Jellyfish, Anyone? How Warming Oceans Will Change What We Eat
Shrimp, salmon and tilapia may not be on the menu for much longer. Here's what we know about warming waters and how it affects the seafood on our plates.
There is no better place to ogle California seafood, in all its bizarre bounty, than the Santa Barbara harbor on a Saturday morning. Vendors line City Pier alongside bobbing boats with names like New Hazard and Fishin' Mission, their booths thronged by customers speaking a half-dozen languages. The wares at this fishermen's market are as diverse as the clientele. One crate brims with canary rockfish, bocaccio and lingcod-a toothy bottom-dweller whose flesh, when a filleter slices one open, is a startling turquoise. Sablefish, hake and thornyheads gleam on ice. At a nearby table, a market-goer slurps a spoonful of orange uni from a halved sea urchin. "Breakfast of champions," he says, without a trace of sarcasm.
The most popular attractions, though, are the spiny lobsters. A dozen live specimens clamber around inside a kiddie pool, exploring their confines with waving antennae. Although these West Coast lobsters lack the hefty claws of their Maine relatives, they're still intimidating. One small girl inches forward to pet a carapace, then dances away. "I'm so scared, but I want to touch it again!" she laughs.
Santa Barbara has historically marked the northernmost extent of spiny lobster, a tropical species that ranges far down the Mexican coastline. The crustaceans earn more than $3 million annually at this port, supplying a third of its economic value. "It's the bulk of the revenue that I depend on," says Chris Voss, the lanky, loquacious president of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, a nonprofit fisheries advocacy group, as the crowds flow past.
That wasn't always the case. Voss has caught everything from sea cucumber to shrimp, and spent 32 summers chasing Alaskan salmon. In recent years, though, he and his son, James, have leaned more heavily on lobster, which have become increasingly prolific in local waters-a surge that Voss attributes to changing ocean temperatures. "We're at the edge of the area they thrive in because of the cold-water barrier, where anything farther north has been too cold for them," he says. "It's simple common sense that as the water warms here, they're more active-and the more active they are, the more catchable they are."
The spiny lobster's story is an emblematic one. Like an overzealous blackjack dealer, climate change is heating our oceans and reshuffling its inhabitants around the world. The result, in some cases, is maritime chaos. A rancorous trade dispute, dubbed the Mackerel Wars, erupted in 2009 after the oily fish abandoned British territory in favor of waters around Iceland, which, tempted by the new bounty, promptly declared it would not adhere to European Union fishing quotas. In 2015, around 500,000 sockeye salmon perished in the Columbia River, the waterway that divides Washington and Oregon, killed by a combination of heat stress and disease-even as salmon runs are increasing in Arctic rivers well north of the fish's traditional range. Fishing fleets from North Carolina and Virginia, that once plied their local waters, now motor 500 miles up the coast to New Jersey in pursuit of their migrating quarry. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico is succumbing to "tropicalization." Numbers of gag grouper, for example-a Caribbean dweller-have exploded 200-fold since the 1970s.
Of course, these shifts are happening on terra firma, too. In America's breadbasket, the boundary where the fertile Great Plains transitions into the arid West is creeping eastward and threatens to desiccate farmland. In North Africa, the Sahara Desert has swollen by 10 percent, devouring cropland. One recent study warned that global vegetable yields could fall 35 percent by 2100.
But the most pressing changes are occurring at sea. Earth's oceans act as vast sponges, swallowing up around 90 percent of our atmosphere's excess heat from global warming and up to 35 percent of the greenhouse gases attributed to humans-carbon dioxide we emit when we drive to work, fly off on vacation, run our dryers and perform life's other mundane, energy-intensive tasks.
The ocean's absorptive powers are fortunate for us landlubbers, but problematic for the animals that actually live in the briny deep. When carbon dioxide dissolves into seawater, it triggers a chemical reaction that makes the ocean more acidic and deprives organisms like oysters, clams and lobsters of the calcium carbonate they need to grow their shells. The repercussions of ocean acidification-often vilified as "climate change's equally evil twin"-are certain to shake the entire food web. (See "Saving Oysters from Ocean Acidification" below) Pteropods, tiny snails that provide a crucial food source to many commercially important fish, are already suffering shell damage in the Southern Ocean. Research also shows that this acidification changes the pH of fish's blood and can scramble the senses of juveniles, stunt their growth and even threaten their survival.
