Seafood could become the next frontier for locavores — whether farmed shrimp in Ohio or black cod in Southern California. But what is “local seafood,” exactly?
Let’s consider a shrimp nursery that’s nestled unassumingly among red barns and vast expanses of flat land in New London, Ohio, about 40 miles from Lake Erie. Bob Calala’s humble above-ground tanks, which are powered by two rotating fans and illuminated by only a few fluorescent lights, have become a resource for Ohioans seeking local seafood.
For years, commodity-hog and feed-corn growing was by far the dominant economic activity in this rural area. Now, many family farmers have switched to growing shrimp spawned at this hatchery in self-contained ponds. No one mourns the lakes of pig poop and nitrogen fertilizer runoff they replaced. The mature shrimp are now a prized late-summer feature in Ohio food, flavored by the minerals in freshwater ponds and the labors of local folk, much like the pumpkins and edamame harvested from the soil at the same time. The taste of never-frozen freshwater shrimp simply can’t be beat.
Here’s the catch. Bob’s brood stock is from Asia: does that mean his shrimp aren’t local? What about an albacore tuna — famously far and fast swimmers — that is caught several hundred miles off the shore of Washington. Is that local if you live in Portland?
These aren’t simple questions, and they vexed me for years. But part of my job for Bon Appétit Management Company is to figure out purchasing policies for our chefs that can help them navigate these murky waters. Several committed chefs and I worked with a fisheries scientist to develop a program we called Fish to Fork, in honor of the Farm to Fork program Bon Appétit began in 1999. The issues we wrestled with, and the national guidelines we released in response last year, might be useful for local-loving home cooks.
Fishing closer to home
Few Americans think much about fish, period, let alone local fish. As a nation, we consume little seafood — an average of 17 pounds of prepared seafood per person per year (less than 4 ounces per week), compared to 184 pounds of chicken, turkey, beef and pork. Of that, 80% is shrimp (mostly farmed in Asia), canned tuna, salmon, and mild whitefish varieties such as wild pollock and farmed tilapia. With a strange exception for tuna, we don’t like our fish to taste “fishy.” Put another way, flavorlessness — as in fish “sticks” — is considered a virtue.
Bon Appétit has come up with some specific Fish to Fork guidelines for our chefs (see box), but the general principles are perhaps more important. The first is that “deliciousness matters.” Lots of fish look the same once filleted, but the subtle flavors of lesser-known species can be profound. Take striped mullet off the Virginia coast. Green-listed by Seafood Watch, it used to be a familiar white fish until easy-to-grow tilapia conquered supermarkets. Croaker is another regional Southeast fish enjoyed by relatively few people today. Both are competitively priced and knock the flavor socks off tilapia (which we affectionately think of as “tofu-fish” — and that’s an insult to good tofu’s subtle flavor nuances). Ask longtimers in your community what fish they used to enjoy and you may learn what might still be available.
Recently I asked our chefs about the seafood they ate as children. They shared memories about wild Gulf shrimp on the tip of Texas (“sweeter than ice cream”), Dungeness crab in San Francisco (“it’s not Christmas Eve without it”), and porgies off North Carolina shores (“the taste of real fish”) — all of which are still available. Like strawberries in summer, the notion of peak-season fish is powerful for those lucky enough to have tasted it.
That’s the catch
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of sustainability. Edible readers probably know that if you were to check the seafood choices available at most mainstream supermarkets against marine science sustainability lists, many would come up “avoid,” due to serious environmental problems with the way the fish is farmed or fished.
The reason, simply, is that most supermarkets — and distributors who sell to restaurants — sell commodity seafood: popular species from very large-scale fisheries or fish farms. Sustainability, though possible, gets compromised by other priorities, like consistently bringing large quantities to market. A tuna boat can haul in 800 metric tons or more in a single purse seine net. “Tuna is too cheap,” says one tuna company executive. Conservationists couldn’t agree more.
So scale matters, too. Marine biologist Daniel Pauly and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia have shown that smaller fishing vessels are more likely to keep fisheries viable. With proper regulatory monitoring and support, small boats tend to haul in fish at sustainable rates, employ more people in meaningful work, and use less energy in total to catch equal quantities overall as larger boats. Small-boat fishermen on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts also tend to use much less destructive gear to haul in their catch than do larger ships trawling the open oceans, vacuuming everything in their wake.
