If there is an area my food knowledge is shaky it's seafood. As a person who puts quite a bit of thought into where my land-based food comes from, I wanted to be equally enlightened about my choices from the sea. I’ve never managed to get a handle on which fish and shellfish are okay to eat and which, due to various reasons including overfishing and pollution, are not.
When I heard NYC Greenmarket's next Educated Eater panel discussion was about why local seafood is sustainable I was quick to sign up. What I hoped to learn was fairly simple, or so I thought: when I head to the store filled with good intentions of buying seafood that is not only tasty but also plentiful and guilt-free, what do I choose?
The panel consisted of Christopher Moore from Sustainable Fisheries at NOAA Fisheries Services (FishWatch), Niaz Dorry, director of Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), and Long Island fisherman and Greenmarket regulars, Alex and Stephanie Villani of Blue Moon Fish and Glenn Bickelman of American Seafood. The moderator was Colin Alevras, chef and current beverage manager for Momofuku restaurants.
To a certain extent the discussion, held at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, answered my question because it turned me on to FishWatch and NAMA, two organizations with meaningful answers to what is considered a sustainable fish and where to find it. But I would be lying if I didn’t say I was still pretty confused when I walked out of the Y. The issue of healthy, sustainable oceans is riddled by regulations, science, and politics and there simply isn’t an easy answer.
In fact I started writing this post a month and a half ago and got bogged down trying to sort through the complexity of it all. I sort of gave up and instead did things like eat oysters on the Vineyard and take pretty pictures of flowers. But then the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred and my disgust and sadness over what is happening to one of the most productive, fragile ecosystems on any American coastline inspired me to get back at it.
I’m not going to talk about my stance on offshore drilling (which gets further developed every day I hear more about the spill) but I would like to make the case for how important it is to support local fisherman and woman like those on the Gulf whose livelihoods are about to be wiped out by the spill. Not only because it benefits these incredibly hard-working people and saves a culture and way of life, but because, as I learned from the Greenmarket panel, the best way to make smart seafood choices is by keeping them local.
Hardly shocking advice coming from me, I know, but what can I say? The United States has some of the toughest catch requirements in the world. The number of regulations fishermen must abide by (meaning when, where, and how much fish they can catch) is mind-boggling. The granddaddy of them all is the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This act was initially created in 1976 to limit the number of foreign vessels allowed in US waters and has since come to address overfishing, fish stock conservation, and pollution. The original act also created the eight regional fisheries management councils that oversee all US waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore (each of the thirty US coastal states manage their own waters from the shoreline to 3 miles out).
There are at least nine other US acts fishermen must follow, not to mention state and international laws. The United States does a very good job of managing our fisheries and as a result, 80% of our fish stocks are not overfished.
That’s the good news – our fish stocks are recovering and coming back. The bad news is updates to regulations have not kept pace with these developments, much to the frustration and dire need of regional fisherman.
One example brought up by the panel concerned quotas: if the quota for a particular fish is 1000 pounds per day but a boat has the ability to bring in 3000 pounds, the fishermen would like to be able to catch the larger amount and tie up their boat for the next two days, saving them a tremendous amount of time and fuel money. Currently if a boat brings in more fish than quota allows, heavy fines and penalties will be handed out.
Glenn of American Seafood recounted a recent trip to Hudson Canyon, a major commercial fishing ground 70 miles off Fire Island, where he spent three days trying to get away from schools of dogfish which could not be brought in because of quota restrictions. Each day his boat burned 500 gallons of fuel. At the current price of $3.50 per gallon, that's $5,250.00 spent on fuel with nothing to show - or sell - for it. With numbers like that it’s apparent why so many small-scale fishermen are being forced out of business.
Alex from Blue Moon spoke of the considerable amount of time spent on compliance – calling in before leaving the dock, filling out daily trip reports, throwing back bycatch, and reporting what fish were caught upon returning to shore.
Despite these headaches, neither Alex nor Glenn is against regulations as long as they are made within reason. They realize their long-term survival is based on protecting marine life, not exploiting it for short-term gain.
