Black cod on ice at the Saturday Fishermen’s Market in the Santa Barbara harbor. | Photo: Matt Perko

This article was originally published in ‘UC Santa Barbara Magazine‘.

With skill and precision, Get Hooked Seafood workers fillet and slice the 600 pounds of fresh vermilion rockfish sustainably caught just that morning in the Santa Barbara Channel. The fish is being prepared for delivery to the customers who subscribe to Get Hooked Seafood’s delivery service.

“The benefits of eating fish are so profound,” says Kim Selkoe, Ph.D., ’05, Get Hooked’s CEO. “The foods we’re harvesting from the ocean are packed with nutrients in a way most of those grown on land no longer have because of depleted soils.”

Selkoe, also a research fellow with UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), co-founded Get Hooked with Santa Barbara native and fellow UCSB alum Victoria Voss ’14. Once a week, subscribers receive a catch-of-the-day item along with a newsletter containing information about who caught the fish and where, as well as recipes and cooking tips.

“It’s a beautiful thing that we can have this wild harvest,” Selkoe adds.

For 3 billion people around the world, blue foods — those derived from aquatic animals, plants and algae — are a vital source of protein and essential micronutrients.

That’s according to The Blue Food Assessment, a joint initiative that brought together more than 100 scientists from institutions worldwide, including NCEAS Director Ben Halpern, who was part of the scientific leadership team. Their goal: to better understand the role blue foods play in global food systems and to create a scientific foundation upon which decision-makers can build the policies and practices that will shape those food systems in the future.

Launched in 2019 and continuing today, The Blue Food Assessment also found that 800 million people depend on blue food systems for their livelihoods, and nearly half of blue food workers are women. In addition, 2,500 species of fish, invertebrates, algae and aquatic plants are caught or cultivated for food, and two-thirds of blue food consumed by humans is produced by small-scale fisheries and aquaculture.

The bottom line: Blue food is not only life sustaining, it’s also big business.

But it’s complicated, too. How do we share in the oceans’ bounty without depleting its stores? It’s a daunting question, given that the oceans are a global resource and marine species don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries. Marine scientists at UC Santa Barbara are tackling the issue from a variety of perspectives that range from the effects of climate change to food production to sustainability of all sorts, including species, habitat and environment.

Whatever form your seafood takes — salmon or halibut, oysters or mussels, abalone or sea urchins — it lands on your plate in one of two very different ways: It’s wild-caught by a fishery either large-scale or small, or it’s produced via aquaculture.

Local fisherman Joseph (Joe) Garrigan prepares to unload his catch of rock crab caught fresh in the Santa Barbara channel. | Photo: Matt Perko

The Great Debate: Wild-Caught vs. Aquaculture

When Halpern got into marine conservation 20 years ago, he was convinced aquaculture was “one of the worst things for the ocean.” Two decades later, he considers it one of the best.

“It is, overall, a very sustainable way to produce seafood and produce food in general,” he says. “And it’s an incredibly diverse number of species that are farmed — hundreds of species. So, it’s a really diverse way of growing food.”

Additionally, there are whole categories of aquaculture — seaweed and shellfish in particular — that can actually be good for the environment. Seaweed, for example, sequesters carbon, so it’s fighting climate change as it’s growing. It also pulls in excess nutrients from, say, fertilizer runoff from land-based agricultural processes.

“The seaweed can actually absorb and use that nitrogen, helping to clean up the water,” Halpern explains. “Same with shellfish — mussels, clams and oysters. They filter the water, and they create habitat for other things to live in. You can eat those kinds of farmed seafood guilt free; they’re pretty much only a good thing.”

Contributing to Halpern’s turnaround are the technological innovations and new practices that have radically improved the sustainability and environmental footprint of aquaculture as a food production system. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what aquaculture is,” he says. “A lot of people’s impressions of aquaculture come from salmon or shrimp farming, which in the past had some pretty big environmental impacts. The industry isn’t perfect, but it’s very different now from the way the vast majority of people think about it.”

Take, for example, camera-based AI systems that track the movement of fish in their pens and deliver exactly the right amount of food at exactly the right time. “A reason people had issues with farmed salmon is because it was really inefficient,” Halpern explains. “It would take eight pounds of wild-caught seafood to grow one pound of salmon. That’s crazy. But today it’s one to one — one pound of wild-caught seafood to grow one pound of salmon. It’s unbelievably efficient.”

According to Halpern, the question consumers should ask themselves about their seafood is not whether it’s wild-caught or farmed but where it came from. “Wild-caught versus farmed is not a useful dichotomy anymore,” he says. “Most of the blue food in the U.S. is well managed and is sustainable in the bigger picture. It’s true for aquaculture and it’s true for wild-caught fisheries as well. It’s not 100%, but we have really strong environmental rules and regulations in the U.S. that manage all of our blue food production.” Interestingly, though, the U.S. imports from other countries 60% to 70% of the seafood we consume. And not all those countries have stringent regulations related to quality and sustainability. The reason for the high numbers? Some products aren’t available here, some are in particularly high demand, and all imported seafood tends to be less expensive. “So, when you buy wild-caught fish at the grocery store, there’s a good chance it came from somewhere else,” Halpern notes. “And you don’t necessarily know where it came from or the environmental or human rights practices that have been followed.”

His mantra: Buy local whenever possible.

