When Netflix’s controversial documentary Seaspiracy premiered in March, essentially touting the claim that all fish is unsafe from an environmental and labor perspective, Google searches for “vegan fish,” more than doubled as people learned they may need to find a truly sustainable alternative to their favorite seafood.
Plant-based sausage, vegan chicken, and meat-free burgers are no longer so hard to imagine—so much so that many have become everyday staples in home and restaurant kitchens, but vegan seafood is only just starting to catch up.
In the same way faux beef or chicken products have sought the approval of meat-lovers in addition to vegetarians and vegans, plant-based fish products have had to get the approval of “traditional seafood lovers,” said Monica Talbert, founder of Plant Based Seafood Co.. It’s a tall order: While vegan versions of ground beef, sausage, or chicken nuggets, for example, must look and taste like processed meat, plant-based seafood, like shrimp or scallops, have to mimic an animal in its whole animal form, which is much harder to achieve from a textural and visual perspective.
Though it may seem natural that vegan seafood options exist considering the popularity of other plant-based meat options, fish is often the last animal protein one gives up before going plant-based. A large—and constantly growing—number Americans currently identify as flexitarian, meaning they only occasionally consume animal products (interestingly, 98 percent of plant-based meat consumers also still buy meat products.) According to a 2019 survey, the main reason people reduce meat consumption is for personal health; seafood is generally viewed as a healthier source of protein than other meats. Still, protein and other nutrients associated with seafood, like omega-3 fatty acids, can also be found (in comparable amounts per ounce, at times) in nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils.
Environmental concern is the second major reason many cite for limiting or omitting meat from their diets, however small an attempt to make on the negative environmental impact of big agriculture and commercial farming.
But it’s a relatively common assumption that a lot of fish and seafood are certified as sustainable, right? Turns out, there may not be as much truth to the concept. Indeed, the ubiquitous blue MSC label on wild fish or seafood assesses the sustainability of fisheries, reflecting, the organization notes, “the most up-to-date understanding of internationally accepted fisheries science,” but some feel this is be too simplistic a designation.
“In my view, sustainable seafood is a contradiction in terms,” said Jennifer Telesca, a professor of environmental justice and the author of Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna.
“Fishery science [is] not like climate science. It’s fully entangled with industry,” Telesca explained. “The science itself is geared to counting the number of fish in the sea. It’s interested in the inventory. It’s not interested in ascertaining the fact that the big fish are gone—and when you have an ocean full of juvenile or young adult fish, that in itself signals that we have a problem on our hands.” Essentially, these facts are not rooted in marine ecosystems as a whole, she noted: “There’s the serious concern about whether or not the fishery science itself is capturing the full range of what’s going on.”
By marketing seafood as sustainable, Telesca said, we’re creating a myth of abundance for some (typically those in wealthier countries), while not actually fishing in a way that can sustain the 3 billion people worldwide relying on fish as their primary source of protein. “The people that are eating all the fish are not the poor Black and brown folk in coastal communities, in the global south.”
Talbert founded Plant Based Seafood Co. after almost two decades running a marine animal seafood market. She could see the results of overfishing, pollution, and climate change right outside her window: “The demand for Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab far, far, far, exceeds the supply,” she said. By recreating the seafood experience with plants—Plant Based Seafood Co’s “Mind Blown” line offers shrimp, scallops, and lobster-crab cakes made from konjac powder, vegetable root starch, and vegetable gum, among other seasonings—companies can provide some respite and relief for the ocean’s stressed species.
“The drive behind creating these cruelty-free substitutes,” added Menge, “is to move beyond the need to industrially strip our oceans of life.”
This brings up another issue often cited by those following plant-based diets: animal welfare. “This whole idea of sustainability is fine, except it doesn’t address the welfare issues,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in marine animal behavior and intelligence.
Marino discussed that many imagine an animal hierarchy of sorts, with humans (and our pets) at the top, other mammals below, and fish at the bottom. But, Marino said, this “doesn’t have any foundation in science. Especially when you look at invertebrates, like octopus and even shrimp. They are intelligent and sentient beings. They’re animals who just happen to live in the water.”
As is the case with other meats, many still enjoy the taste of fish, even if they don’t like the idea of eating a sentient being, or participating in the industrialized overfishing of the ocean. For those who don’t want to make a radical change to their way of preparing and eating food, these realistic seafood substitutions that taste good are becoming more widely available. Despite a fair amount of interest in the product, Talbert noted “the challenges are enormous.” Seafood-lovers “know the look, taste, and mouthfeel, or fork performance to a tee.”
Still, as is the case with any vegan adaptation of an animal product, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Vegan Zeastar uses a combination of tapioca starch from the cassava root, flax and rapeseed oil to realistically reproduce the texture of sashimi. Sutton & Sons, a London fish and chip shop, has vegan fish on their menu, made from banana blossom marinated in seaweed and samphire, which gives it a marine flavor. Good Catch uses legumes, including peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, and beans, to give their seafood products “comparable” levels of protein to fish, and reproduce the flaky texture of seafood. Aquacultured Foods use a specific strain of mushroom in a fermentation process to achieve the texture of a whole-muscle cut of various fish, including tuna, whitefish, squid, and shrimp. Each of these products’ ingredients put less pressure on the environment than their real-fish counterparts. Still, it’s hard to tell whether these products will make a great enough impact.
Certainly, cutting our collective consumption of fish and seafood is necessary in order for the environment—and humans—to continue to thrive. While selecting a plant-based option is a step in the right direction, “the solution is not individual consumers. Moving toward a plant-based diet, recycling, composting, these are all necessary, but they strike me as the floor, not the ceiling,” said Telesca. “What I would rather see and advocate for, is a shift away from a consumer-based model preoccupied with individual choices. Instead, imagine what a citizen-based initiative would mean—as a collective putting pressure on our leaders and our governments—to ensure not only adequate policy is put into place, but also ensuring that industry no longer sits in their back pocket.”