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The Future of Fake Fish Isn’t Very Appetizing

Seafood has yet to find its faux-meat match — and maybe it shouldn’t

The hardest part of becoming vegan or vegetarian can be satisfying our animal-based cravings. Fortunately, the market for fake meats has expanded well beyond the three-door freezer section of your local organic grocer. Faux beef products like burgers and tacos are available at a solid selection of the usual fast-food chains (Burger King, Del Taco, Carl’s Jr, Dunkin’) and even KFC is trying its hand at plant-based fried chicken. But there’s nary even a whisper coming from Long John Silver’s, the fish sandwich departments of McDonald’s or wherever else people seem to order fish from a drive-thru. Nobody even seems to be asking for it. 

The strange thing is, though, many of us are already eating “fake” fish, or at least, not the fish we think we’re eating. Americans eat twice as much imitation crab meat (which is usually made of pollock fish, starch and other fillers) as they do authentic crab meat, while tilapia, a popular and affordable fish, doesn’t actually exist — it’s a generic term for over a hundred different kinds of white-meat fish. Restaurants have also frequently been found to misrepresent the fish they serve, and when it comes to supermarkets, the New York Attorney General’s Office found that a whopping 43 percent of fish sold in NYC stores wasn’t what it was labeled as (don’t even get me started on the bullshit that is scallops).

None of this should be surprising. Consuming fish is often unsustainable: Seafood is one of the only remaining types of food we catch and kill in the wild, and while many of the fish we eat are raised in factory farms, neither practice is inherently “better” than the other, in terms of the nutritional value of the fish, environmental impact or quality. According to Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, these factors all vary depending on species and region, as well as the location of the consumer. For example, if you live on the West Coast, eating cod that’s wild-caught off the coasts of Alaska is a better environmental decision than eating cod that’s wild-caught off the coasts of Japan or Russia. Meanwhile, they recommend that people only consume shrimp that are farmed in the U.S., rather than caught or imported from elsewhere. 

To figure all this out, Seafood Watch classifies foods in three categories: “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives” and “Avoid.” “Our recommendations consider the environmental impacts of seafood production, but not necessarily the social or health impacts of those decisions,” says Ryan Bigelow, the senior program manager of Seafood Watch. “You could buy an environmentally responsible option that has a negative social impact — for example, indentured servants or slaves were involved in its production. Fisheries and farms with social issues tend to not score well environmentally either though, so buying a ‘Best Choice’ is usually a good indication that your fish is also socially responsible.” 

In making its recommendations, Seafood Watch is largely weighing the costs that consuming a species has on marine life as a whole. Certain fish cannot be caught in large quantities in the wild without damaging the native ecosystem, while others simply need to be caught through specific methods like longlines or trolls. For the most part, then, farmed seafood in the U.S. is the best option. There are some possible consequences, like “escapes, habitat degradation, antibiotic introductions,” says Bigelow, but “none of them are preordained. Fish farming can be done responsibly. More importantly, farmed fish is now a critical component of our food supply.” 

What Seafood Watch doesn’t address, however, is the ethics of killing a creature for food, regardless of how humanely it’s raised or caught. This is a hard-line issue for many vegans and vegetarians: Fish do indeed feel some form of pain, though they don’t experience emotions in the way humans or even other highly-consumed animals like cows do. So while fish psychology is mostly a mystery, some people are opposed to causing animal suffering in any form, to which the only alternative, clearly, would be fake fish. 

Sadly, a mass move toward a fish substitute is currently impossible: We don’t have the infrastructure to support a complete shift away from seafood, as it provides a considerable amount of nutrition for much of the world. It’s also, relatively speaking, a much more environmentally-friendly protein than livestock such as cows, so priorities must be weighed. “If we stopped eating seafood completely, we’d have to transition to a different protein source,” says Bigelow. “The environmental impact of that would depend on what we transitioned to. For the more than two billion people who rely on seafood for income or nutrition, forgoing seafood isn’t an option. We’re going to continue to fish and farm seafood, which means we should strive to do it in the most responsible manner possible.”

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All that said, The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the growth of animal product alternatives, predicts that 2020 will be a landmark year for fake seafood. At the moment, it only represents around one percent of the faux-meat market as a whole, but it’s out there: There are fake fish sticks made of soy, as well as canned “toona” and smoked salmon made of pea protein and konjac. One company, Ocean Hugger Foods, transforms carrots and tomatoes into realistic-seeming sashimi. Since these items are comprised mostly of plants, they’re generally pretty healthy, but often have more salt and less protein than the real thing. Reviews for all of them are somewhat mixed, but still, the potential for growth is clearly there, as we’ve seen with the rapid spread of other fake meat products.

Impossible Foods, known for its convincing plant-based burgers, is working on developing fake fish in a lab in the form of a burger, too. A faux Filet-o-Fish that matches the smell, taste, appearance and texture of the real thing has yet to hit the shelves, however. This is true of other meats, as well, of course — cuts of meat are challenging to realistically develop with the protein concoctions currently used for alternative meat products, so these likely won’t be available in any form without further advancements in cell-based meats, wherein animal cells can be used to grow cuts of meat in a lab without actually harming any animals. (According to the GFI, companies like BlueNalu are working toward having seafood products of this nature be available within the next few years.) 

Still, for seafood to continue down the route of Beyond Meat and have mass-market availability, it would need to have mass-market demand. As Tofurky founder Seth Tibbott told The Wall Street Journal in 2018, people simply don’t care about fish welfare in the same way they do mammals. “Fish has traditionally been one of the last things that people would give up,” he says. “Farm animals have legs and seem more like us.” Basically, part of the reason the fake-fish industry is so small is that consumers have little interest in changing things.

If more people do adapt to the idea that fewer fish deaths is a good thing, exactly how a boom in fake fish would impact fisheries is unknown — likewise, any impact it could potentially have upon international food availability and the environment. There’s even a chance that the land, labor and energy required to transform soy or pea protein into fish could be worse for the environment and workers than the living thing. If the experts are right, we may well have answers to these questions in the next few years — until then, feel free to enjoy your goddamn scallops.