If this wasn't dire enough, our seas have warmed a full degree Fahrenheit in the past half-century. As climate change has cranked up the thermostat, many species have fled toward the North and South poles to remain within their ideal temperature ranges-sort of like moving into the room with the AC unit on a sweltering summer day. Reports of "funny fish" abound, as tropical denizens pop up in unlikely places: giant cobia in New York, sailfish off Cape Cod, sunfish in the Gulf of Alaska. Researchers say that hundreds more species will soon be on the move, a global game of musical chairs with unforeseeable consequences. Some ocean ecosystems-like kelp forests, which tend to be vulnerable to rising temperatures and overgrazing by heat-tolerant sea urchins-may all but disappear. "We're walking blindly toward a cliff," says Malin Pinsky, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University. "We haven't pushed ocean life this hard, this fast, ever."
Our fishy future, in general, looks grim: scientists project that global fisheries revenues will plunge $10 billion by 2050 if climate change continues unchecked. Yet the news is not universally bleak. The frigid Gulf of Alaska, for instance, stands to become 10 percent more productive. Likewise, Voss says that rising temperatures could create new opportunities for lobstermen further up the California coast. Colleagues have begun to experiment with traps above the California Bight-in an area north of Point Conception, more than 50 miles from Santa Barbara and beyond their historic range. "I know a guy who recently saw a juvenile lobster above San Francisco," he says. "There's no question that things are changing, and it's going faster than we had anticipated."
This rearranging extends from the dock to our plates, as familiar fish face replacement by underutilized strangers. Will California restaurateurs swap out Dungeness crab for market squid? Can green crabs stand in for Maine lobster? Will tourists visiting Cape Cod dine on redfish rather than, well, cod? Whether our palates keep pace with climate change isn't just a culinary question-the future of seafood depends on it.
A Tale of Two Crustaceans
Ground Zero for this transformation is the Gulf of Maine, the stretch of Atlantic Ocean that reaches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. Thanks to a combination of climate change and screwy oceanographic patterns, the Gulf has heated faster than 99 percent of the water on Earth, warming around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004-a rate seven times the global average. The balmy conditions, combined with the overfishing of predators like cod, have meant boom times for Maine lobsters, which, like their California cousins, fare well in warmer waters-at least to a point. In 2018, lobstermen here hauled in 119 million pounds, nearly twice their catch in 2002 (then a record). But get your lobster rolls while they last: As the crustaceans' thermal envelope shifts ever northward, scientists predict that catches could plummet up to 60 percent over the next three decades. "That would be a sad sight to see: American lobster mostly in Canadian waters," says Alexandra Carter, an ocean policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit public policy and advocacy organization.
The ocean, however, abhors a vacuum. In 2012, Marissa McMahan, Ph.D., a fisheries scientist whose family has lobstered in Maine since the 1700s, began finding black sea bass-typically residents of the Carolinas-crammed in her lobster traps. And cod, a cold-water species that was overfished for centuries, have been supplanted by dogfish, small sharks with mild white meat and a tolerance for warmth. McMahan adds that her father used to see one silvery, disc-shaped butterfish every few years, but "now he hauls up his traps and there are so many butterfish they're lying on the surface of the lobster pots." The persistent heat has so devastated Maine shrimp that regulators have closed them to fishing through 2021, while blue crabs, the Chesapeake Bay's most famous dwellers, have scuttled as far as Nova Scotia.
The biggest climate beneficiary is also Maine's most aggressive scourge. Green crabs, a Mediterranean native introduced to North America in the 19th century, have proliferated in the warmer conditions here, tearing up eelgrass and pocking once-rich clamming grounds with lunar-like craters. Climate change, to be sure, isn't the original cause of most marine invasions like this one. Interlopers hitch rides in ships' ballast water (likely how green crabs reached North America) or are dumped by aquarists, and flourish in niches opened up by overfishing. But warming temperatures-and the novel ecosystems they engineer-allow them to thrive. Successful invaders tend to be flexible, resourceful, mobile and, importantly, capable of withstanding a wide range of temperatures-the same traits that define most climate winners.
In 2016, McMahan, who works for a sustainability nonprofit called Manomet, decided to take advantage of the invaders. She'd learned that in Italy, green crabs are battered and fried in their soft-shell stage, a delicacy called moleche. She brought a Venetian crabber to Maine to teach a moleche crash course, then recruited local fishermen to develop a fledgling crab industry, selling their catch at $3 each. "If you want to be a lobsterman, you have to spend years on the waiting list for a license. But you can pay 10 bucks to get a commercial green crab permit and you're good to go," McMahan says. "You can find them everywhere along the shoreline. My 10-year-old stepdaughter just flips rocks over and picks them up."
Catching the invaders is easy; convincing diners to eat them is considerably harder. Our most delectable crabs-king, stone, Dungeness-are plate-sized and packed with meat. Green crabs, by contrast, are no wider than tea saucers. One Mainer who stepped up to the task of preparing the diminutive crustaceans was Ali Waks Adams, former chef at the Brunswick Inn. Intrigued, she began experimenting with them at pop-up dinners and benefits: green crab risotto, deep-fried green crab, green crab Rangoon.
