BERKELEY, Calif. — Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle knows it's relatively easy to find the price of a dead fish.
But, she told the audience at the Good Food Institute Conference on Thursday evening that it's harder to find the price of a live fish.
"We think of fish as free. Free goods for us to extract," Earle said at a session. "We're not thinking of what we take out of the system"
Earle, who is a National Geographic Society explorer in residence and a former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said fishing makes a huge difference in the oceans and the rest of the ecosystem. She advocated for less commercial fishing and more work on determining plant-based or possibly lab-grown substitutes for seafood.
While predictions that there will be no fish in the ocean by 2048 are a bit overblown and too dire, Earle said, the world is heading down that path. Fishing as it is known today will end by the end of the century because the supply will not be there.
The animals in the ocean should be considered as more than delicious seafood, she said.
"We should be looking at fish as something that makes the ocean functional, that makes our lives possible," she said.
And while fish have been a necessary part of coastal people's diets for generations, they are not needed in the places and at the scale that the commercial fishing industry currently serves. People in a place like Chicago, for example, do not need to subsist on tuna. For those who have not relied on seafood for generations, eating seafood is a choice.
Looking simply at input and output, Earle said it does not make sense for people to eat seafood. Animals in the sea eat their way up through the food chain in order to grow. This could mean a fish eats thousands of pounds of plankton to get big enough to be eaten by humans. Fish like tuna generally don't become human food until they're a significant size, about 10 years old. And so, she said, those thousands of pounds of plankton eaten during the fish's life are all inputs to make one 10-year-old fish. If that fish were not caught to become human food, she said, it could most likely stay in the ocean's population, living to about 30.
"If you consider the cost of the food chain, it's really a pretty expensive choice," Earle said.
So how can the world's taste for seafood be changed? Earle said plant-based or lab-grown substitutes could help. She said marketing could help turn consumers' attention to the new products. After all, she remembers when nobody wanted to buy bluefin tuna because it was not marketed well. And raw oysters, which do not look appetizing, are considered a delicacy.
Earle told the developers, manufacturers, funders and industry members in the audience that it's their job to create tasty and sustainable food products to transition consumers away from eating fish. If consumers know why they need to stop eating seafood and have a tasty alternative, it could really make a difference.
"This new way of looking at what we consume is so 21st century," she said. "It’s what we really need for food security."