Fishing for Food Security

“I think the blue food revolution is really exciting because it presents a way of producing more nutritious food in a more sustainable way,” says Chris Free, a researcher with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute (MSI) whose work focuses on large scale fisheries on the West Coast of the United States and, more specifically, in California. He and his team study the current and future impacts of climate change and actions that can mitigate them.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work on the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery, which is our most lucrative fishery,” says Free, who also serves on the science advisory committee of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the body that governs U.S. West Coast fisheries. But that species is threatened by two acute symptoms of climate change, he noted. The first is the rise in harmful algal blooms, which produce biotoxins that accumulate in the crab tissue and result in public health agencies closing fisheries. The second is the growing number of entanglements of humpback whales in Dungeness crab fishing gear.

“That’s actually being caused by climate-driven changes in oceanography,” says Free. “They’re forcing the whales to forage more in-shore, where the crab pots are set.”

Historically, the Dungeness crab fishery has been “one of the easiest to manage,” according to Free, because the regulations have been simple: Fisheries are allowed to catch only male crabs over a certain size during a particular season. “And that has been wildly successful at maintaining a sustainable and profitable fishery,” Free says. “But now it’s so dynamic and unpredictable. And fishermen are trying to hustle to figure out how to make a living in this new landscape.”

Another threat to fishing in the U.S. is bycatch of protected species such as marine mammals, sea birds and sea turtles. “We’ve been looking at reconstructing levels of bycatch in the California set gill-net fishery, which is largely based out of the Santa Barbara Harbor,” Free explains. He and his team have sought first to understand the extent of the problem and then to identify actions fisheries can take that will enable them to continue operations without endangering California sea lions and harbor seals and other protected marine life.

“It’s important to provide scientific guidance about the scale of the problem so we’re not making rules without information,” Free says. “That work has been really amazing because we’re finding that the current management regime has been quite effective at reducing bycatch relative to decades ago. And the incidental take of these animals is well below what’s legally allowed.”

For small-scale fisheries, the challenges are different but equally complex. These are not commercial or industrial fisheries but are akin to a family or community with a boat fishing for their own personal benefit, usually with lower production and shorter fishing trips.

That’s where Jacob Eurich directs his expertise. A fisheries scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a research associate at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, Eurich works with local communities primarily in the Asia-Pacific and central Pacific Ocean regions to develop sustainable fisheries management initiatives that help them address climate change impacts they’re experiencing now.

When working in a small community, he and his team focus on ecosystem first, drawing on local and indigenous knowledge. Most of the time, he explained, these smaller-scale fisheries don’t have the kind of big data that scientists work with in large scale fisheries. Monitoring systems and adaptive management such as we see in the U.S. are limited at best. “So, indigenous knowledge is really important,” Eurich says. “We start there, and we use ecosystem-based approaches.”

A local woman strings together giant clams at the South Tabiteuea, Kiribati market. | Photo: Jacob Eurich

One of the greatest challenges, he notes, is that fisheries management in data-limited fisheries is neither simple nor easy nor timely. “We have the necessary tools — they already exist — we know what’s happening now, how things are changing, and we can make predictions with very sophisticated models, but that doesn’t always mean fisheries management can track those predictions,” Eurich continues. “There are political barriers, funding barriers, even just personal relationships between the people involved. How fisheries management protocols work and function is different from place to place.”

Still, Eurich sees reasons for hope around the world. “In my work with small-scale fisheries, it’s social networks or fisheries cooperatives. These are groups of people who have bound together to address issues within their blue food system and associated fisheries,” he says. “We’ve seen some incredible things like adaptive community-based fisheries management and supply chain interventions initiated by fishery cooperatives using local knowledge. I think that’s really inspiring because fisheries management is complex. Addressing supply chain problems or how seafood moves through the system is even more difficult, and still we are seeing successful stories.”

The Local Network

Get Hooked Seafood is organized on similar principles.

“We define local as central and Southern California,” says Selkoe, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara. Since its incorporation in 1971, the organization has followed a threefold mission to provide healthy, high-quality seafood to local and global markets; to ensure the economic and biological sustainability of fisheries; and to maintain California’s fishing heritage.

But Get Hooked does more than deliver fresh seafood to its subscription customer base, which stretches from northern Santa Barbara County south to Manhattan Beach and east to Altadena, and to Good Eggs, an online grocer in the Bay Area that carries seafood under the Get Hooked label. The company has become an integral part of the local community, making its commercial kitchen available to other fishermen and food entrepreneurs, such as UC Santa Barbara Bren School alumnus Max Diamond, who uses the facility to prepare his gourmet line of Salty Gold Uni butter.

Get Hooked also is creating a new generation of seafood aficionados by bringing kid-friendly Oregon pink shrimp ceviche to the roughly 3,300 children in Oxnard’s Rio School District. They’re waiting on a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) that will enable them to work with Ventura County’s Farm to School Program to ramp up delivery of more kid-friendly seafood to 15,000 children in Ventura. Selkoe and her team also have partnered with local farms and garden centers to turn their fish scraps into soil amendment, with a pilot project underway at Santa Barbara’s famed Ganna Walska Lotusland.

“Our planet is 70% ocean; it’s big enough to support us if we manage it properly,” Selkoe says. “If we fish sustainably and harvest sustainably, we can meet the protein needs of large numbers of people.”

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