Waks Adams can sound like an ambivalent green crab booster. "They're not the most delicious thing in the world," she says, adding that the minced green crab she uses in her tare, a thick Japanese ramen sauce, resembles "baby poo." But while you probably wouldn't want a green crab roll, their potent umami is well suited to stocks and sauces. And she and McMahan have applied for grants to develop a crab-based fish sauce, a product that could gobble up an awful lot of the destructive critters. "As a chef, you can use fancy, impossible-to-find ingredients, or you can work with what's available to you," says Waks Adams, who's also developing novel recipes at her current restaurant, Enoteca Athena, in Brunswick, Maine. "We need an army to deal with the green crab issue, and I'm a soldier."
If green crabs are going to catch on, they'll have to conquer one major hurdle: our provincial taste in seafood. The U.S. is one of the world's most coastal nations, endowed with more than 95,000 miles of shoreline; every year our fishermen land 10 billion pounds of nourishing protein, from Alaskan pollock to yellowfin tuna. Yet our coastal abundance is largely disconnected from our plates: We export about a third of what we catch, even as we import more than 90 percent of the seafood we eat. Shrimp, salmon and tilapia, most of it raised on foreign farms, dominate our diets, comprising almost half of our annual seafood consumption. "When it comes down to it, Americans just eat the same thing over and over again," says Bun Lai, the James Beard-nominated chef at Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, who's known for serving invasive species.
Aligning our diets with climate change will require us to approach the fish counter with an open mind. We might, for instance, learn to love jellyfish: hardy, fast-breeding opportunists that thrive in warmer waters and readily colonize overfished ecosystems. Although prognostications of a global jelly takeover are based more on anecdote than data, a number of high-profile blooms suggest the diaphanous creatures may be ascendant. Jellyfish explosions have wiped out Norwegian salmon farms, fouled Israeli desalination plants and even clogged cooling systems aboard the USS Ronald Reagan during the aircraft carrier's maiden deployment.
On the plate, jellyfish are a completely foreign concept to many Americans. In her book Spineless, ocean scientist and writer Juli Berwald, Ph.D., describes jellyfish salad as "completely unremarkable." Dried and doused in soy sauce, however, they've long been a staple in some Asian cuisines. Japan imports up to 10,000 tons each year, while China seeds its coastal waters with millions of baby jellies. Danish researchers have rendered slices of the creature into crunchy wafers, a snack likened to potato chips. Closer to home, cannonball jellyfish, known locally as "jellyballs," now support Georgia's third-largest commercial fishery. Although nearly all of them are exported to Asia, some Atlanta chefs are experimenting with frying and braising the blobs. "They're mostly protein and collagen and low in calories," says Lai, who has incorporated jellyballs into a sushi roll called the Peanut Butter and Jelly. (Yes, it also contains peanut butter.) "They're health food for people who are eating themselves and the environment to death."
If jellyfish are too gelatinous, perhaps you'd prefer a firmer invertebrate. In 2016, scientists reported that catches of cephalopods-the class of animals that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish-have spiked since the 1950s. No one's sure why, but their quick life cycles may make them better at adapting to changing seas. Since 1997, swarms of Humboldt squid, a tentacled giant typically found in South America, have appeared sporadically off the California coast, a range expansion that some scientists link to ocean temperatures. Catches of another species, market squid, once centered in Southern California, have drifted so far north that fishermen have begun to pursue them from Eureka, near the Oregon border. Last year, one aspiring squidder in Sitka, Alaska, even petitioned the state to open a market squid fishery.
California's squid industry is an odd, nocturnal enterprise: A "light boat" illuminates and attracts massive schools, which larger vessels scoop up in seine nets. "It's quite a sight when they ball up on the surface, and it can be really good money," says squidder Dave Clark. Still, he believes there's potential for more. Americans are reluctant squid consumers, disdaining it in any form besides unrecognizable calamari rings. Unfortunately, market squid is too small to be rendered into the deep-fried dish, so more than 70 percent of California's catch is exported. Order calamari at a seafood joint in Monterey, and you'll almost certainly be noshing on Humboldt from South America-never mind that America's fifth-largest squid fishery is booming just a few miles away. "There's hardly any demand right now, but this is the species that's going to be taking over in these warmer climates," Clark predicts.
Sparking domestic squid demand is among Clark's crusades. He's the founder of a Facebook page called Loligo Slayers (a nod to the market squid's scientific name, Doryteuthis loligo opalescens), which he uses to tirelessly promote his favorite catch. The company he fishes for, Del Mar Seafoods, supplies squid to Real Good Fish, a California group that delivers seafood direct from fishermen to consumers. Real Good Fish, which also provides local underutilized seafood to public school lunchrooms, plies its customers with tips for cleaning whole squid, along with recipe suggestions that even cephalophobes can love: stir-fried with basil and lime, grilled and slathered in hot pepper sauce and fresh squid ink pasta with anchovies. "It's unfortunate that the general public is only familiar with squid being deep-fried with cocktail sauce, because there's nothing better than a grilled market squid," says Alan Lovewell, Real Good Fish's founder.
