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Why I Only Eat Farmed Fish (Mostly)
I grew up in a family that happily ate seafood whenever it was served--lobsters, clams, haddock, halibut, whatever. Fish was on the table at least once a week, often on Fridays, not because we were Catholic but because that was the day the notoriously foul-mouthed fish monger in his shop above the waterfalls in Camden had the most bountiful array. We ate halibut in season, haddock regularly, swordfish when available, scallops and shrimp in winter. But no cod--“too wormy,” my mother proclaimed. And no mussels because mussels back then were considered the trashiest of trash fish.
In late winter, when the smelts were running, we had whole smelts rolled in cornmeal and fried in the fat produced by trying out cubes of salt pork—reducing the pork bits over heat till they were crisp and brown, what Newfies call scrunchions, used to garnish the smelts.
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(They say smelts taste like violets; I don’t know what violets taste like but if they taste like smelts, they are delicious.) Later in June and July we had mackerel, caught by jigging off the dock on late summer evenings when the fish were schooling on an incoming tide. That mackerel, its silvery blue skin blistered over charcoal, remains in my memory, juicy and fragrant.
And chowder of course—because what would a Maine kitchen be without chowder? Clam or cod, Mrs. Hussey said to Ishmael in the most memorable dining scene in all of American literature. I’m speaking of Moby Dick and the menu at the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket but you would find the same thing in Maine. “Clam or cod?” Mrs. Hussey asked and Ishmael and Queequeg promptly took both. As Melville described it, this chowder is instantly recognizable to any Maine cook, “made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” The ship’s biscuit was the only thickener needed, and steaming sweet milk provided the broth. (Don’t tell me Melville wasn’t America’s first food writer! Or maybe that was Washington Irving. To be discussed at a future date.)
I have not mentioned lobster, but lobster was always available and always a feature—lobster picnics on the rocks, lobster cookouts on the beach, lobster Newberg and lobster salad at ladies’ lunches, lobster stew for Friday night supper, lobster rolls just about any time all summer long that a person had a hankering for them,
along with a small order of fried whole-belly clams. (I should add that my father claimed he didn’t really remember lobster rolls much before World War II, so that gives you a sense of the history of the thing.)
Later, I moved on in my rambles, but always looking for fish. Living in New York, I was introduced to what had been till then unknowns: shad roe braised in butter and served with crisp bacon rashers; softshell crabs, pan-fried till crisp and crunchy, again in butter (this was well before olive oil came into my life); and oysters, whether on the half-shell or in the renowned pan roast at the old Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.
But there was more to come: shrimp and grits in Charleston, fish tacos in San Diego, black cod in miso sauce in Seattle, all prepared by skilled native cooks. There were plump, metallic-flavored plates, aka Belons, oysters that were bought by the piece and consumed on the spot at outdoor stalls in Place Clichy, and whole scallops, symbols of the pilgrim route to Compostela, served in Galicia in their shells with their blushing roes attached (in Maine we didn’t know that scallops had roes). There were fresh caught Sultan-Ibrahim (small, sweet red mullet) grilled outside the beach shacks south of Beirut, and steamed fish with ginger and soy sauce or sweet-and-sour black bean crab cakes in a sampan restaurant afloat in Hongkong’s Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. There were bright orange sea urchin roes, scooped out with bits of crusty bread, and raw fish of the most impeccable freshness, sliced and served with a drop of olive oil and a spritz of lemon, both of these on the Adriatic coast of Puglia, and there were sardines, wrapped in fig leaves and roasted over an open fire in a Sicilian farmhouse, a recipe that went straight back to the 4th century BCE and Archestratus, the first Mediterranean gastronome.
I went fishing whenever I could. Way out at the end of Long Island I met a pair of fishermen who still harvested with fixed nets the way their great-grandparents had done. On an August morning just before dawn, I went out with a lobster fisherman off the Maine island of North Haven to haul his traps and pluck out the live critters, snapping rubber bands around their claws. And one night in June on the Mediterranean coast of Spain where the twilight stays bright until ten o’clock, I watched workers swing a giant bluefin tuna into the back of a transcontinental van to speed the fish to Madrid and thence to the Tsukiji market in far-off Japan. The whole scene unrolled in silence, as if the workers themselves were stunned by the magnitude of the great fish.
So why am I telling you all this? Not because I’m an incorrigible place-dropper, although I am, but because I want you to recognize that I do know something about seafood. That’s why I said what I did at the top of this piece: Nowadays I only eat farmed fish (mostly).
