‘Sustainable seafood’ grows in a lab instead of the ocean

Eating protein grown in a lab could either save fish from over-harvesting, or be our only option if they all die off.

Taking a whiff of a tray of multiplied cells, made from the stem cells scraped off a dead fish, all I could detect was a faint aroma of something smelling 'off.' Fishy, even. The co-founders of Finless Foods are working every holiday and weekend to 'feed' the cells so they divide and grow well enough to construct a fish fillet of edible meat within a few months. The biotechnology startup is pinning all of its hopes on consumers choosing lab-made meat over the potentially overfished or antibiotic-laden pieces of fish they might be purchasing now.

That's not to say eating all fish is unethical. Top US marine exhibit and research institution Monterey Bay Aquarium created the Seafood Watch program (with a website and an app) to help people buy sustainably caught fish, and steer them away from meat that is already overfished, over laden with chemicals- or endangered.

Finless Foods is beginning by replicating the cells of Bluefin Tuna because it is overfished, everywhere, and can't be reproduced in captivity. Co-founder and CEO Mike Selden says even farmed fisheries owners he has talked to warmed up to him when they heard about his work with tuna.

"We're growing a small sample of fish meat out from a real fish in a large bioreactor, in massive scale, in clean, sterile breweries that won't engage in all sorts of harmful practices like run-off, won't have high levels of antibiotics or hormones," said Selden.

There are so many experts loudly warning about the pillaging of fish from the oceans, but multiple agencies and reports all seem to settle on one statistic: 31 percent of global fish stocks are currently being overfished. And the trend shows that commercial fishing will likely die out unless we start effectively managing fisheries worldwide. A few select countries, like New Zealand, are shining examples of management done right, but that's not enough; especially because many fish (like Chilean Sea Bass) are caught illegally. Researchers warn that even well-managed fisheries won't save the oceans from what seems to be coming.

In California, science forecasts that human actions like urbanization, agriculture, fishing, existing dams and climate change will contribute to the death of half of the state's native trout and salmon population within 50 years. That's why marine biologists in a San Francisco aquarium are fired up and doing more than just educating visitors about wildlife.

"We are taking fish from the world's ocean on an unsustainable pace," said Melissa Schouest, a marine biologist at Aquarium of the Bay. "Globally speaking, it is one of the biggest environmental threats that this world faces."

Schouest herself avoids eating fish, though she admits a weakness for Dungeness Crab, a West Coast specialty. I tell her I get it: Everyone has their own 'bacon.'

But because they care about fish and marine wildlife so much, she and her co-workers call Finless Foods when the occasional exhibit fish dies. Selden or his co-founder, Brian Wyrwas, then rush over to collect it before useable cells are gone. This way, the co-founders say no fish has to die specifically for them, as they make tweaks to their cell-growing process.

This kind of business activism has been done before.

Professor Mark Post caused a media storm in 2013 when he famously cooked and consumed red meat he'd constructed in a lab. It was so successful that Post founded a company, Mosa Meat, that aims to have cell-cultured meat available for $30 a pound within three years. Even Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, helped to bankroll Post's 2013 synthetic hamburger effort because of concern about animal welfare.

Post has presided over popular opinion polls for lab-grown meat and thinks there is enough support to make it work.

"There are a lot of concerns out there that don't have a valid basis, when we have 50 percent of people that say 'yeah, I want to try this,'" said Post. "The technology to scale up this production is there, it's just never been done."

And Hampton Creek, owners of vegan darling 'Just Mayo' is also newly on-board, announcing in June 2017 that it will begin making a lab-made meat. It intends to get its product to grocery stores by 2018, the most ambitious goal of the groups working on cell-cultured flesh. Then again, the company got a $100 million investment last year, so perhaps it's doable for them.

With a growing demand for protein the world over, Finless Foods, Mosa Meat, Hampton Creek and a few others are at the forefront of a trend that the following generation might find routine: Creating lab-made, not pasture-raised or fresh caught, meat.

But listen, I'm not here to shame anyone for their meat or fish consumption. I went into this story skeptical, but emerged with an entirely new perspective. At a farmers market last weekend, I hesitantly bought salmon that had been farmed along the coast of Scotland, only after the seller reassured me that no antibiotics were used and that it was raised in a healthy environment. (I couldn't buy the local rockfish because of all the different types of it I'd just marveled over, at the aquarium.) I thought of the cramped quarters the salmon must have endured as I ate the softly-tinted pink meat, so different from its wild caught brethren that I looked it up on the Seafood Watch site later on. I was guilt-ridden to see I likely ate fish on the avoid list, because of the diseases that could carry over when captured fish escape nets. That kind of farming can taint a whole ecological system around it.

With the world's oceans suffering from overfishing, climate change and god knows what other man-made calamities I'm not-yet obsessing over, I just don't feel comfortable with that.

I'll be avoiding fish for awhile now, but not steak. With apologies to Mark Post, steak will always be my bacon.