Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in many cuisines, particularly in Southeast Asia. It adds a unique depth of flavor to dishes that is hard to replicate with any other ingredient.
However, the production of fish sauce has come under scrutiny in recent years due to its impact on the environment. The seafood industry, whether through wild-caught or farmed fish, is known for its destructive practices that harm marine populations and ecosystems.
In this article, we will explore the sustainability of fish sauce production and whether there are alternatives that can be used without compromising on taste or quality.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look at this beloved condiment and its impact on our planet.
Is Fish Sauce Sustainable?
The short answer is no, fish sauce production is not sustainable. Both wild-caught and farmed fish used in the production of fish sauce have a significant impact on the environment.
Wild-caught fish and seafood are destructive due to overfishing, which leads to degraded ecosystems and an imbalance that impacts important food chains. This results in vulnerable aquatic species like sea turtles and coral suffering. Scientists predict that oceans will be fishless by 2048, which would be catastrophic as oceans regulate temperature and contribute to half of our oxygen on Earth.
On the other hand, fish farming or aquafarming is not a sustainable alternative either. Farmed fish need to be fed fish to eat, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of fishing. Waters become contaminated with antibiotics, pesticides, parasites, and fish feces, which then spread to waterways and oceans, polluting ecosystems and eventually killing off wild fish populations.
Moreover, the fishing industry is responsible for a significant amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. Abandoned and lost fishing gear makes up more than 85% of all plastic pollution on sea mounts, ocean ridges, and the sea floor. Nets, traps, and hooks continue to kill marine life.
The History And Importance Of Fish Sauce In Southeast Asian Cuisines
Fish sauce has a long and rich history in Southeast Asian cuisines. Although it is commonly associated with countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans fermented various seafood with salt and herbs in ceramic pots to create Garum, which is similar to the fish sauce we know today. This version of fish sauce found its way to South India and the Champa Kingdom (modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia) through the silk route.
However, according to Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, the Champa Kingdom had already developed their own fish-brewing techniques, inspired by how the Chinese brewed their soy sauce. Combining the Champa brewing method with Garum-making techniques of European merchants, fish sauce has gained timeless popularity that extends up to this day.
Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Thai, Burmese, and Filipino cooking. It is used as a seasoning during or after cooking, and as a base in dipping sauces. Due to its ability to add a savory umami flavor to dishes, it has been embraced globally by chefs and home cooks. The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content.
In many cultures throughout history, people have developed diverse means to preserve food resources like fish during periods of scarcity following an abundant seasonal supply of fish. The fish had to be preserved via a variety of ways due to its perishable nature, including drying, salting, and fermenting. Fish sauce is one such method of preservation that has stood the test of time.
Despite its popularity in Southeast Asian cuisines, there are concerns about the sustainability of fish sauce production. Both wild-caught and farmed fish used in the production of fish sauce have a significant impact on the environment. It is important for us to consider more sustainable alternatives or reduce our consumption of fish sauce altogether to protect our oceans and marine life.
The Environmental Impact Of Fish Sauce Production
Fish sauce production, whether using wild-caught or farmed fish, has a direct impact on decreasing marine populations, polluting waters, and destroying habitats. Wild-caught fish and seafood are destructive due to overfishing, which leads to degraded ecosystems and an imbalance that impacts important food chains. This results in vulnerable aquatic species like sea turtles and coral suffering. Moreover, the fishing industry is responsible for a significant amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. Abandoned and lost fishing gear makes up more than 85% of all plastic pollution on sea mounts, ocean ridges, and the sea floor. Nets, traps, and hooks continue to kill marine life.
Farmed fish used in fish sauce production are also not a sustainable alternative. They need to be fed fish to eat, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of fishing. Waters become contaminated with antibiotics, pesticides, parasites, and fish feces, which then spread to waterways and oceans, polluting ecosystems and eventually killing off wild fish populations.
