Monday, February 1, 2010

Something fishy

I've spoken with a good many people recently about "the true cost of food." Often, the topic comes up during a conversation with someone I've met along my journey who is new to the idea of sustainable food, and I, in an attempt to explain what the heck it is I'm doing (and why), invariably bumble about trying to articulate what "sustainable" even means. It's a definition in progress, to be sure, but it takes into account not only the production costs (seed/animals, water, labor, equipment) but environmental (chemical runoff, soil health, erosion), distribution (petroleum-based, usually), and human health costs as well. It's all related, sure, but as I headed further down the California coastline I was about to discover how our food-related behaviors impact not only the land but our oceans as well (and the amazingly diverse undersea world that inhabits 3/4 of the earth covered by water).

After a day and a half in Salinas (the self-proclaimed "salad bowl for the world" where I curiously had a salad made from local Earthbound Farms' romaine lettuce imported from Mexico) getting over a cold, Ollie and I made our way to Monterey Bay with the hope of checking out the fabulous Aquarium. Back in Seattle, where I had started researching sustainable seafood, I'd come across Seafood Watch -- a guide put out by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium that clarifies which varieties of fish and shellfish should be enjoyed and which should be avoided. The recommendations are based largely on the methods used to catch the animals, but also take into account things like if a species is being overfished or if there is a high likelihood of heavy metal consumption. (I'm not talking tuna listening to Iron Maiden, mind you. Mercury, mostly.) I had the good fortune to meet with Alison, one of the members of the Aquarium's communications team who had been involved with the publication of the Seafood Watch guide. A lifelong ecology educator, she gave me a bit of background on the program and pointed out a few key exhibits pertaining to sustainability and food.

As Alison departed for an afternoon meeting, I wandered over to the "Real Cost Cafe," where I was both entertained and educated by the interactive diner exhibit. Each menu item on the touchscreen monitors prompted a brief mini video montage about the costs behind ordering wild salmon, farmed shrimp, oysters, and more. I learned, for instance, there is something called "bycatch" that refers to the unintended victims of a fishing haul. Methods like "long-lining" -- which employ sometimes multiple miles of lines with baited hooks dragged behind a boat -- capture bycatch animals (other fish, sharks, sea turtles, even birds) and drag them for hours until the line is hauled back in and the undesirables, now dead or crippled, are tossed aside as waste. Considering four bycatch per one intended catch is not unusual, these reckless fishing methods -- and long-lining is just one of them -- wreak havoc on our sealife. There's also overfishing, where the consumer demand for *more* is pushing some species to the brink of extinction. And it's not just wild species, either. Irresponsible farm management, like the shrimp farming that has permanently decimated coastal areas, has turned formerly flourishing waterways into a stagnant pit where nothing can survive. (I saw evidence of this a few years back on my way through Costa Rica and it is shocking. And the stench!) The allure of short-term money has trumped long-term repercussions for too long. We need to do something. And we can.

Until fishermen and restaurants cease to have a paying market for things like codfish or long-lined tuna or eel (a sushi favorite these days), they will keep doing whatever it takes to get these fish to our plates. There is a powerful opportunity we have here with our collective individual choices -- by what we spend our seafood dollars on -- to change the system. Get yourself a copy of the Seafood Watch guide. They're free and downloadable from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website. (There's even an iPhone app for it...if you're into that kind of thing.) There's a guide for each region of the country, and a new version that's hot off the presses this January specifically for sushi (I just sent you a wallet-sized hard copy of this one, my sashimi-loving little brother) that lists which kinds of the raw delicacies should be enjoyed freely, which are good alternatives, and which should be avoided. And don't be sad about avoiding the unsustainable "ebi" (eel): some sushi joints have started getting creative, serving "fauxbi," which is made with different fish but mimics the texture of the original and of course has the same delicious sauce. (It's way more convincing than, say, fake bacon.)

It was in the company of my lovely new friends Mack, Joan, and Clay on my way through Los Osos last night that I again had an opportunity to enjoy some fish tacos. This time -- unlike the unsustainable codfish tacos last week -- they were Alaskan salmon, wild-caught by a friend of theirs, and notably in the "enjoy" section of the Seafood Watch guide. I'm not sure if it was because they were really fresh, made with love, washed down with a cold beer, or because I knew that I was enjoying something sustainable, but they were almost impossibly delicious. It may have been all of these factors. (Oh, and the inclusion of 11-year-old Clay's secret fish taco sauce. I would bathe in the stuff if I could: it was that good. If I ever write "Bikeable Feast: The Cookbook" some day, that recipe will be in it....)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Can I pre-order my Bikeable Feast Cookbook?

  2. Consumer Activism really makes a difference. Probably the biggest triumph was getting domestic tuna producers to use dolphin-safe netting, now standard practice.

    Sustainability often depends on how fish are obtained or where they’re from (Wild-caught Alaskan Salmon is best, Oregon is OK, but farmed Atlantic salmon is bad.) Foreign shrimp producers sometimes have 10 lbs of bycatch per 1lb of shrimp. Shrimp trawls run along the bottom of the ocean, often destroying important reefs, but you mentioned the downside of shrimp farming. At restaurants and supermarkets I always ask for the fish's bio, if it's not clear. Even if I don't plan to order that fish, I want chef's to know it's important to me. If someone asks me about the seafood guide, I give them my copy to have (It gives me an excuse to print out the most update version).

  3. I meant to add that domestic shrimp trawls are supposed to be better regulated, with bycatch ratios of only 3:1, if I remember correctly. (bottom line is that shrimp trawling produces the most bycatch of any type of fishing)

  4. Sheffy, as always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. If a cookbook does come out of this -- funny, no calls from publishers yet -- you'll get an autographed copy. ;)


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