Students of fisheries history, however, would caution that we're not very good at using the ocean in moderation. Rutgers' Malin Pinsky points out that stocks driven north by climate change are especially vulnerable to overfishing, since they're not yet well-established in their new homes. "If we want productive fisheries in the future, we need to let these populations grow until they're healthy," he says. Whether squid from as far north as Alaska becomes a staple of your grandkids' diets may depend on our restraint today.
Every year, it seems, cuisine goes more mobile: You can't walk a city block without encountering a food truck slinging dumplings, cupcakes or fancy grilled cheeses. Food boats, on the other hand, are rarer beasts. Had you wandered down to the Newport, Rhode Island, waterfront during the 2017 seafood festival, however, you would have encountered just that: a flat-bottomed skiff, painted a cheerful robin's-egg blue, propped on a wheeled trailer and tricked out with kitchen counters, electric stovetops and stainless-steel pans. For three days, a rotating cast of chefs manned the tiller, dishing out black sea bass tossed with wheat berries, Thai longfin squid salad and other morsels-all concocted from species migrating into New England's waters. Climate change was never so delicious.
The skiff-dubbed the Scales & Tales Food Boat-belongs to Eating with the Ecosystem, one of the organizations shaping seafood's future. The group started in 2012, when a local fisherman named Sarah Schumann convened a dinner series where chefs used local marine ingredients to whip up gourmet dishes like razor clams and caramelized longfin squid served in a dashi broth. Since becoming a nonprofit two years later, they've held dozens of events to connect diners with unheralded oceanic delights, including scup, redfish and sea robin-species so neglected they're maligned as "trash fish."
Sampling widely from the sea makes sense even in the best of times, says Kate Masury, Eating with the Ecosystem's director. Dietary diversity keeps food webs balanced by not encouraging the overfishing of any single species, and provides fishermen fair prices for abundant but obscure catches like dogfish. Climate change only accentuates the importance of expanding our horizons. "We can help both our fishing communities and wild populations by going with the flow, eating the species that are available rather than putting pressure on the ones already having a harder time," says Masury. If our seafood systems are to survive climate change, we consumers will have to overcome our parochialism-to hark back to a past when we ate fish as adventurously as we do vegetables. We'll have to learn to appreciate what the sea spits out, no matter how spiny or odd-shaped or under-the-radar.
Back at the Santa Barbara waterfront, several dozen customers have spent the morning reconnecting with California's coastline. Buyers stagger between kiosks, bags heavy with fillets. Just three years earlier, the Saturday Fishermen's Market had shrunk to two vendors and faced closure. It was revived largely by biologist Kim Selkoe, Ph.D., director of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, who ramped up advertising, applied for grants and enticed more vendors. Selkoe, though, isn't satisfied. Her new initiative is Get Hooked, a community-supported fishery that, like a marine farm share, provides more than 270 subscribers with a weekly portion of local, seasonal fish-the apotheosis of ecological eating. The CSF's mission is as much educational as culinary, providing information and recipes with each week's share. "The idea is to allow people to feel confident buying fish that they wouldn't know anything about, or that they're not sure they're going to like," Selkoe explains over the clack of fillet knives. "As the ocean changes, we want to be the shepherds who make local seafood work-and expand people's palates."
Saving Oysters from Ocean Acidification
In 2009, Bill Mook faced a mysterious crisis: His oysters weren't growing. Mook Sea Farm is among Maine's largest shellfish growers, annually producing over 140 million juvenile oysters from billions of larvae. That year, though, his larvae were taking twice as long to mature as usual, and business suffered. "Our hatchery production was cut in half," Mook recalls.
He received answers from an Oregon-based operation called Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, which had endured similar trials in 2007, when acidified seawater had welled up along the West Coast and killed billions of larvae. At their farmers' recommendation, Mook began buffering the water pumped through his farm with a high-pH solution to counter the acid-"like using Tums for an acidic stomach," he explains. His larvae thrived once more.
The trials of America's shellfish farmers, however, are just beginning. The government forecasts that ocean acidification could ultimately cost America's shellfisheries $230 million a year in revenue. Mook and his fellow oyster growers are already fighting back. In 2017, Mook Sea Farm and six other operations joined with The Nature Conservancy to found the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, a group that educates consumers and policymakers about the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Today the coalition has nearly 100 members from all food sectors, including hatcheries, wholesalers and restaurants. "Our businesses are on the front lines," Mook says. "If people like our oysters, they better take this seriously."
BEN GOLDFARB is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.