- Whats Inside
- Editors Note
- SWF Featured
- Innovate, Disrupt, Protect
- Take Action
- W-E Focus Gallery
These buzzwords swirl around like flotsam in a tidal pool, drifting against each other in a running flow of confusion and contradiction. If you care about what you eat from the ocean, if you’re trying to eat responsibly from the sea, it’s nearly impossible to determine just what is going on.
Is there anything more deliciously satisfying than eating seafood right at the seaside? The image of a salty dog fisherman burnished bronze by wind and salt, off-loading his catch and striding in the back door of a restaurant kitchen with his pristine catch in hand. The wonderful mirage of marketing casts its hazy net over our imaginations and wallets.
In coastal towns all over the world, fishing is part and parcel of the culture. We read about the ingrained Sicilian and Sardinian tradition of mattanza, where the tuna swim into ever smaller nets until they are hauled out of the water and speared. We are shocked and horrified at this brutality, but gleeful at finding a good price on tuna in the market without questioning how it got there, or what compromises were made to satisfy our hunger for fish.
Maybe it’s the novelty of a sushi bar conveyor belt with its fast moving offering of all the fish we know and love that makes us believe all those fish are there for the taking.
It is awe inspiring to stand in New York City’s famed Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. The oyster menu has offerings from every corner of the world; all shipped by air to be as fresh and pristine as possible. Are we preserving and encouraging oyster culture? Does the efficiency of volume offset the impact of air freight? There’s really no way to know the answer. It’s not black and white, and it’s not as simple as checking the Seafood Watch app on your phone to see if your dinner has been certified sustainable.
The seas cover about 71% of our planet, and contain around 96% of the water on the planet. With that huge amount of water, it’s almost possible to understand why we’ve treated the oceans as a huge dumping ground. How could we manage to overfish a breeding ground that huge? How could we manage to pollute and change the temperature and acidity levels creating vast swathes of dead zones? Is it because we became incredibly efficient at scooping up any fish in the path of a trawler? Could it be because the oceans seem so vast we thought they could always absorb and recover?
Sadly, we’re learning the ocean’s resources are limited, and we need to pay attention, or we will be unable to recover those vanishing species and the have clean water we need to survive.
Concerned fishermen, chefs, cooks, and activists are raising our awareness. Although, this raised awareness can send you right back into that whirlpool of confusion.
Your mind tells you ‘wild’ must be better. That salty dog fishermen out there at 3:30 am catching your fish, has to be better than fish raised in a farm.
Why is it, when you think of a farm on land, you think of rolling hills and the scent of fresh cut hay? But, when you think fish farm, you picture conveyor belts of fish in pens being fed left over parts of their brethren.
Neither picture is accurate. When wild caught means a trawler scooping up everything in its path; when sophisticated sonar can locate and catch an entire school of fish; when quotas are ignored, wild caught can be equally damaging.
Meanwhile, there are farmed fishing operations that take sustainability, flavor, and resource management very seriously.
Fisheries like “Veta La Palma” near Seville, Spain, have caught the attention of influential chefs like Dan Barber. Reading about his experiences with Veta La Palma in his book,“The Third Plate” will help anyone understand the ecological challenges as well as the marketing challenges for sustainable raised fish.
Chef David Siegal at NYC’s Cull & Pistol introduced me to Sterling’s “Hand Selected Salmon” in British Columbia. Sterling is reaching out to educate chefs on how they sustainably raise their salmon. They are justifiably proud of their salmon and are working to become even more sustainable.
SNV Netherlands Development Organization is working with the Mangroves and Marketing Project in Vietnam to foster the growth of sustainable shrimp farms in their mangrove ecosystems. Lately, the press has latched onto the sensational stories about slave labor on shrimp boats in Thailand, while Vietnam is quietly leading the way in sustainable shrimp farming. Is all shrimp farming in Vietnam sustainable? Absolutely not. But companies like Min Phu Seafood Company are making an effort to maintain the mangrove forests, keep a local industry alive, and pay their fishermen fairly for a premium product.
Bycatch is when you catch fish you didn’t mean to catch. Commercial fishing operations whether they are mega trawlers that literally scoop up everything in their path, or line caught, bring up fish they can’t use or keep. Why can’t they use the bycatch? They may not be licensed for that species, or there may not be a market for that fish so they know they cannot sell it.
What happens to bycatch? It gets tossed back into the sea; the fish die and it’s all a big waste. Maybe it winds up in a cat food can. Maybe we should consider starting a movement like the Ugly Fruit movement, and learn to love fish we’ve never heard of. There is actually a number of chefs who are focusing on getting us to learn to love “trash fish”.
It’s fish that you expect to be one thing like red snapper, but it turns out to be tilapia. But really, is that such a big deal? It might be, if you are considered at risk for high mercury toxicity, or if you had opted to buy orange roughy because it’s on the ‘Yes you can eat it list”, and it turns out to be a severely overfished Atlantic cod.
Oceana.org has done extensive testing and research on fish mislabeling and the statistics are staggering. Overall, nearly one third of all fish sold in the U.S. is mislabeled, with barely 1% of it being inspected by the USDA.
On one hand, we are justified in feeling tricked by fish wholesalers, shops, sushi restaurants and grocery stores. We should be getting what we paid for. On the other hand, what if the fishing boat brought in a fish that was very similar to snapper, but you’d never heard of it? Chances are you wouldn’t buy that strange fish and you’d look for something you are familiar with. Then what? That fish, could be just as tasty as the red snapper, and goes to waste.
Paul Greenberg, author of the excellent book, Four Fish, The Last Wild Food, was interviewed on NPR and he summed up the situation like this, “People in the U.S. like bland flavored fish. They want fish they know.” The result is we toss away perfectly good fish as trash fish, or we turn up our noses at that strange fish in the market.
-Judith Klinger is a Founder and Director of World-Eats.org.