The Race Is on to Find the Next Sustainable Superstar Seafood

“There is no more normal in California,” says Kenny Belov, the owner of Two X Sea, a seafood restaurant and wholesaler on San Francisco’s waterfront. He’s not talking about the state’s wildfires or housing prices–although he certainly could be. Instead he means California fish: “People will drop their gear in the water, but there is no guarantee that they will bring something up.”

When it comes to seafood harvested from the Pacific Ocean, what’s familiar may not be sustainable. And what’s sustainable may not have mass appeal. But thanks to a determined group of fishermen, purveyors, and foragers in California, that may be changing. It just may not be changing fast enough.

Thanks to human activity, the water off of California’s coast is warming. Last August, the surface of the sea surface off San Diego reached the highest temperature ever recorded. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, average sea surface temperatures on California’s Pacific coast rose a degree to a degree and a half Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century.

Climate change has already pummeled an industry that reached $ 196 million in revenue in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. In 2015, an outbreak of toxic algae that may thrive in warming waters triggered the closure of most of the year’s Dungeness crab season. Climate change is expected to cause moderate to severe declines in salmon populations across California and the Pacific Northwest. And the habitat of species like the spiny lobster has been pushed northward.

What's next-Finless Foods
General scene of commercial fishing boats in San Francisco Bay.The Washington Post/Getty Images

To be sure, not every indicator is negative. In March, Christopher Free, a postdoctral scholar at the University of California,Santa Barbara was the lead author on a paper in Science that estimated the effect of climate change on fisheries. Although the global maximum sustainable yield dropped 4.1% from 1930 to 2010, the decrease was not evenly distributed. In the California Current, a Pacific Ocean current moving southward along the western coast of North America, Free tells me, “fish populations haven’t been strongly impacted by warming. It’s probably the result of good management.” For each of the species that Free and his coauthors analyzed–which included sardine, lingcod, and rockfish–the estimated effect of warming in California was statistically indistinguishable from zero.

But past successes do not guarantee future ones. For Belov, the problem is easy to state and hard to solve: “The things we want are the things we shouldn’t be eating.”

What to Eat Next

“It’s depressing. What do Americans eat? The number one seafood consumed in North America is shrimp,” adds Kirk Lombard, a friend of Belov and the founder of Sea Forager, which gives coastal walking tours and sells sustainable seafood.

For Lombard, the most sustainable seafood to eat live at the bottom of the food chain: “The gospel of small fishes,” he says. It’s one thing to realize that wild salmon or bluefin tuna isn’t the most sustainable option. It’s quite another to convince consumer to substitute them with unfamiliar seafood like purple urchins, which tend not have the same amount of roe as their more commonly eaten cousins, or spiny lobsters, which lack the big claws that American eaters prize.

Sea Forager-California Sustainable Seafood
Kirk Lombard, founder of Sea ForagerCourtesy of Kirk Lombard

Lombard proselytizes fishes like herring, which are plentiful in the San Francisco Bay, but not consumed here as they are in cities like Amsterdam, where the Dutch snack on them like hot dogs. But unlike legally-tolerated marijuana, that innovation has failed to catch on in the United States. In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, just $ 196 worth of herring was caught commercially in California–all of it in Los Angeles–while $ 14,884 worth of herring roe was harvested in San Francisco. Those are rounding errors compared to the state’s major fish industries. By contrast, market squid landings totaled $ 68 million in revenue, Dungeness crab $ 47 million, Chinook salmon $ 4.8 million, swordfish revenue totaled $ 3.9 million, and bigeye tuna $ 3.5 million.

California’s seafood, in other words, might as well swim in two different oceans, says Dave Colpo, senior program manager at the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. On the one side, there are industrial-scale trawlers that catch things like whiting and pollack destined for the freezer aisle and fast food sandwiches. “You can’t imagine how much gets pumped off those boats.” On the other are the mid-scale boats that fish for Dungeness crab and salmon, as well as the smaller outfits that catch everything else. “Urchin is not the McDonald’s of fish,” he says with a laugh.

Is Seaweed the Next Big Thing?

And if urchin is boutique, what does that make seaweed? For Catherine O’Hara, it’s the next big thing. In 2017, she and two other women founded Salt Point Seaweed, harvesting wild seaweed from the Mendocino Coast and selling it to restaurants and directly to consumers. They gather kombu, wakame, and nori–seaweeds that O’Hara thinks pass a tough test: “They’ve been around for long enough in mainstream culture that preschoolers are hooked on them.”

The numbers bear her out. In 2015, the most recent year for which the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has data available, the commercial edible algae harvest reached 27 metric tons. In 1997, when the state began keeping that data, the amount was less than five metric tons.

In addition to wild harvesting, O’Hara is exploring farmed seaweed. This year, she completed a pilot project with Hog Island Oyster Co. in Tomales Bay, in which she grew red algae similar to that served in poke bowls, alongside the cultivated oysters.

Turns out that farming the two species together can bring significant benefits. One of the big threats to shellfish from climate change is ocean acidification, the decrease in pH caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the water. When the water turns too acidic, it can eat away shells, killing oyster larvae before they develop.

