Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Warm fish: a whole new meaning

Doin' the right thing when it comes to seafood



Last Tuesday, Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program announced southern B.C. coho and Chinook salmon were no longer sustainable enough to earn the Ocean Wise mark. The same day the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a review on ocean warming, saying it may "be the greatest hidden challenge of our generation."

The review, launched at IUCN's World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, stresses the extent and scale of ocean warming on the world's ecosystems and human well-being, from direct and indirect effects on fish stocks to increased risk to water-borne diseases and extreme weather events.

It's not a pretty picture. As their press release states, it's "no longer a single story of ocean warming challenges to coral reefs, but a rapidly growing list of alarming changes across species at ecosystem scales, and across geographies spanning the entire world."

Earlier this summer DFO shut down all sockeye fisheries on the Fraser because of low returns. Globally, entire groups of species, including plankton, jellyfish and fish, are predicted to move up toward the poles by 10 degrees of latitude to keep up with ocean warming.

Suddenly, the notion of "warm fish" has a whole new meaning, and it has nothing to do with a steam oven.

In 2015, two months after a heat wave smashed 64 temperature records in B.C. (the top temperature that Sunday in June was 39.9 in Revelstoke, while Whistler hit 35.6, coastal Bella Bella saw 29.6 and Kitimat was 31.2), Vancouver Aquarium flagged that water in the Fraser River had been four to five degrees Celsius warmer than usual for summer. Water levels in salmon streams hit record lows — in some cases they were nonexistent.

Throughout, our oceans have been absorbing 93 per cent of the heat we humans have caused since the 1970s. And NASA has confirmed that this past July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth since record keeping began in 1880. It was the 10th consecutive month of heat-breaking records worldwide.

No wonder our southern B.C. coho and Chinook salmon — and so much more marine life — are in trouble.

Let's start with how higher water temperatures impact fish. According to Vancouver Aquarium's Aquablog, less oxygen is available to fish in warmer water, so "a salmon's swimming capability decreases because its heart is struggling to deliver sufficient oxygen to its muscles." That means fish use more energy to travel the same distance, not a good thing as any jogger or mountain biker can tell you.

Other factors come in to play, too. Diseases reproduce more rapidly in warmer waters so things like fungal growth and skin lesions hit salmon harder.

Just to clarify, it's not all coho and Chinook stocks that have had their Ocean Wise status revoked — it's only stocks from Southern B.C. and off the west coast of Vancouver Island. But what's new here is that it's the first time Ocean Wise has revoked its sustainable certification during a reassessment of salmon stocks. And it's the first time any B.C. salmon stocks have earned a red or "avoid" designation from another sustainability program, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

"These rankings confirm fears about declining wild salmon populations heard across B.C. this summer," said Jeffery Young, senior science and policy advisor at the David Suzuki Foundation's SeaChoice program, which is the Canadian branch of Seafood Watch (Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program is also based on Monterey's data).

Oh, and you should know, too, that all these rankings are for commercial catches only, which are less than recreational catches of coho and Chinook stocks.

But now that you catch the drift about our poor salmon's situation, how do you keep abreast of the situation?


Besides going vegetarian, eating less seafood, or avoiding something like salmon altogether so you can sleep at night, the best thing to do if you want to feel like you're not picking at the bones of the last fish is to try and wade through the many seafood conservation programs.

It ain't easy.

The big reason is these seafood programs are voluntary — they're not regulated or standardized by any central agency. So, like much of our labelling and programs to help people eat the right thing in Canada, there's a lot of cross-over and confusion.

Better to buy wild? Farmed — but only if it's land-based? Fresh or flash-frozen at sea? From a small, coastal hook-and-line fishery? Or that land-based fish farm on Sumas Lake? (Yes, there is one, raising tilapia.) Gillnet? Diver caught? Something certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council? The list goes on...

You'll see a number of "seals of approval" on fresh, frozen and tinned seafood products these days, but before I make a pick at a restaurant or store I tend to look for Ocean Wise and SeaChoice. They're both hooked into local organizations I trust and to a solid network of suppliers, although some argue that Sea Choice is more comprehensive in its rationale.

Either way, there are two bottom lines: One is to recognize that it's not business as usual in our waterways, even though stuff like this is getting dropped further and further back in news streams as it happens again and again. Old news, like old fish, doesn't cut it.

Two is that we all need to take a stand and do the right thing even though it sometimes feels like a royal pain in the ass and we'd rather just duck and suck up some more brain candy.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who looks forward to your best and smartest seafood choice.