Ray Hilborn holding Chinook
Jason Ching
Ray Hilborn holds a salmon in Alaska, 2004.

“I’m an environmentalist, does that mean I should stop eating fish?”

What began as an innocent question from a coworker worried about their environmental output sparked research that ultimately led UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Professor Ray Hilborn to answer the question: Just how sustainable is the fish burger?

The short answer is very. After collecting data at the Alaska Salmon Program (specifically Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound), Hilborn found that Alaskan net fisheries have particularly low greenhouse gas usage, especially when it comes to sockeye salmon, pink salmon and pollock.

These fisheries are very intensively managed, utilizing a variety of fishery management strategies including rationalization, which matches the number of vessels is closely to the size of the resource. This reduces the amount of fuel used by having more boats than needed. For fisheries, greenhouse gas comes almost exclusively from fuel use so rationalization greatly cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions.

In Prince Williams Sound and Bristol Bay, the greenhouse gas emitted per kg of finished kg of sockeye are .35 and 0.32, which is one fifth lower than a beef burger and distinctively lower than that of an alternative burger — like the Impossible Burger.

“The biggest difference between land and ocean-based food production is that on land, you take a natural ecosystem and eliminate native vegetation to plant crops like the soy grown for use in the Impossible Burger and to feed chickens, and the methane from beef,” says Hilborn. “In Bristol Bay, you hardly change the ecosystem at all. Salmon is abundant there and you hardly need any fuel at all to catch them — you just wait for them to swim up to the net.”

To produce food on land, there will be an enormous impact on the local biodiversity. In fisheries, there’s no soil erosion and the production system is much more environmentally sensitive.

However, this data only looks at the energy used in processing and capturing fish. Hilborn and his team are now researching everything else that is involved with the production of fish burgers including refrigerant, packing and transport.