Enter the seaweed. “Just like most plants on earth take out of the air, seaweed takes carbon and nitrogen out of the water,” says O’Hara. “In the water right now, there’s too much carbonic acid.” Over the last year, their experimental plot of seaweed pulled some of that carbon out of the water, lessening the damage to the oysters.

It’s an alternative model of how seafood might be harvested from the Pacific Ocean in the future. Now all that remains is to see whether consumers will catch up.


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European Soccer Is Set Up to Protect Superstar Players. So What’s Next for Cristiano Ronaldo?

Nine years ago, Kathryn Mayorga signed a non-disclosure agreement presented to her by lawyers for the international soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. Last week, in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel and in court filings in Las Vegas challenging that NDA, Mayorga broke her silence and spoke out publicly. She says Ronaldo raped her in 2009 in a Las Vegas hotel room.

The allegations are now reverberating through the sporting world. The Portuguese superstar has been world player of the year five times and lifted the Champions League trophy with his club team three seasons in a row. His most recent contract with Nike is reportedly worth one billion dollars. But now Nike has released a statement that the company is “deeply concerned” about Mayorga’s allegations. Ronaldo denied the allegations himself on Instagram on Sept. 30, calling them “fake news.” The Italian club Juventus, which spent $ 117 million to acquire Ronaldo from Real Madrid over the summer, took to social media on Thursday to defend its new star. With controversy swirling, Portugal chose not to include Ronaldo in its squad for the next round of international fixtures, although both sides say the decision is temporary.

What comes next is still uncertain. The Ronaldo case is the the highest-profile story of sexual assault in soccer since the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Indeed, Mayorga has said she was inspired by reading the testimony of other women who chose to reveal publicly stories they had felt unable to speak about for years.

But as Mayorga tells her story, will Ronaldo face any consequences? One problem here is that the structure of European sports makes it hard for punishments to be leveled in similar situations. Such punishments in North American sports are hardly a given—hockey star Patrick Kane was not sanctioned by the National Hockey League after being accused of sexual assault in 2015, for example. But when they do happen, as with Major League Baseball suspending Addison Russell for 40 games due to an allegation of domestic abuse, the punishments are typically brought by the leagues. In Europe, however, there is no single European soccer league comparable to the NHL or MLB. When he signed for Juventus, Ronaldo left Spain’s La Liga for a different league in Italy, Serie A.

These various national leagues tend to be loose confederations in which the top teams hold outsized power. Serie A is unlikely to act in a way that punishes its top team. It would also be possible for the Italian Football Federation, which oversees both club and international soccer in the country, to level a punishment. But that power is not widely used in cases like this either. In 2016 in England, when the player Ched Evans was released from prison after serving time for rape, neither the league nor the English Football Association stepped in to suspend or otherwise sanction Evans. Ronaldo then has two lines of defense. His club, which invested heavily to retain his services, has spoken in his defense. The league and the national federation have little history of fighting disciplinary battles in similar situations and limited power to effectively challenge Juventus. So long as the club defends the player, the institutions of European soccer are structured to protect players like Ronaldo.

These institutional protections echo Ronaldo’s own protections, as reported by Der Spiegel. His lawyers went so far as to hire private investigators to trail Mayorga as they sought to discredit her accusations. In so many #MeToo cases, powerful men use the legal system to protect themselves from consequences and to silence those who speak up against them.

This has been standard in Ronaldo’s defense, with his lawyers threatening a lawsuit against Der Spiegel. Here, they are using another key institutional protection—defamation laws. Libel law in the United Kingdom places the burden of proof on the defense, meaning that a newspaper sued by Ronaldo for publishing details of the rape accusation would need to demonstrate to the court it had not defamed the soccer star. Much of the initial English-language coverage of the Ronaldo case came from American media, where publishers have less to fear from the legal threats of Ronaldo’s team.

But coverage is now intensifying, despite the legal hurdles. An outcry from women and feminist media critics challenged reporters to investigate the story. Events such as the re-opening of the criminal case by Las Vegas police, the public statement of concern from Nike, and Ronaldo’s and Juventus’ public statements have provided local media with clear facts to report.

And Mayorga’s allegations are not simply a matter of her word against Ronaldo’s. In her legal filing, Mayorga claims that medical examinations from the night of the incident confirm her account. She also brings forward a questionnaire in which it appears Ronaldo admits that Mayorga repeatedly said “no” and “stop” during the event. While these documents are not yet fully public or confirmed, they have been reported by Der Spiegel and would offer more material for investigation were they to become public.

The Ronaldo case, then, is developing slowly. While in the past an allegation like Mayorga’s might have been dismissed, and a denial like Ronaldo’s simply accepted, here the story continues. But it faces even more obstacles than a similar allegation would in American sports. The loose structure of the league system and more restrictive defamation laws both offer added protections to sports figures. Mayorga is speaking out and the platform of the #MeToo movement has enabled her voice to be heard.

Still, the European sporting context offers a variety of institutional supports to a powerful man seeking to avoid punishment after an allegation of assault. The weakness of sporting leagues and defamation law, combined with the vocal support of his club, continue to make it unlikely that Mayorga’s accusations will lead to serious consequences.

Sports – TIME