Knowing little about the history of commercial fishing, I was interested to hear when and how the United States allowed overfishing to occur. According to Niaz Dorry, there are parallels between current trends in fishing to those in farming 30 years ago; just as the advent of processed foods led to the collapse of family farms and the consolidation of farmland into large, industrialized farms, the entry of the European fishing fleets into US waters at the turn of the century along with the conversion of WWII war frigates to fishing vessels led to massive amounts of fish being taken from the oceans. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, as mentioned above, was enacted to counteract these developments but the damage was already done – there was too much capacity chasing too few fish.
Now regional fleets are left trying to compete with huge, consolidated fishing interests, as well as imports. The United States imports 85% of our seafood, most of it from Asian countries, much of it coming from filthy, polluted water. What I learned from watching documentaries such as The Cove and The End of the Line is many European and Asian countries have a total disregard for the same international laws our fisherman uphold. European fish stocks are currently 80% overfished. Worldwide, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is a $25 billion dollar business.
(A note on overfished vs. overfishing: According to NOAA, a species of fish is considered overfished when its population drops below a certain level determined by scientists to be sustainable. Overfishing means the fish are being removed from the population faster than it is spawning.)
With overfishing seemingly under control, everyone on the panel – fishermen, advocate, and regulator - agreed the number one problem facing United States fisheries today is pollution and runoff. All heads nodded in agreement when one panelist questioned the point of rebuilding fish stocks if we continue to allow companies to contaminate the waters.
It was impossible to mistake the sincerity expressed by both fishermen on the panel when they said they aren’t villains guilty of pillaging the ocean of its fish and damaging its ecosystems. I heard a similar urgency in the voices of Glenn and Alex that I now hear every night on the news from fishermen in the Gulf. Whether it’s oil in the Gulf, runoff in the Chesapeake, or chlorine-treated sewage pumped into the Long Island Sound when a rainfall over an inch falls on Manhattan, what is wrong in US waters today - pollution, increasing water temperatures, coastal development, drilling, dredging, dragging – is not a result of these types of fishermen and the way they fish. Alex and Glenn simply want a fair opportunity to continue making a decent living doing what they love - working on their boats in the waters off our coasts.
With the deck clearly stacked against independent fishermen, what can be done to support them? A good place to start is by getting informed at FishWatch. FishWatch is the consumer arm of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Services and takes data gathered from the eight US regional fisheries councils regarding fish stock assessments and boils it down to useful info you and I can use when buying fish.
Different environmental organizations have different criteria for determining which fish are okay to eat. Some put a fish on their Don’t Eat list because they disagree with the way it is caught, not because it is overfished. FishWatch’s list is based solely on scientific data obtained from the eight fisheries regarding stock size and health.
I love this site; it is an excellent resource for accurate facts about the sustainability of all types of American seafood. Each fish and shellfish is listed by species and region where it is caught, along with info on whether it is overfished and if so what is being done to bring it back to sustainable levels, what its nutritional value is, how it is caught, and what bycatch might occur when it is harvested.
NAMA is an organization looking to affect marine policy from the grassroots level. They advocate for locally caught seafood and help foster relationships between coastal communities and their fishermen. NAMA started the country’s first CSF (Community Supported Fishery – think of it as a CSA on water) in 2007 and is working to found more throughout New England. Fishermen can either fish for volume or fish for price; CSFs allow them to charge more and catch less – a win-win for both the fishermen and the oceans.
Below is a series of green seafood guidelines taken directly from the NAMA website that I think does a great job of summing up a smart approach to sustainable seafood:
· Buy from a local fisherman when possible. Doing so helps a more sustainable way of life and better jobs in traditional fishing communities. Eating local seafood means fishermen get a better return on less catch - which in turn means the ocean gets a break. Money spent locally tends to stay in the community, which for those of you who live in coastal communities means you'll be supporting your own local economy. Buying from a community-based fisherman also ensures to some extent that you are eating fish that is "in season" rather than perpetuate the century-old demand for "any seafood, any time" regardless of the ecological consequences.
