Seafood Crisis: A vital conversation with Jean-Michel Cousteau.

09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TB: The topic is "helping the average consumer make healthy and environmentally conscious decisions when buying and eating seafood".

Jean-Michel Cousteau: I have a lot of respect for people who want to do the right thing, because we have made it unbelievably difficult and complicated. Furthermore, when you go shopping, most of the people there have absolutely no idea what they are selling other than the name of the fish. And if you ask them if it is sustainable, first of all they don't understand the word most of the time. Second, if you ask them if it is farmed or if it is wild, they will most likely not be able to tell you - and that makes a big difference. And if you ask them if it is a carnivore or an herbivore, then now we are getting into space world. It is very difficult for people to do the right thing... very, very difficult.

We are supporting the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch. You can access it online or stop by our office and we will give you a chart. It is the size of a credit card. You can keep it in your pocket. It will tell you what fish is the best choice, the good alternative and what to avoid. In addition it tells you if the fish is loaded with mercury and if the fish is sustainable. You have choices and one becomes the investigator for one's self. So far this is the best way to do it in my opinion.

TB: So you would bring this Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch - pocket chart, along with you when you plan to purchase seafood?

JMC: Yes.

TB: Let's do a "virtual seafood-shop" together now. You, me, and the average consumer walk into a grocery store together in California. Here are the canned choices on the shelves: Octopus, Sardines, Brisling Sardines, Oysters, Clams, Mussels, Tuna (Tongol Tuna, Yellow Fin Tuna/Ahi Tuna), Salmon (Coho, Pink, Sockeye), Herring, Anchovies and Mackerel

JMC: Half of it you can already forget about. I'm sorry for the clams, mussels and oysters. And for the people whose lives depend upon them. Those are the filter feeders of the ocean. They take polluted water, loaded with pollutants and heavy metals, they absorb it and make it [water] perfectly clean and reject it. And here we are gobbling up that stuff.

TB: Does that include shrimp?

JMC: No. That doesn't include shrimp. Those with the exception, the abalone, we are eating the filters. Unlike in fish, with meat we eat the spleen and the liver, where all the concentration of these foreign materials is. We swallow that stuff. I know we can take it once or twice. But if you do that often, you are weakening yourself. Now there are exceptions. The exception is "Where is it coming from?" If it's coming from a clean environment than that's a different story. I'm not touching that stuff anymore, I use to. I don't anymore and it's been years. Because I know what's in it, people don't know what's in it. Now with abalone, you're not swallowing guts. You're just eating the muscle, which is the fruit. And that's OK because it's just the muscle.

If you are talking about shrimps, since you mentioned it. There are shrimps and there are shrimps. It also depends on how you prepare the shrimps, because you either eat the guts or you do not. That is dependent upon the preparation. There are some that are acceptable and there are some that you should avoid. And again this is where you should go back to the reference materials (Seafood Watch). If you have for example, pink shrimp, the guide says that pink shrimp are OK. They are OK because they are sustainable. Because they are fished in a way where they are not decreasing the population. And that goes for a number of fish like the Pacific Cod, from Alaska, caught on a long line. Number one: you have to know what a cod is. Number two: you have to know it comes from the Pacific Ocean. Number three: you want to know that it's been fished on a long line. I mean, who's going to go through that painful process to know that you are buying the right fish? But it is the right fish. And the Pacific Halibut is OK. The Pacific South East is fine. The Scallops, particularly the Bay farmed Scallops are fine, because, remember you are only eating this muscle. Now when you mention Blue Fin Tuna; that sends chills up my spine.

TB: There is canned Tuna, Tongol Tuna and Yellow Fin Tuna on the shelf.

JMC: If it doesn't say what type of tuna it is or where it is from, don't buy it. I mean that goes for anything. That's like saying wine. You want to know where it is coming from and who is doing it.

The Blue Fin Tuna will disappear within the next five years. It's loaded with mercury... loaded with mercury. Right now people are speculating, that the consumption is higher than the production, and those Blue Fin Tunas which are getting smaller and smaller, not only will disappear in five years but they're being stocked frozen. They are frozen so much that they are being put away like you put away gold hoping that the price will go up when there is no more on the market.

TB: And that is true? That is happening?

JMC: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. There is amongst other companies, a big Japanese company that controls sixty percent of that. I mean it is shocking.