The traditional method of producing fish sauce does not make reasonable use of solar energy in the production process, which pollutes the surrounding environment, decreases food safety and hygiene, and requires heavy labor with low productivity. The improvement of fish sauce processing technology by making proper use of solar energy helps improve the living and working environment, reduces heavy labor and brings greater productivity, which can ultimately increase people’s capabilities in adapting to climate change issues.
Wild-Caught Vs. Farmed Fish: Which Is More Sustainable For Fish Sauce Production?
When it comes to fish sauce production, both wild-caught and farmed fish have their drawbacks. Wild-caught fish are often overfished, leading to the depletion of fish populations and the destruction of ecosystems. This can result in a lack of supply and higher prices for fish sauce manufacturers. On the other hand, farmed fish require large amounts of feed, which can be unsustainable and pollute waterways.
In terms of sustainability, it is difficult to determine which type of fish is better for fish sauce production. However, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce the impact on the environment. One option is to use fish that are lower on the food chain, such as anchovies or sardines, which require less feed and have a smaller impact on the environment. Another option is to use fish that are sustainably caught or farmed using environmentally-friendly methods.
Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to make informed choices about the fish products they purchase, including fish sauce. By choosing sustainably caught or farmed fish, consumers can help support a more environmentally-friendly fishing industry and reduce their impact on the planet.
Alternatives To Fish Sauce: Are There Sustainable Options Available?
Fortunately, there are sustainable alternatives to fish sauce that can be used in cooking. One such alternative is soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans, water, salt, and wheat. Soy sauce has a rich umami flavor with a hint of sweetness due to the amino acids in soybeans. It is also suitable for vegans, making it a great option for those who follow a plant-based diet.
Another alternative to fish sauce is tamari, a gluten-free Japanese-style soy sauce substitute. Like soy sauce, tamari can be used in equal amounts to replace fish sauce in a recipe. It has a salty flavor and is also a liquid.
For those looking for a low calorie alternative, vegan fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and oyster sauce are good choices. Coconut aminos and both fresh and dried seaweed are excellent options for those searching for a low sodium alternative. Fresh seaweed is the best option for those looking for a nutrient-dense alternative with high fiber, protein, and vitamin and mineral content.
Innovative start-ups like Sozyë have taken sustainable eating to the next level by creating plant-based alternatives to fish sauces, soy sauces, and oyster sauces. Their products, Nish (plant-based alternative to fish sauce), Noya (plant-based alternative to soy sauce), and Noyster (plant-based alternative to oyster sauce), use sustainably-harvested certified organic seaweed from the shores of Scotland instead of soya or seafood. The tops of the leaves are collected to enable them to regrow within a few weeks, ensuring that the environment is preserved while the consumer appetite for sauces is met.
The Role Of Consumers In Supporting Sustainable Fish Sauce Production.
Consumers play a crucial role in supporting sustainable fish sauce production. By purchasing sustainably sourced and eco-labelled seafood products, consumers can contribute to the protection of species populations and ecosystems. Seafood eco-labels help to resolve information asymmetry between producers and consumers, allowing consumers who care about sustainability to easily find and purchase these products.
Consumer awareness of sustainable seafood is increasing, with two well-established eco-labels, dolphin-safe and organic, driving rates of sustainable seafood awareness in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, efforts to educate consumers about eco-labels should be a component of ocean literacy efforts to educate the public about the need for sustainable fisheries.
In Australia, mapping out the fish and seafood food system has revealed that a key challenge for sustainability is the narrow focus on environmental sustainability with little consideration of other domains throughout post-harvest handling, processing, retail, distribution, and consumption. Consumers can play a role in supporting sustainable fish sauce production by choosing products that are environmentally safe and sustainably sourced.
Using solar energy in fish sauce production has also reduced labor costs, increased economic efficiency, and reduced environmental pollution. Consumers can support sustainable fish sauce production by choosing products that use renewable energy sources like solar power.