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June 10, 2009 at 12:35 PM

Seafood sustainability: Bittman (and other pros) weigh in. Thoughts?

In the ongoing discussion about seafood sustainability, Mark Bittman’s very personal perspective in today’s New York Times — “Loving Fish, This Time with the Fish in Mind” — is something you need to read. Bittman is a prolific food writer and author of many books, including, not incidentally, “Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking,” his first. When I read his essay this morning, I was struck by many things, including this passage:

“Merely buying a piece of fish has become so challenging that when my publisher asked if I wanted to revise the my book [Fish], I felt I had to decline. The cooking remains unchanged, but the buying has become a logistical and ethical nightmare.”

For any environmentally half-conscious eater, purchasing and consuming seafood is likely to provoke the very concerns Bittman so articulately articulates: “How do you buy fish without driving yourself nuts or feeling never-ending guilt?” he asks. A fair question, that.

Fish: it’s a wrap — for some seafood, says Bittman, but not others.

For instance, he writes:

“Say you’re considering a halibut steak. The fishmonger or waiter has no clue where it’s from (or may lie about it). Yet according to Seafood Watch, it could be one of six varieties, all wild. Of these, four are to be avoided under some circumstances, though all six are fine under others. Your mission — should you decide to accept it — is to find out whether a `set gillnet” has been used in the fish’s capture, or if the hirame (one type of halibut) is from the Atlantic (avoid) or Pacific (just fine). I couldn’t do this, and I’m in theory an expert.”

Clearly he was with me in spirit earlier this week as I trundled to the store after this verbatim conversation at home regarding dinner:

Me: “Let’s grill some fish. I’m thinking salmon.”

Nate: “I want sushi!”

Mac: “You can’t have sushi every night.”

Nate: “How about swordfish?”

Mac: “What have I told you about swordfish? It’s not sustainable, it eats too high on the food chain.”

Yes, we actually have these kind of conversations in our kitchen — when my family and I aren’t out and about at sushi bars, or helping decimate the seafood population at home. . .

Do-it-yourself sushi, made with salmon roe from Seattle’s sustainable Loki Fish Co.

. . . and when I’m not out enjoying seafood at sustainably minded Seattle restaurants:

Copper River king salmon with cherries, last week at the Steelhead Diner

Or at other restaurants not-so-sustainably oriented:

Seafood combo at the Orient Express (fka Andy’s Diner)

That said, those kind of conversations are fewer and far between when Mac’s off doing his duty to save the fishes by assisting with the removal and remediation of shipwrecks and their oil from the world’s waterways (as he was busy doing during the better part of the last three months).

What is it? I have no idea. Mac sent this photo from Gibraltar, noting, “the restaurant-owner caught it.”

He sunk his teeth into this “delightful” delicacy there, too. Or was it vice versa?

I admit, not proudly mind you, that I’m far too flagrant in my non-sustainable seafood consumption. That said, my husband — ever the thoughtful conservationist — has instilled in our son the idea that while we take from our environment, we should also give back. Which is why, several times a year, they head out with the Stilly-Snohomish Fisheries Enhancement Task Force, planting native trees along the shoreline to enhance salmon habitat.

Hang out with mom, you get these T-shirts

Hang out with dad, you get this one.

Anyway, waiting for me at the seafood counter night before last was Copper River sockeye ($13.99/lb), fresh halibut ($8.99 with QFC advantage-card — “from Alaska” I was told when I inquired) and Alaskan king salmon ($22.99/lb, origin otherwise unknown). After some quick calculations (not including the one where I decided to go to QFC rather than the across the street to PCC), I bought a pound of halibut fillet and a 6-ounce portion of the sockeye.

The fish, simply grilled, was delicious. My decision (halibut and sockeye vs. king, which I much prefer) was price-driven. And according to Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, quoted in the New York Times today, it was also sustainable. Hilborn was one of five professionals who weighed in on the weighty subject in an editorial companion-piece to Bittman’s, “The Seafood Eater’s Latest Conundrum.” Hilborn writes: “On the West Coast, Alaskan salmon have been well-managed for the last 50 years and are at record levels of abundance; Pacific halibut and sable fish have long records of successful management.”

Joining in the conversation, Sheila Bowman, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program wants us to take a broader part to sustain the world’s seafood population. “Consumers, chefs and business people have an obligation to be part of the solution through their seafood buying decisions.” Our job, she says, is “to step up to the plate and ask questions when we buy seafood: Where is it from? Was it caught or farmed?” When it comes to shellfish, farmed can be a very good thing adds Carl Safina, founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. “Farmed oysters, mussels and clams tend to be very sustainable and can actually improve local water quality.”

“Oyster Bill” Whitbeck sells his namesake — along with mussels and clams from Taylor Shellfish Farms — to local restaurants and at area farmers markets.

Dartmouth associate professor Susanne Freidberg, author of “Fresh: A Perishable History,” suggests “the snob appeal of fresh, wild fish goes back a long ways,” and adds, “historically its prestige has devastated certain species and justified a lot of energy intensive long-distant transport.” Indeed, there’s no denying the “snob appeal” of a fresh Maine lobster. Nor the fact that when enjoyed here in the Pacific Northwest, it has a formidable carbon foot-print: The lobsters below were shipped overnight, via FedEx from my neighbor Leslie’s friendly “lobstahmen” in Maine.

Hey Leslie! What’s in the box?

Swimming in the Atlantic one day, on a plate in the Pacific Northwest the next.

I appreciate my neighbor’s generosity (her annual “Lobstahfests” make life worth living), as well as the fact that while she “summers in Maine,” she’s no snob. I also like knowing — as Safina suggested in the Times — that the Atlantic lobster fisheries are among the “best managed” worldwide.

Author Taras Grescoe was called upon to comment for the Times story too. His book “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood” is one I highly recommend. “In spite of what I’ve learned about the parlous state of the world’s oceans recently,” Grescoe writes, “I continue to eat fish — though, admittedly, I’m a lot picker than I used to be.” When it comes to consuming seafood, he advocates grazing from the middle and bottom of the oceanic food chain, feasting on mackerel, sardines or herring rather than on top-of-the-food-chain predators like swordfish or tuna.

Canned sardines! So good, and so good for you — compared to other fish in the sea.

Like Bittman, who writes “It’s improbable that I’ll eat in a perfectly sustainable manner” and finds that he has to keep re-evaluating the ever-changing rules of the seafood-eating game (interpreting the “safe” lists, monitoring which species are overfished and which, once depleted, have made the road back to recovery), I recognize that my seafood-eating habits are far from perfect.

As I continue to consider my own impact on the wide world of seafood, I also recognize I’m among the privileged minority able to make my dining decisions based on a steady income and a well-read viewpoint, which makes me exceedingly fortunate. And I encourage all of you to read as much as you can on the subject, including the interesting commentary provided in the New York Times today.

Comments | More in | Topics: Reading about eating, Seafood


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