TB: Wow! Do you believe we, the conscientious consumer, should boycott sushi?

JMC: Unless you really know what it's about. For example, Yellow Fin Tuna, unless it's from California, I wouldn't touch it. You know... the FDA is supposed to keep an eye on all of this. But if it's a species you don't know about, I wouldn't touch it. The Monterey Aquarium came out with Seafood Watch for Sushi. The amount of Tuna that is loaded with mercury is frightening!

TB: Which of the canned seafood on the shelf would you choose?

JMC: None of the canned seafood (oysters, octopus, clams, mussels). Sardines and Brisling Sardines - yes. If there is no information on the Tuna cans about where it is from, then no. I would only take the canned salmon that is marked as being wild. If the salmon is farmed, you want to avoid it at all costs. Not only because it is loaded with antibiotics, vitamins, it is loaded, when it comes from British Columbia in some cases, with chemicals that are suppose to chase away sea lice. Sea lice are crustaceans already loaded with chemicals. Let's remember that farmed Salmon are carnivores and as carnivores, you need to feed them wild fish. Wild fish harvested specifically for these Salmon. You need 2.2 pounds of wild fish to farm 1 pound of farmed salmon. I'm not an economist, but to me it doesn't make any sense. Are we going to feed Africa and India with that? I don't think so.

In addition, to make the 2.2 pounds of wild fish from the plankton on up the food chain it is many other pounds that are needed. So it is a complete absurdity. If anyone cares about future generations, they need to stop eating farmed Salmon. On land we don't eat Jaguars and Lions; we don't farm Jaguars and Lions; it would be too expensive. We are farming herbivores and we're farming grains. If fish are going to be farmed properly, they need to be herbivores. We have to be tough otherwise we are heading towards a catastrophe.

TB: In the store, when you see a can or a sign that reads "wild", does it also have to mention being "caught on the line"?

JMC: (Laughs) Now you are really getting into the complexity of it. But of course, if you really want to get to the bottom of it, you want to know how it was caught. And also, at some point you may want to know when it was caught.

TB: Let's continue our "virtual seafood-shop", shall we? We will now peruse the selection in the fresh fish case. I will mention each type of fish being offered and the information on its tag, then your reaction:

Little Neck Clams, USA - "No"
Black Mussels, Mexico. - "No"
Wild Caught, Hokkaido Sea Scallops, Japan. - "I wouldn't touch it"
Farmed, Live Green Lip Mussels, New Zealand. - "OK to take the risk"
Farmed Shrimp. - "Wouldn't touch it"
MSC Certified, Wild, Bay Scallops, Argentina. - "Yes"
Wild Squid, China. - "Wouldn't touch it"
Wild Calamari, Taiwan. - "Wouldn't touch it"
Farmed, Rainbow Trout, USA. - "Yes, I would"
Farmed, White Shrimp, Thailand. - "Wouldn't touch it"
Wild Caught, Red King Crab, Russia. - "No"
Wild Caught, Albacore, Fiji. - "I could go for that"
Wild Caught, Ahi Tuna, Fiji. - "OK"
Fresh, Wild Caught Cod, USA. - "Good"
Fresh, Wild Caught Salmon, USA. - "Good"
Wild Caught, Mahi-Mahi, Mexico. - "Why not from Hawaii?"
Farmed, Tilapia, Ecuador. - "Good"
Wild Caught, Black Cod, USA. - "Yeah, USA probably means Alaska, could be Cod caught on a long line"
Opakapaka, Indonesia. - "I wouldn't touch it"
Wild Caught, Sockeye Salmon, USA. - "That's good"

JMC: It is amazing that here in California; we've imported all this fish.

TB: What does it really mean to eat a fillet of Orange Roughy from South Africa?

JMC: I wouldn't even touch it! People have to understand that Orange Roughy fish can be up to fifty years old. We are in the process of eliminating the whole population. We're fishing them out faster than they can reproduce.

TB: What are we eating that is ill affecting our planet the most when it comes to seafood?

JMC: There are over ninety species of commercial fish that are no longer available to commercial fish, because we are overfishing. We add ninety to a hundred million people to the planet every year. We stopped hunting on land and became farmers. We have to do the same thing as far as the ocean is concerned. If we become farmers of fish we have to farm the right species. Focus on farming where the demand is, so you avoid transportation and provide your local customers with fresh fish. If you are in Topeka, Kansas or wherever you will have a farm and it will be contained and you're going to provide several species to the local market, which will be fresh fish.