· Get involved in a Community Supported Fishery (CSF). NAMA is actively working to create CSFs in New England and provide the basic tools to fishing communities in other regions interested in staring a CSF. In addition, we are working to broaden the market for CSFs and other fishing community-based seafood marketing efforts by building connections between these organizations and sustainable, regional markets through working with chefs, restaurants, co-operatives, farmers' markets, local food enthusiasts and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
· What if you don't live near the coast? We highly recommend that you stick with eating what's available to you locally as much as possible. If you need to have seafood, look at the rest of our suggestions below and stick with what has had to travel the shortest distance to get to your table.
· Eat fish that looks like fish! That's a funky way of saying stay away from overly processed fish that is turned into squares or fingers or some other shape. And don't be afraid of whole, bone-in fish. Good cooks know that's where the flavor is!
· Avoid fake or imitation seafood products. The majority of fake seafood products come from factory style fishing operations. Alaska Pollock is probably the number one fish that is on the market today in just about every form and shape. It's turned into surimi to make fake lobster or crab or some other fake seafood product. Incidentally, like herring, Alaska Pollock is an important part of the North Pacific's food web.
· Eat wild seafood whenever possible. Some shellfish are farmed in operations that produce healthy animals and do not compromise the ecosystem in which they are grown. However, it is often difficult to get the information that will allow you to make an informed decision. With a few exceptions, shrimp is usually farmed in coastal areas of Asia and South/Central America where it destroys wetlands, introduces chemical pollution and disease, and may foster poor treatment of laborers. Most shrimp consumed in the US is farm raised and imported. Also, for all farm-raised seafood, do not trust an "organic" label, as true standards are not yet developed. If you can't get the information you need, opt on the side of caution and go wild!
· Ask how, where, and when your fish was caught. Doing so lets your seafood dealer or waiter or chef know you care about their buying choices. If whoever is selling or serving you the fish doesn't have the answers, or the answers you wanted, don't buy or order it.
I may have been confused when I left the Y discussion almost two months ago but the more thought and research I put into learning about the subject, the more I’ve come to realize the answer really IS simple. It boils down to buying and eating seafood caught as close to home as possible, ideally from someone you know.
This is much easier said than done unless you live on the coast or have direct access to fisherman like we do at New York City’s farmers markets. One reason we don’t see more local seafood in the supermarkets is because the supermarkets need to know what will be available a week in advance so they can print their advertisements. Independent fisherman can’t guarantee they will have a specific fish on a specific day – nature doesn’t work like that.
There are sustainable alternatives such as VitalChoice.com, an online retailer, and packaged products with the Marine Stewardship Council seal that are perfectly acceptable and much more accessible for those without connections to local fisherman. Whatever you do, try to resist buying imported seafood – for the health of the oceans, the health of traditional US fishing communities, and your health!
Adapted from Barefoot in Paris
I’m extremely lucky to have Blue Moon Fish at my Saturday market in Tribeca. Blue Moon owners Alex and Stephanie Villani are based on eastern Long Island and have been coming to Greenmarket since 1988. The fact I can get such fresh seafood on the streets of New York City is nothing short of miraculous. This is where I bought the sea scallops for this recipe.
I keep a bottle of dry vermouth in my apartment for times like this when a recipe calls for a splash of white wine and I don’t have any on hand. I’ve found vermouth makes an excellent substitute.
1 pound fresh bay or sea scallops
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
½ cup chopped shallots (2 large)
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1 lemon, cut in half
If you’re using bay scallops, keep them whole. If you’re using sea scallops, cut each one in half horizontally. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss with flour, and shake off excess.
In a very large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over high heat until sizzling and add the scallops in one layer. Lower the heat to medium and allow the scallops to brown lightly on one side without moving them, then turn and brown lightly on the other side. This should take 3 to 4 minutes, total. Melt the rest of the butter in the pan with the scallops, then add the shallots, garlic, and parsley and sauté for 2 more minutes, tossing the seasonings with the scallops. Add the wine, cook for 1 minute, and taste for seasoning. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon juice.