That’s because the methods used, right around the world, for harvesting fish are and have been for more than a century, horrendously, horrifyingly, awesomely wasteful. We are in effect raping the oceans. And we seem as helpless to do anything about that as we are to cope with most of the other problems we face in a rapidly changing climate. As with climate destruction, the ruinous state of the oceans is a direct result of consumer demand. We will not give up our automobiles, our central heating, our air conditioning, or our demand for fish, more fish, bigger fish, tastier fish, fish that is richer in Omega 3 fatty acids, fish that is leaner, fish that will bring us brain health and defend us against the rigors of old age. Eat fish, the nutritionists say, the more the better. And meanwhile, scientists say we are depleting the stock beyond the point where it can rejuvenate. Daniel Pauly, a renowned marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, leader of the Sea Around Us Project (http://www.seaaroundus.org), warned years ago that the day was at hand when the last fish would be taken from the ocean.
If we harvested beef or chicken the way we harvest fish, there would be a huge outcry against the destruction of the environment, the waste of the resource, and the inefficiency of the entire process, starting with fishing boats themselves and the enormous quantities of fuel they require to operate at sea for days and sometimes weeks at a time.
I am not talking about two men in a boat, netting herring.
Nor am I talking about small scale inshore local fisheries, which still exist in many parts of the world, despite the inroads of commercial industrial trawlers.
Still, even a midsize bottom trawler, operating off the coast of North America, impacts the seabed with its heavy, weighted net. Shaped like a funnel, the trawl flattens the bottom just like a piece of earth-moving equipment, scraping away the foundation ecosystem, and scooping up everything in its path, much of which will be discarded (for the most part dead or dying) when it reaches the surface because it’s bycatch, not allowed as part of the regulated catch. Some 80% of all the fish caught, it’s estimated, is discarded as commercially worthlesss.
And the trend is toward ever bigger, more sophisticated vessels. Atlantic Dawn (the original name, it has since been changed) is one extravaganza, a floating fish factory that’s the largest such ship ever made. The statistics are alarming: 473 feet long, weighing just over 14,000 gross tonnes, pulling a purse seine that encloses 2.1 million cubic meters and a trawl net that is 1200 feet broad and 96 feet high. Atlantic Dawn was built for an Irish businessman at a time early in this century when the Irish fishing fleet already exceeded the EU’s mandated maximum by 30 percent. All by itself, according to Courrier International, this vessel accounts for 15% of Ireland’s total fishing capacity; it spends nine months of the year off Mauritania, with a private government license to harvest Mauritanian fish. The ship can catch and freeze up to 300 tonnes of fish a day.
So that’s why I try to eat only farmed seafood, finfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and even seaweeds that are produced under carefully structured and monitored conditions, controlled, well-regulated, with the minimal undesirable impact on the environment, and that moreover produce a result that is safe and nutritious for human consumption. And I will admit right at the start that not all fish farming fits these parameters, any more than most meat farming, at least in the United States, is environmentally sound, sustainable, and generates a safe and healthful product.
For those who are quick to say, “I never eat farmed fish,” here’s a statistic to keep in mind: A little over half the seafood consumed right around the world and on every continent is the product of aquaculture, whether it’s scary shrimp from an environmentally destructive farm off the coast of Vietnam or salmon raised in the cold clean waters of Cobscook Bay according to Maine’s strict environmental regulations. More than half of all the seafood consumed worldwide comes from farms of one kind or another. So even all of you who say I never eat farmed fish are probably consuming it, at least from time to time.
The list of farmed seafood is long and growing: mussels and oysters, some of which have been raised in Mediterranean waters since at least Roman times, and more recently in Asia and the North Atlantic, scallops and clams.
Carp is a historic, possibly even a prehistoric, crop for Chinese aquaculture, to which in more recent times, catfish and tilapia have been added; as quick-growing fresh water species they often alternate with rice I the same flooded plots. Gilthead bream and European sea bass (Disentrarchus labrax, not to be confused with many other varieties of bass) are the leader species in the Mediterranean today. (Marketed as branzino, sea bass is a popular chef’s choice, probably because it comes in a convenient serving size for a whole fish.) Exotic warm-water species like cobia and barramundi have been adapted to aquaculture, and a fish variously called amberjack or yellowtail or Seriola shows lots of promise for land-based recirculating aquaculture. And I haven’t even mentioned fish like trout and salmon, raised in hatcheries before stocking both fresh and salt water sites.