TB: Whom should we support when it comes to fish farming?

JMC: Farming is the only way to face up to the demand. I'm on the side of the fishermen, people need to understand I'm not fighting fishermen, I grew up with them, I know what they go through. The system doesn't work. They will harvest whatever they can harvest because they have to pay their boat. You buy a boat, you have to pay it off or else the bank will take your boat away. These fishermen are under enormous pressure. They spend an enormous amount of time trying to make a living. What we need to do is to find a way to help those people change, to go from being a fisherman to being a fish farmer. That requires some help and the federal government needs to help those people. We can do it. We can provide free education. Provide incentives. Just like when you buy a boat, incentives to build a farm, for those who are willing to make a change. They will make a very good living and at the same time they will sell the right kind of fish.

Look at it like a business. The wild sustainable fish are the capital. You can live off the interest. If the parents make babies, you can eat some of those babies as long as the parents are being replaced. That will allow you to go on forever. The minute you are eating more than can be produced, you are heading toward bankruptcy. That is where we are going today. It's very easy for people to understand. Wild sustainable species that are healthy are OK. We cannot take more than Mother Nature can produce. If I gave you a bow and arrow and said go feed yourself, we would be in trouble. Well thank God we are farmers. With grains and herbivores... we need to do the same thing. If a fish farm opens in Anytown, USA that farms sustainable herbivores, it would be a good thing.

TB: Your advice on mercury poisoning?

JMC: Consult an expert. It has a very negative impact on the human body, creating issues with attention spans and reproduction.

TB: Pollution is a major culprit. Are there other elements we can work against to change?

JMC: Toxins. If we don't contain the toxins what types of food are we going to be left with? Chemicals in fire retardants affect the entire ocean of Killer Whales from California to Norway. The intentions at the base of fire retardants were good. I have nothing against them. But the byproduct of the chemicals is something we didn't pay attention to. We need to ban it and find alternatives.

TB: In your documentary Call of the Killer Whale, you and the team are tested for PCBs and PBDEs. Should we all be tested to find out the toxicity of our own bodies?

JMC: We were tested for many other things. I am loaded with mercury. Those tests cost approximately $4000.00 per person. They are not readily available to the public. It's not going to happen. We need to be in prevention mode.

TB: What are you and the team doing for your bodies to combat the test results?

JMC: We are testing Gavin, who is five years old. His mother has changed his environment and we are testing to see if his level of PBDEs are decreasing. The good news is that it is.

TB: Was being a long-term resident of California determined to be the most severe influence of toxicity?

JMC: Yes with regards to those two toxins.

We at Ocean Futures Society, are not pointing fingers, we are here to help. That's what we are all about. We want to sit down with decision makers, both in industries and government, and try to help them make better decisions. We have a website focusing on the PBDEs (toxic flame retardants):

TB: After watching Call of the Killer Whale, the audience wants to know what they can do for the Orcas?

JMC: Three things:

1) Stop using the ocean as a garbage can - we can all contribute something - not everything but something - our ocean is a life support system

2) Communicate with our decision makers in a way to not eliminate the coastal habitats, which in many ways is where all forms or marine life will reproduce, find protection and find food. The coastlines are the quarries, the mangroves, and the flooded areas.

3) Help the fishing industry switch to sustainability and farming. We can all do our share by making a better choice when we buy seafood. It will help your health, the health of your children, and the health of the unborn. So it comes back as good stuff.

TB: What can we do to help create healthy fish supplies for the Orcas?

JMC: If we do the right thing for ourselves, we will do the right thing for the Orcas. They are the victims of our bad management. But, how can you protect what you don't understand? So, the first thing was to understand; what is going on? Thank you Orcas for letting us know that we are screwing up the system. Thank you, we are going to try and change it.

TB: What can we do to be sure that we are putting healthy fish in our bodies?

JMC: Be tough in your choices. And if you have any doubt, don't buy it. If enough people do that, then the regulations will be better, the information will be better and the chefs will do a better job and the big stores and little stores will buy the right species. It is in their benefit. We don't want them to go out of business. That's not the point. We want them to do the right thing for themselves and us.