our climate

Chickpea of the Sea

The future could be fishless. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

While meat consumption has for decades been scrutinized for its contributions to climate change, the world is only just starting to reckon with the climate tolls of the commercial-fishing industry.

For example, a study published in March in the journal Nature found that bottom trawling, the widespread fishing practice where a weighted net is dragged along the ocean floor to catch fish, emits 1.47 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year — as much as the entire aviation industry. “When we ran the model and we got those emissions numbers, that took us back,” says Trisha Atwood, one of the study’s co-authors and a watershed sciences professor at Utah State University. “It was far more than we were anticipating was going to be possible.”

And it’s not just trawling: In 2016 alone, marine-fishing vessels released 207 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, compared to just 47 million in 1950, a study published in Marine Policy found. In fact, emissions from wild lobster and shrimp fishing are often larger than livestock farming, according to a 2018 Nature Climate Change study, because of an extra step not taken on land: hauling the catch back to shore by using boats that burn large amounts of fuel.

“Seafood is better than pigs and cattle, but still it is pretty carbon-intensive because of the transport issues,” says Ian Urbina, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of The Outlaw Ocean. “The carbon footprint is not light.”

And like meat, a new industry is developing to replace seafood with plant-based food.

That’s the promise of Good Catch, which co-founder Chad Sarno hopes will offer for fish what brands like Impossible and Beyond have for beef. Founded in 2016, Good Catch produces a bevy of animal-free options: shelf-stable tuna (among the most popular and overfished species in the world), deli-style tuna, New England–style crab cakes, fish burgers, and more. Flush with millions in venture capital, Good Catch has already landed on the shelves of such retailing behemoths as Whole Foods and Thrive Market, and in March, the very-much-not-imitation-fish behemoth Bumble Bee Foods announced a partnership to distribute Good Catch to shops that already carries Bumble Bee.

Good Catch is far from the only player in the faux-seafood game: While plant-based seafood makes up just one percent of the roughly $7-billion U.S. plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy market, a flurry of other new, alternative seafood companies have sprung up, including Van Cleve Seafood Co., Sophie’s Kitchen, and Plant Based Seafood Co. Given alternative-meat sales are skyrocketing and a number of high-profile restaurateurs are switching to meatless menus, it’s fair to wonder if the future may be fishless, too.

While data is scant so far on how the plant-based fish industry stacks up against commercial fishing, the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems reported that a Beyond Burger produces 90 percent less greenhouse-gas emissions and requires 46 percent less energy than its beef counterpart. Prior research on the Impossible burger found it used 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land than beef, and cut water contamination by 92 percent.

Carbon emissions are far from the only concern about the enormous fishing industry. Scientists have found that bycatch — marine life that’s unintentionally caught — accounts for around 10 percent of the fishing industry’s haul. And like in nearly any food system, human-rights abuses often run rampant. Crews, who are often migrants desperate for work, can spend years as “sea slaves,” working around the clock in unforgiving, abusive conditions, usually without any oversight. “On the issue of sea slavery, companies are starting to think about supply-chain transparency, but they haven’t done a whole lot,” says Urbina.

The solution, then, is to “take reasonably and don’t overpollute,” says Rashid Sumaila, a professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia. (Sumaila was not involved in the Nature study.) Unfortunately, we haven’t exactly been living by that ethos. According to a 2010 United Nations report, over 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully or over-exploited, and a shortage of fish would effectively be “activating climate change,” Sumaila says. Or, as Urbina puts it: “If the oceans die, if biodiversity disappears, and we have these huge dead zones, the filtering function of the oceans disappears. The lungs can sit in your body. If you’re not alive, they don’t work.”

The Good Catch concoction is proprietary, but the brand’s own promotional materials state that its foods all come from a “six-legume blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans, and navy beans.” Farmed algae oil and omega-3 fatty acids are apparently also part of the recipe. “We needed to check a number of boxes when we were developing the product,” Sarno says. “One of them was smell. We were looking for a way to get a smell-less fish, because of workplace shaming. Texture was another one.”

After Sarno and I spoke, he sent over a smorgasbord of the Good Catch meals to sample. The deli-style tuna was moist and had a convincing texture. The tuna burgers and crab cakes possessed a consistency not often found in imitation fish. The products also came with suggested sauce recipes (I’ll be making the sriracha remoulade on many future occasions). I was not supplied with any of the shelf-stable tuna, which, perhaps not coincidentally, has earned comparatively less favorable reviews.

Now, plant-based seafood can’t be the planet’s lone solution to these problems. “Saying that everyone should move to a plant-based diet is a very Western viewpoint of the world,” says Atwood, the Utah State professor. “That’s just not going to be possible in communities that rely on fishing to provide coastal protein.” Innovations in the fields of aquaculture and cellular science offer still more alternatives for commercial fishing, but both carry their own problems. Aquaculture, the process by which fish are farmed for food, has long been criticized for its potentially sizable carbon footprint, though the sector appears to be improving as a whole. And when it comes to cellular science, it’s still unclear how exactly the government will regulate lab-grown fish, or whether people will have an appetite for something that was born from a petri dish.

For now, plant-based seafood is the most ecofriendly alternative we have. “We have a food crisis on the horizon,” Urbina says. “Unless we start figuring out ways to wean ourselves from that current model and have alternate, scalable sources of protein, we’re going to see really acute problems.”

Sarno’s diagnosis was a bit more blunt: “We don’t have 100 years to get our shit together.”

Chickpea of the Sea