Do Fish Have a Carbon Finprint?

Do Fish Have a Carbon Finprint?

By Don Willmott


If you’ve given any thought to how the choices we make can affect our planet, you probably know about the huge environmental impact of raising livestock for food. All that grain. All that water. All that methane and manure that cattle and hogs produce every day. And all that land. Did you know that raising animals for food accounts for about 40 percent of the agricultural output of industrialized countries, and grazing takes up more than 25 percent of the Earth's available surface? Many people enjoy a cheeseburger with bacon, but we all need to realize that it comes at a cost.

Shouldn’t seafood be a different story? Don’t fish have a negligible impact on the environment? After all, the ocean is so vast. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. A recent report suggests that the seafood choices we make as consumers can have a direct impact on the overall health of the environment.

Mackerel is a potent source of protein and vitamins. Unfortunately, it can be a tough sell to American consumers.

It’s all about how fishermen go about their work. The ships that make industrial-scale fishing possible are fuel gluttons, with the energy burned to get fish from the sea to the shore accounting for 60 to 90 percent of the industry's total energy use and emissions. Fossil fuels power the ships’ engines, the on-board seafood processing machines and freezers, and more.

Robert Parker, a Ph.D student from Nova Scotia studying the fishing industry at the University of Tasmania in Australia and Peter Tyedmers, director of the School for Resources and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, calculated that the process of catching a metric ton of sardines, mackerel, or anchovies takes about five gallons of fuel. But catching a metric ton of lobster or shrimp takes up to 2,600 gallons of fuel. By their reckoning, fishing for shrimp and lobster is just about as fuel-intensive as raising livestock, although they credit U.S. and Canadian lobstermen for being much more efficient than their international competitors.

Mackerel is easy to catch, making it among the most energy-efficient types of seafood to harvest.

Fisheries producing small, fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, and anchovies are "among the most energy and carbon-efficient forms of protein production," the study says. The little guys are also packed with omega-3s and vitamin D, which most doctors recommend. But getting more people to eat them is a tough sell, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where many consumers consider them simply too “fishy.” Instead, much of the catch ends up as livestock and aquaculture feed, so what starts out as efficient becomes inefficient—and we all lose.

Given the choice, will you order grilled mackerel next time instead of shrimp scampi? Perhaps not, but knowledge is food for the soul, and this is one more example of the kinds of environmental tradeoffs that can influence dozens of decisions we make every day. In the meantime, may we recommend chef Gordon Ramsay’s Roasted Mackerel with Garlic and Paprika? Try it, you’ll like it!


Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel, and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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