A Lesson in Eating Sustainably

For Dr. Sylvia Earle, the animals of the ocean represent sea life, not seafood. Because of this, she has campaigned for many years to change the irresponsible attitude of the human race towards marine life, whereby countless species are indiscriminately killed to supply the international seafood industry. Particularly, Dr. Earle maintains that in the majority of cases, this industry exists not to provide food security for impoverished coastal communities, but to cater to the upmarket, specialty tastes of wealthy consumers for whom seafood is a delicacy, rather than a necessity. To help combat this reality, Dr. Earle pioneered the Sustainable Seafood initiative, first in the United States, and then her lead was followed in Europe, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

In this country, the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) is managed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). SASSI focuses on encouraging and enabling consumers to make informed decisions about the seafood that they purchase; and yet, it has long been Dr. Earle’s belief that even responsible seafood consumption is not enough to reverse the damage done to our oceans by overfishing. Instead, she believes that anyone that contributes to the demand for seafood is part of the problem - particularly those that comprise the upmarket demographic for whom seafood is a luxury. For this reason, Dr. Earle has chosen to exclude seafood completely from her diet- an example that she has inspired many others to follow.

As a mark of respect for Dr. Earle’s philosophies, seafood was left off the menu at all of the functions held during her recent South African Hope Spot tour, in an effort to raise awareness about the importance of sustainability. At each of the 32 venues, the statement was widely applauded by attending guests, and it is hoped that some of them may permanently adopt Dr. Earle’s dietary choices as a result. This campaign began on the first day of the tour, when Dr. Earle was treated to a delicious meal prepared by Swati Foster after a dive to launch the False Bay Hope Spot. By using seaweed products instead of animals to create her unique menu, Swati lent her dishes an ocean-inspired twist without impacting on the marine environment. Here, she talks about her seaweed lunch, and explains in her own words the importance of eating sustainably:

“Around the world, 3.8 tonnes of fish are caught every second- a third of which will never even reach the dinner plate. Instead, it is discarded as by-catch- the unwanted collateral damage of fishing for more desirable target species. In Mozambique, for example, national prawn fisheries annually catch and discard more than 130 other marine species, many of which have suffered a population decline as a direct result. Unfortunately, the issue of by-catch is just one symptom of the overwhelming devastation wrought by overfishing. Other, equally catastrophic ramifications of unsustainable fishing practices include habitat destruction, the collapse of the ocean food chain as a result of the disappearance of apex predators, and the devaluation of a resource that plays a vital role as the planet’s most significant source of oxygen. According to WWF, 53% of world fisheries are exploited whilst 33% are over-exploited. Worst of all, several major fisheries have been overfished to such an extent that they have collapsed completely.

To me, this state of affairs is not just wasteful, but also criminally irresponsible. Thankfully, we have people like Dr. Sylvia Earle, a woman who has dedicated her life not only to saving the world’s oceans, but also to saving the human race from its own innate foolishness. Recently, Dr. Earle travelled to South Africa as the patron of the Sustainable Seas Trust, in order to unveil and promote the country’s first six Hope Spots. Hope Spots are areas vital to the future recovery of the marine environment; areas that support and sustain marine life, consequently acting as a reservoir for the rest of the ocean. Before Dr. Earle’s visit to South Africa, the Global Hope Spot Network comprised 51 Hope Spots located all over the world. Now, there are 57 international Hope Spots, six of which are located in South Africa.

My husband, Craig Foster, is part merman, part full-time marine enthusiast and filmmaker, and cannot survive without a daily dip in the ocean. In order to help conserve the environment in which he feels most at home, he helped to create one of the six new Hope Spots in our home town, False Bay. To do this, he worked alongside the Sustainable Seas Trust, a South African conservation organisation responsible for the facilitation of the Hope Spots in South Africa. The CEO of the Sustainable Seas Trust, Dr. Anthony Ribbink, is also working hard to promote marine conservation. He has spent a lifetime helping scientists and members of the public alike to understand, study and conserve aquatic environments. So, how do I come into this picture? Well, I made the seaweed lunch for Dr. Earle, Dr. Ribbink and the rest of the Hope Spot team after a dive to promote the False Bay Hope Spot. Of course, given Dr. Earle’s views, seafood was most certainly off the menu…or was it?

Is there a way to eat seafood that won’t send the ocean and those warriors that fight to protect it into convulsions? I am not talking about sustainably caught fish; on my menu, there were to be no fish, no shrimps, no lobsters, no crabs, no mussels, and no oysters. And yet, I still wanted to create a lunch that spoke of the sea; one that could creatively be termed as a seafood lunch. My husband and I were introduced to the fine art of eating kelp by Roushanna Grey, a gourmet cook who excels at using locally sourced kelp and seaweed to make delicious meals. Taking several pages (or rather, several kelp strands) out of her book, I managed a menu that looked something like this:

For starters, a rich tomato and lemon soup made with kelp noodles. What are kelp noodles? Well, they’re made from red seaweed, processed through a pasta machine in order to create tagliatelle-like strands. When boiled, they even taste just like pasta.

I then made a salad using wrack, another type of kelp. Wrack is delicious when eaten raw and tossed with soy sauce, or lightly sautéed in butter and garlic. For mains, I created what felt, looked and tasted like sheets of green pasta from another type of kelp known as sea bamboo leaves. When boiled for at least two hours, these leaves achieve the same consistency as lasagne sheets. Inside the sheets, I wrapped minced grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, topped with sour cream. It was important that the beef was organically raised, as the diet of factory-farmed cows is comprised of 30% seafood or fish meal. I don’t know why, it just is- another symptom of humanity’s persistent disregard for nature.

I also made a salad of glass noodles, broccoli, mushrooms, and pasture-reared, free-range chicken pieces. To make the glass noodles, I used the liquid left over after boiling the red seaweed from which I made my starter. This liquid, when frozen into a jelly, can easily be shredded to create the finer glass noodles. For those seeking a fully-vegetarian version of these dishes, it is easy to substitute both beef and chicken- either with vegetarian cheese, or with soy-based meat substitutes.

So that was lunch. Kelp grows over a centimetre every day, and does not need to be ripped out at the roots in order to eat it. It is harvested by taking a few strands from the living plant, or alternatively, by using freshly washed-up kelp strands. The wrack used in the salad also grows abundantly, and can similarly be harvested without killing the living plant. Seaweed is significantly more nutritious than any terrestrial plant, and so even a small amount can go a long way. I managed to feed 14 people (with seconds) on just a basketful of different types of kelp. See, get the idea? Sustainable. And yet from the sea.

Around the world today, close to three billion people living in coastal communities depend upon the ocean both for their food and for their livelihoods- all of whom are threatened by large commercial fisheries. The next time you think of going out for sushi, consider the ramifications of overfishing, and the way in which your dietary choices are exacerbating the situation. Perhaps you will realise that the true cost of your sushi is simply too high- unless world fisheries drastically change the way they operate. As consumers, the power to effect change is in our hands- and our wallets are the weapons that will make a difference in the fight against overfishing. The future health of our oceans affects everyone- even those that live far from the coast or have never seen the sea. Wherever you are, you can enlighten others. More importantly, you can fight for change.”

Did You Know?

"We must protect the ocean as if our lives depend upon it -- because they do."

Sylvia Earle
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