My friend Henry walked into my kitchen and eyed the can of vegan “skallops” on the counter. My goal for the week was to try as many vegan seafood items as possible. I wanted to know if I could learn to love them, and if they could replace seafood the way Beyond Meat has replaced burgers in my house.
“You’re not really going to eat those, are you?” he said while raising an eyebrow. The skallops looked pale and gelatinous.
“I’m going to try,” I said.
“One of my very first jobs was at a restaurant on the Cape,” he said. “I had to plunge my hand into a bucket of freezing cold sea water and take the penis off of scallops before they were served.”
“So you’d try vegan scallops instead?” I asked, hopeful I could enlist him in my taste test.
“Never,” he said, looking resolute.
Later, when I produced a plate of small toasts with vegan tuna salad, Henry shook his head. “It looks like Fancy Feast,” he said, thinking of the cat food.
I couldn’t disagree.
“Oh Mom,” my eldest daughter said, cruising through the kitchen, eyeing the plate of vegan tuna toasts. “Please don’t make us eat that.”
Once, when I was taking a class on food systems in graduate school, my professor said: “It’s safer to eat the food that our grandparents ate, food with less processing. Food that occurs naturally.”
I know for a fact my grandmother Alma Jean never once tried vegan “skallops”. I can see her now with a Marlboro Red tucked into the side of her mouth, asking, “What the hell is a vegan scallop?” She, like many people in the world, was just working hard to get by, and she liked to fish the Atlantic Ocean and Smith Mountain Lake.
But Alma Jean never heard about climate change before she passed.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that nearly 3 billion people in the world rely on seafood as a primary protein source. When the ocean is overheated and overfished, and fisheries are depleted – as scientists suggest they are on track to be by 2048 – the most vulnerable of the world’s populations will suffer most.
When Elizabeth Warren added the Blue New Deal as part of her platform in the presidential primary, she acknowledged that “threats like warming oceans and overfishing have caused the ocean’s fish population to fall by 50% over the last 50 years, leading to cascading ecological consequences, hurting regional and local economies, and risking hunger and even conflict.”
There is a moral and financial imperative to change our relationship with seafood – but what does that look like on the plate?
You could arrive at vegan seafood from many places. Perhaps, like my daughter, you have an earnest mother. Perhaps you’re aware of overfishing, realizing that nearly 90% of global fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or on the verge of collapse. That might bother you because you like to eat fish, or because you think it’s amoral to cause such suffering.
No one really likes to talk about suffering. I remember finding out that fish are sentient and feel pain. Scientists have identified that fish have sophisticated behavioral and cognitive patterns and pain perception – at least as much as other vertebrates.
When accused of confusing consumers with vegan seafood labels that look like the real thing, activists in Australia countered with a suggestion to label cans of actual tuna. “I think honesty in labelling is a good idea, but it should go both ways,” activist Greg McFarlane said. “Consumers should be aware of what the product is that they’re buying, and how much suffering went into it.”
According to scientists, there’s a “large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality”. Most of us don’t see fish in their natural habitat – hunting, rearing young, engaging in complex mating rituals. And most of us don’t witness the violence of the bottom trawler as it ransacks the seafloor ecosystem, or the endangered right whale starving while ensnared in long-line fishing gear offshore, or the hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and dolphins dying as commercial bycatch. Scientists estimate that roughly 50 billion aquatic animals die in service of the American diet each year.
The suffering of species – plus the looming shortage from overfishing – makes a good case for an alternative seafood product like Tuno. “Without alternative protein creation,” a representative from the company said, “we will face protein shortages in the very near future.”
I have little interest in judging people who eat seafood. Though I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12, I grew up near the coast of eastern North Carolina, and have always liked seafood. Sometimes I even give into the craving.
Once, while pregnant with my second daughter, I ate a lobster roll alone in my car in the outskirts of Kennebunkport, crying between bites, thinking about the monogamy of lobsters. In 2019, I let an intimidating waitress strong-arm me into a delicious blackened mahi-mahi sandwich in the Everglades. (It was incredible; I still think about it.)
Choosing a vegetarian diet as a pre-teen in the rural south – where people can pursue PhDs in barbecue – often put sketch comedy into ordering a meal. “You sure you don’t want any meat in that bun, Honey?” the kind lady would ask at the drive-thru. Well-intentioned hosts presented plates of turkey burgers – or fish.
Renowned scientist Dr Sylvia Earle speaks to the tendency of people to forget that fish are indeed meat. “It’s baffling,” she said. “You know people say, ‘I’m a vegetarian, I just eat fish, no meat.’ And I can see the fish being really offended: ‘What do you mean. I’m a piece of meat! I have muscle, I have a heart, I have a brain.’ We have this attitude of fish as somehow just commodities.”
But after finishing a recent column on the state of fisheries in America, I no longer feel good about purchasing most seafood, especially Pacific bluefin tuna, which scientists estimate is at 4% of the original breeding population.
Dr Ayana Johnson, co-author of the Blue New Deal, believes there are still local American fishermen fishing responsibly, and worthy of our support. She suggests eating lower on the food chain. “Instead of tuna, eat sardines and anchovies – those little ones that are reproducing super-quickly,” she says. “Ocean farming of shellfish – oysters, mussels and clams – and seaweed is super-sustainable.”
Given my carnivorous nuclear family’s recent embrace of Beyond Burgers and Impossible Meat, I also had faith that capitalism might lead us to an edible alternative to seafood.
Impossible Meat used science to replicate the taste, smell and mouth-feel of hamburger meat. My friends who could never fully embrace bean and mushroom-flecked veggie burgers actually like the taste of Impossible burgers. Yes – Impossible Burgers are one more thing to buy and ship, but on the upside, they allegedly generate 87% less greenhouse gases than traditional beef.
So could I like vegan seafood as much as I like Impossible Burgers? I’m the target market for vegetarian seafood options like those by Quorn, Tuno, Toona and Good Catch – and after tasting several options, I can report it didn’t win me over – yet.
I’m apparently not the only vegetarian holding back. Reports indicate that seafood currently accounts for only 1% of the vegan meat market – but remains an enormous future opportunity. Companies are even generating cell-based, cultured seafood.
Perhaps there will come a day when that’s not the case. Like many things we aren’t used to, moving our seafood diet in a more sustainable direction is going to take experimentation and work. It may mean letting go of staples like tuna, thinking harder about our choices at supermarkets and restaurants, and trying things we think are gross.
“Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum,” someone at school once told my daughter. That’s how I feel about vegan seafood. If it’s your yum, good for you. We need innovation – there are old, important and complex systems breaking down on our watch, systems that affect human lives, the lives of other species, the character and livelihoods of communities, our plates, our culture, our health.
I understand that it’s hard to give up what we love, what we feel entitled to, what we’ve always eaten, what provides much-needed money to fishing communities. Truthfully, I don’t think we’ll ever make meaningful progress until we look at all the points of suffering in the entire system: the aquatic species, the ecosystems, and the laborers and communities that rely on them for income.
In order to lessen your impact on our struggling ocean, you don’t even have to eat processed vegan seafood. You can forgo seafood and contribute to organizations that help restore ocean health. You can make your own vegan scallops from mushrooms. You can substitute chickpeas for tuna in tuna salad.
When I used to make real tuna salad for my family, my rescue cats would sprint downstairs from their napping places, begging me for a flake of fish.
This week I set the metal bowl of faux tuna down, a final taste test. The cats inspected it and backed away. My dog Radish finished the batch.