers an unmatched richness of creative potential for us to discover. How fortunate we are to have an opportunity to combine such immense creative potential with great environmental impact. The next great culinary horizon is in fact just below it, swimming beneath the waves, in an ocean of responsible and delicious opportunity.
Barton Seaver’s most recent book is The Joy of Seafood. He’s also the creator of Seafood Literacy, an online culinary education program teaching confidence and competence in all aspects of seafood cooking.