Small-scale fish farms need our support, too. They aren’t the monsters we associate with industrial operations. Some of them (like Passmore Ranch, the sturgeon and black-bass farm beloved by Bon Appétit’s Northern California chefs) have introduced responsibly raised new species into the marketplace and are helping revitalize rural communities.
In addition to netting unsustainable quantities of fish, industrial-scale fishing operations reduce the long-term resiliency of our food systems, and their aquafarming counterparts focus on too narrow a variety of species. Over-fishing oceans (or lakes) sharply reduces one favored species, such as sharks, causing others like jellyfish to thrive where previously they were all kept in balance.
But just as with produce, simply knowing the faces and names of our fishermen and women doesn’t mean we know that their methods do no harm. “Small-scale” and “local” aren’t necessarily good proxies for healthy ecosystems. Small-scale fishermen typically deploy non-industrial sized boats and equipment that don’t seem damaging. Yet when a lot of damage has been done to a fishing area, sometimes the best medicine is “No more fishing now!” not “Well, just a little is probably OK.…”
Unfortunately, you often can’t just consult your handy seafood wallet card or smart phone app. The major independent marine-science organizations, including Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and the Blue Ocean Institute, don’t assess most “artisanal” (small-scale) fisheries, like North Carolina’s Red Drum population. They simply don’t have the staff power to research all 32,000 of them. State fish and game departments are chronically understaffed and unable to provide data.
We’re partnering with Seafood Watch to assess some of the fisheries we’d like to buy from in the future, but meaningful information is a few years away. In the meantime, we’re sticking with species that are favorably rated.
Energy matters a lot. The concept of “food miles” can be deceptive. Some restaurant chefs think nothing of buying “sustainable fish” flown halfway around the world, even though air-freighting is the most carbon-intensive way to get a fresh fish to a consumer’s plate. If fresh regional fish starts to supplant jet-fresh varieties, we will achieve a massive environmental victory.
As we attempt to rebuild robust regional food sheds, we shouldn’t ignore seafood. The variety of flavors are endless for both wild and aquacultured species (think oysters). For many home cooks, this will mean learning to cut and use the whole fish — not just fillets — much like the whole-animal movement is teaching us to do with meat. And just as the local food movement has made farming and ranching enticing to young people, a local fish movement could revitalize traditional careers like fishing and create promising new businesses like sustainable aqua-farming. There’s still a long way to go before Ohio shrimp and Florida amberjack star on local menus and dinner tables, but once you taste local fish in season, you’ll be hooked.
Go (local) fish!
Here’s how to get back to the Bay Area’s seafood roots — and find sustainable new sources.
— Haven Bourque
Catch your own, or find out what’s still available:
California Fish and Game’s Mobile Ap www.dfg.ca.gov/mobile/
Northern California recreational fishing www.fishsniffer.com/content/
Abalone diving club www.alacosta.org
Foraging classes www.seaforager.com
Find a local Community Supported Fishery www.localcatch.org/
Half Moon Bay Fishermans Association CSF sites.google.com/site/hmbfishing/ clients
SirenSeaSA (Bay Area seafood CSA) www.sirenseasa.com
Santa Cruz hook & line fishing family that delivers a weekly subscription delivery of sustainable, local fish in Bay Area www.hhfreshfish.com
Monterey Abalone Company www. montereyabalonecompany.com
Hog Island, sustainable farmed oysters available widely in Bay Area www. hogislandoysters.com/
Sustainable fish in stores:
Monterey FishMarket www.montereyfish.com (check out its fish sourcing chart: chart: www.montereyfish.com/ pages/nav/seafoodindex.html)
Hapuku Fish shop, Rockridge Market Hall rockridgemarkethall.com/hapuku-fish
Bi-Rite Market www.biritemarket.com
Markets following fishwise.org sustainable seafood guidelines fishwise. org/retailers
Safeway. Yes, Safeway. It may come as a shock, but the 1700+ Safeway stores across the country are on track to become a powerful force for ocean conservation. According to Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, Safeway has the most sustainable seafood operation of any major market in the United States. With a score of 6.5 out of 10, Safeway has a long way to go yet, but has still managed to outperform stores like Whole Foods that are generally assumed to be more able to provide sustainable options.
Watch out! Make sure you have the latest Seafood Watch guidelines for the West Coast.
GPS-customized smart phone apps www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_iPhone.aspx