Eat your ethics

So, let’s talk about fish.

Did you know that fish are a big deal, right now, in the conservation world?

This is thanks to their lower fat, high in omega three nature. Although fish has always been a popular food choice, especially among Catholics, it’s also a health food now, and it’s being consumed in spades. As a result, many species are being overfished, and several are threatened with extinction thanks to our assiduous efforts.

I recently read an excellent book by Mark Kurlansky about cod, entitled, appropriately Cod. When the United States was first settled, Atlantic cod could be fished by dipping a basket into the harbor and pulling it back up again. There was talking of walking across the Atlantic on the backs of the fish. Now, true Atlantic cod is virtually impossible to find. This is becoming true of more and more fish species, unfortunately, and perhaps because fish aren’t majestic, cute, or cuddly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of public outcry.

Interesting fun fact: cod was a major pin in the slave trade, because ships would trade salt cod for sugar, and the slaves would eat the salt cod. Salt cod is cheap protein, and it doesn’t go bad if its prepared correctly. In many parts of the Caribbean, salted fish is still a popular menu item.

Now I’ll tell you, until recently, I didn’t know all that much about fish. I knew that it tasted good, and that as a child I went fishing several times, casting vicious hooks into assorted watery locations. I have a vivid memory of walking up the hill in Molybos as a child, swinging dinner by its tail, and of frying that fish in a cast iron pan with olive oil and lemon and salt.

Living in the Northwest, I’ve been exposed to salmon, and protests on behalf of salmon, and barbecues featuring salmon. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of salmon, although it can be tasty in the right setting. I enjoy more obscure, exciting species, like fresh sardines, and the plethora of exotica that can be found in fish markets elsewhere in the world. I’ve always enjoyed “trash” fish, for it has many endearing qualities. In the last few years, I’ve become more attuned to the fish situation, however. With the impending threat of a closed salmon season, I suspect the rest of the United States is becoming more fish aware as well.

One of my favourite general education classes was an oceanography course. I’ve always loved and been fascinated by the ocean. I’ve lived next to, in, around the ocean for so many years that during the brief period I lived in Vermont, I was severely disoriented. When I came back to California, I thought it might be good to learn a bit more about the ocean.

Were you aware that we have better maps of Mars than the world’s oceans? That we know more about the moon than the depths of the Pacific? That it is estimated only 1% of the ocean has been explored? That we are constantly discovering new and fantastical animals, like tube worms that live in the extraordinarily hot conditions of hydrothermal vents under extreme pressure of untold gallons of water? Were you also aware that we are destroying the ocean and using it as a dump? Approximately 95% of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean. Hell, we came from the ocean, once upon a time. It would behoove us to treat it with more respect.

So fish. I happen to live next to one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. Except that it’s not as productive as it used to be, because it’s being destroyed by the fishing industry. I have watched the urchin industry’s rise and fall, and I see smaller boats coming back with smaller catches every year. I am painfully aware of the effects of trends on ecology.

Growing ocean contamination has led to concern about mercury levels, and there’s a growing movement towards labeling fish as being “mercury free”, something I noted at Harvest Market last week. Hey, that’s great. I’m glad we’re thinking about contamination of our food sources and doing something to raise public interest in the matter. But I wish we were doing more about the source of the contamination. I wish we were doing more about the rusting drums of nuclear waste lying off the Farallones. I wish more of us cared. Perhaps this is a trend going in a good direction–concerns about chemicals in the foods we eat might drive us to take steps to reduce chemical pollution.

But there’s another trend surrounding fish, and it’s not so good. I think people don’t think about fish that much. I mean, sure, it tastes good. Most people probably think of salmon when they think of fish. A large portion of the United States probably thinks of frozen fish. Seafood, however, is varied and amazing. As good food becomes a bigger trend (thank god), more people are becoming aware that fish does exist in multiple species, and that many of these species are tasty. In turn, the demand goes up, and fish suffer.

Fish farms are springing forth, like mushrooms. And let me tell you something, dear reader, if I tell you nothing else today: don’t eat farmed fish. Fish farms devastate marine ecosystems. Farmed fish are bred for certain genetic characteristics which would devastate wild stocks if they ever got loose. Farmed fish swim around in pools of their own garbage. Farmed fish are fed on an assortment of foul things, and these foul things include chemicals (to reduce infections gained from crowded conditions). On the surface, fish farming is a great idea–in practice, it’s horrific.

Do the conditions in fish farms remind you of anything? Maybe, say, the factory farms used for the mammals we eat? I think we’ve all agreed that factory farms are terrible, terrible things, and sources of great wrongness. Some factory farms, to be sure, are striving for environmentally sound practices, but they are being subsumed by bigger corporations who understand that the more product they raise, the more money they make, and hang the cost. So we should not be supporting fish farms, we should be supporting wild caught fish industries.

But wait. It’s not the sample. Because wild caught fish now are caught in a factory like manner. Massive ships drag nets along the ocean floor, disturbing the marine ecology and sweeping up anything in their path. Unwanted catch is thrown back into the ocean, dead or alive. Dolphins drown in tuna nets. The commercial fishing industry is cutthroat, and getting more so. The more humans there are, the more demands we place on the earth, and this in merely one in a litany.

There are some organizations working to “certify” fish as politically correct, as it were, but it’s an uphill battle. I agree with my food critic contemporaries–the best approach is education.

And that’s why I smiled the other night when a little leaflet from the Monterey Bay Aquarium arrived with my bill. It’s the West Coast Seafood Guide for 2006, put out as part of the “Seafood Watch” program. Education in your face, in a nice wallet sized pamphlet. The publishers go right for the guts of the matter–there are three columns, “best choices,” “good alternatives,” and “avoid,” and each has a list of fish.

I think this is a good thing. No, it’s a superb thing. It doesn’t overwhelm the average diner with a parade of facts and horror stories. It points out that seafood should be watched, and shows the reader how they can make a simple choice, and a big difference.

If you read between the lines, there are some sad stories to be found in the “avoid” column. Chilean Seabass, for example, which was a very trendy fish of the moment not that long ago. Now, however, the bass fisheries in Chile are almost destroyed, thanks to the surge of demand. Orange roughy, a delightfully tasty fish that was discovered in Australia. These fish had huge flocks, they were scrumptious, and they were easy to catch. Only later was it discovered that they take an extremely long time to mature, and can live to be over one hundred years old. The delicate balance of the roughy ecology was destroyed, and the stock may never recover. The Atlantic cod, of course, is on the list. So are rockfish and dogfish. Farmed salmon, one of the worst offenders in the farmed fish world. Sturgeon and caviar, as well.

Food is becoming an ethical minefield–education is your only defense.