A lot of fish farming, it’s true, is deeply problematic—but so, for that matter, is most of the pork and chicken farming that takes place in North America. Much criticism is based on the environmental impacts, which can be considerable but are not always unfavorable. A lot depends on local governments and how closely they supervise the industry. And much criticism also focusses on how safe a given product is for human consumption. One way to determine both of these factors is to follow Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (https://www.seafoodwatch.org) which pays close attention to all kinds of seafood, whether farmed or wild, and assesses products in terms of both environmental impact and whether it’s safe to eat. Branzino raised in Turkish waters, for instance, comes with an unwelcome warning to “avoid,” mostly because of “significant” use of antibiotics, which is typical of animals kept in overcrowded conditions.
I don’t always agree with Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch assessments, especially their recommendation that American (Maine, Canadian) lobster should be avoided because of the impact of its gear on right whales. The right whale problem exists for sure, but there is not really any convincing (to my mind) evidence that it is either created or exacerbated by traditional fishing with lobster pots. But that’s another issue.
Another program that certifies farmed seafood for environmental impact and food safety, also recommended by Monterey Bay, is the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC, https://asc-aqua.org), founded by the Worldwide Fund for Nature. ASC is an outgrowth of the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified wild caught fish for many years. It’s a valuable organization but its reach is limited currently to just 12 species (most importantly, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, and bivalves). That may be expanding, but so far ASC has not dealt with the most important Mediterranean market species, bream and seabass/branzino. But the accreditation process is rigorous and the organization is apparently well-managed, although, as you might imagine, keeping track of even just a dozen species on nearly 2,000 farm sites worldwide is onerous, to say the least.
The elephant in the room with fish farming, however, is Atlantic salmon, the fish critics love to hate. A long time ago there was good reason to condemn all Atlantic salmon farming. First developed in Norway, it became notorious for industry-wide malfeasance, including overcrowded fish cages, diseases that threatened wild stock, incredible pollution, and the vast amounts of wild fish required to provide feed for the salmon—as much as five or six pounds of wild “trash” fish to create one pound of salmon, according to many records. But the industry has matured as it has spread pretty much around the world, even in the Pacific, not natural home for the species, and it has become responsive to a rapidly increasing consumer demand for a safe, sustainable product.
I’ve been following farmed salmon for at least thirty years, since I first visited a salmon farm established off Machias in Downeast Maine by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian firm. I’ve also visited fish farms in New Brunswick, in Chile at Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé, and in the deep lochs of Scotland’s extreme northwest. Over that time there have been tremendous improvements in salmon farming. Antibiotics and pesticides that were once routine have been supplanted by less invasive techniques, such as inoculation against diseases, while the feed
conversion ratio of wild fish to farmed has been reduced significantly by incorporating soy, algae, fermented yeast products, fishery bycatch, and the remains of fish processing (heads, tails, guts) into fish meal and oil.
(It’s worth pointing out to those who complain, justifiably, about over- exploitation of wild so-called trash fish, such as Peruvian anchoveta, harvested in enormous quantities for the fish meal and fish oil industry, that large amounts of fish oil and meal also go into livestock feed and fertilizers. Your garden roses may benefit from ground Peruvian anchoveta.)
Another aspect of salmon feeding that’s frequently criticized is the use of astaxanthin. Critics refer to salmon flesh as being “dyed.” It is not. The pink color of farmed salmon comes from the addition to the feed of astaxanthin, a naturally occurring antioxidant carotenoid. If you wonder about astaxanthin, you can find it among the supplements at your local pharmacy or health-food store, as well as on Amazon, where it’s recommended for healthy skin, male infertility, and a host of other conditions. In fact, some health sites recommend consuming farmed Atlantic salmon instead of an astaxanthin supplement.
All that being said, there are of course nasty players in salmon aquaculture, indeed in all seafood aquaculture, just as there are in pork and chicken production. Long ago I stopped buying pork and chicken from my supermarket, simply because there was no information about where it came from or how it was raised. Instead, I pay more to a specialty butcher who knows where her meat comes from and what went into it. I practice the same caution with fish, especially with farmed fish. Yes, I pay more than I would at the supermarket—I’m sometimes incredulous at low prices offered that on specials, but I’m not tempted by them because of the questions they raise that no one can answer.
I apologize if this all sounds a little holier than thou, a little smug with privilege. But I think it really does matter, so much so that I’ve made this post available to all subscribers, those who pay as well as those who don’t. If you’ve been a long-time subscriber, you know that I believe it’s important to understand where our food comes from, both for our own personal health and for the health of our planet. And if it means we spend a little more and maybe eat a little less, that’s probably good for us too.
Thank you for listening!
Next week I promise to get back to more hands-on talk, mainly how to cook fish, whether farmed or not. And maybe something about what to do with all those tomatoes that are finally flooding our markets.
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