Blog > Food and Health > Eco-impact of wild seafood less than that of poultry, beef RSS

Eco-impact of wild seafood less than that of poultry, beef

Raised Garden Beds in the Eartheasy Store

Join the Eartheasy Community

Sign up for our Newsletter:

* indicates required

Scientist calculates that the “edible protein energy return on investment” of 29 North Atlantic fisheries is much higher than any type of livestock.

By Eartheasy Posted Feb 10, 2011

Professor Hillborn At a recent Seafood Summit in Vancouver, B.C., Professor Ray Hilborn, Ph.D., a world-famous fisheries researcher from the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, described his encouraging conclusions about the relative ecological impacts of land-based food production versus acquisition of edible protein and fats from wild seafood.

His interest was piqued when a colleague in Africa asked him whether he should stop eating sushi. As he told the Summit attendees, his answer was, “I don’t know … what’s your alternative [protein]?”

His friend said that since he was not a vegetarian, the probable alternative was to eat more meat and poultry.

That prompted Hilborn to calculate whether the eco and energy impacts of eating wild fish were greater or less than those associated with raising meats and poultry. He calculated that ocean fisheries have smaller environmental impacts and use less energy in comparison with meat and poultry, per pound of protein produced.

Hilborn pointed out that conventional livestock farms and the grain and soy farms that raise animal feed use lots of water, pesticides, and antibiotics, and cause soil erosion. Over time, he said, the natural systems that land-based agriculture uses become depleted, and the soil must be treated with synthetic petrochemical fertilizers to maintain productivity.

By contrast, he said, ocean fisheries require none of these inputs. (Of course, like the farm machinery used to raise the crops fed to livestock and to transport them, fishing boats burn fossil fuels.)

Hilborn stressed that the world’s growing population – and its growing appetite for meat – will increasingly impact the environment. So it matters how much edible protein you get for the amount of energy (typically fossil fuels) invested in production.

As Dr. Hilborn said, the “edible protein energy return on investment” or EROI* of 29 North Atlantic fisheries (9.5 percent) is much higher than any type of livestock (pork comes in at 5.6 percent; chicken, 2.9 percent; and beef, 1.9 percent).

And when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions related to all aspects of production, fisheries compare favorably with livestock, and far outperform beef cattle, which emit methane from both ends.

He calculated the tons of greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) emitted per ton of “live weight” meat and poultry, versus major wild-harvest fisheries:

  • Beef operations emit 11.3 to 18.3 tons.
  • Pork operations emit 2.3 to 4.0 tons.
  • Chicken operations emit 1.4 tons.

The only fishery comparable to chicken production was purse-seine tuna fishing, which emits 1.6 to 2.2 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of live weight.

Other fisheries emit far less carbon dioxide, with herring and sardine fisheries responsible for just 0.07 to 0.36 tons and Atlantic cod fisheries emitting 0.9 to 3.8 tons (average 2.3).

Professor Hilborn also noted that, compared with conventional livestock operations, ocean fisheries preserve many more ecosystem components and functions, including species diversity.

Fish Even salmon farming – which involves chemical inputs and requires three pounds of fish to produce one pound of salmon – has less impact than production of meat and poultry, Hilborn added.

Last, he noted that neither land-based agriculture nor on-shore aquaculture (e.g., tilapia and shrimp farms) can meet a key standard used by the Marine Stewardship Council to assess sustainability:

“Fishing operations should allow for the maintenance of the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem (including habitat and associated dependent and ecologically related species) on which the fishery depends.”

An obvious objection may be raised at this point, concerning pressure on wild seafood stocks, and the overfishing of some species and regions.

While this threat remains real and growing, Dr. Hilborn and Boris Worm, Ph.D. – scientists who’ve been on both sides of this debate – joined to produce a collaborative study that produce more hope for the future of wild fisheries: see “Sunnier Seafood Forecast Issued by Former Foes”.

When it comes to choosing animal protein, it seems clear that wild seafood is a better choice than conventionally raised meat or poultry (or farmed seafood), for eco reasons as well as health-related ones.

*Professor Hilborn calculated the EROI of various animal foods using a method devised by Peter Tyedmers, Ph.D., which, as he wrote, involves “dividing the amount of useful energy provided by a given activity by the culturally mediated energy dissipated in providing it. In the case of food production systems, a common energy output used to calculate the EROI is the edible protein energy yield from the system being evaluated.” (Tyedmers P. Fisheries and Energy Use, Encyclopedia of Energy, Volume 2, 2004)

Posted in Food and Health Tags , , ,
  • Jon K

    It shoudn't take a scientist to figure out that wild seafood has less eco impact than poultry and beef, which are cultivated at great expense. "Wild' anything is lower impact than 'not wild' since anything wild has found a way to live in balance with nature.

  • sebek

    nice, i like fishing… 🙂

  • Jack Brewford

    It is obvious that seafood is more healthful than poultry and other flesh. This makes it obvious that one should opt for seafood in regular terms as compared to the other forms of non- vegetarian food. Also the other forms of meat may carry bacteria and other microorganism with them. This makes one prone to infections and other host of health problems.

  • Scott Simpson

    I guess his study confirmed what most people know in the first place… that anything that is farmed will use up more resources to grow and nurture than anything in its natural state. Also, it is often mentioned in most nutrition books that fish provides a healthier source of fat and protein than either meat or poultry. The omega 3 fatty acids provided by fish like salmon has also been shown to have multiple health benefits.

  • Does anyone else see the irony that because of the pollution caused by land meats, water meats that create less pollution have become too polluted to eat much of? I think locally some of the recommendations are that you eat no more than one serving of fish PER MONTH due to how bad it is.

  • Ken

    If we look at the comparison between fisheries and livestock are having a big gap. Some possible reason why people like eating fish than poultry because fish content much protein which is really fresh from the nature not like a livestock, if we look at around, farmer raise their livestock by eating them any product organic and this is actually not good to be consumed by people as a meat. Beside that like jack mentioned livestock may carry bacteria and other microorganism with them especially for pork,cow,chicken are easily vulnerable by virus.

  • This is such encouraging information. I’ve been eating a lot of fish lately and I think it’s a better alternative to other meats. It’s high in protein, substantially healthier, and this is just more reason for me to keep incorporating it!

  • Emily Griffith

    I’m curious if any studies exist that consider the impact of eating wild caught seafood to pasture raised poultry- I wonder if considering a more sustainable model to compare the meats would yield similar results- it doesn’t seem surprising that conventionally farmed meats have a higher impact on the environment but what about local/organic/pasture raised? it seems like a more relevant consideration….Factory farmed chickens to Farmed salmon, would be more comparable so I would be very interested on permaculture production vs. wild fishing. Does anyone know?

    • Good question Emily. If you come up with information on this please let us know and we’ll do a follow-up article. Thanks!

Blog > Food and Health > Eco-impact of wild seafood less than that of poultry, beef