Posts Tagged ‘Fish’

If you ever wanted proof that the devil is in the details, try buying a piece of fish. More specifically, try finding something that tastes good, is not laden with toxins, and is harvested in a way that does not cause undo harm to the environment.

Such were my modest goals as I approached the supermarket fish counter last week looking for dinner. You may laugh at my use of the term ‘modest,’ but I find it curious that wanting food which is good to eat, doesn’t poison us, and doesn’t decimate the planet seems like a lot to ask.

The world’s fisheries are a dismal mess. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over 1 billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein, and the demand continues to rise.

Yet, the same report states that one quarter of the world’s fisheries are already overexploited. According to The Census of Marine Life only 10% of large ocean fish, such as shark, swordfish, marlin, cod and halibut, are still swimming around in our echoing oceans.

By the 1990s the cod population off the eastern Canadian coast had dropped to 1% of historic levels and it is as yet unclear if this last whisper of cod stock is enough to allow the species to recover.

Many of our remaining fish are too toxic to eat. In Maine, pregnant women, children, and anyone who might become pregnant (that’s a lot of people, mind you) are advised to not have even one fish a year from Maine’s inland waters due to concerns over mercury and other toxins such as DDT. Globally, many large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish, are also contaminated with mercury.

Modern methods of harvesting fish often wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. Shrimp farms in Thailand have wiped out nearly half the mangrove forests along the eastern and southern coasts. Huge weighted trawl nets that are dragged across the sea bottom destroy everything in their paths, including coral reefs. Bycatch, or fish and other animals, such as dolphins, that are caught unintentionally, form up to 25% by weight of the world’s fish harvest. It’s not a pretty picture.

As I stood at the fish counter what I really wanted was a label that read: YUMMY FISH, beloved by children, reasonably priced, poison-free, and carefully harvested to preserve breeding populations, offer decent wages to fishing families and protect cute sea turtles (and other slimier but still important marine creatures).

What I saw instead was fresh vs. frozen, wild vs. farmed, and country of origin. Unfortunately, with the exception of price, none of what I saw on the supermarket tags gave me the information I most wanted to know.

I needed help and I’d come prepared, having just received a pocket guide to choosing sustainably harvested seafood, produced by the scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The guide is regionally specific, and contains three lists of seafood: “Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid.”

The recommendations focus on the environmental impacts of a given fishery. Although fish with consumption advisories due to high mercury are flagged, that fact alone doesn’t appear to affect placement on the first choice list.

I peered at my card. Haddock was on the list of second best choices, but only if caught by “hook and line;” trawled haddock was to be avoided. The person at the counter did not know how the fish was caught.

Tilapia appeared on all three lists: best if farmed in the US, good if farmed in Central America, to be avoided if farmed in Asia. The tilapia at the counter was from South America.

Sea scallops were a best choice but cost $14.99 a pound. Bay scallops, which were less expensive, did not appear on the list.

Maine lobster was on the second best list, and, while it may be a good alternative for the planet, it’s a crummy alternative for a quick weeknight dinner.

After nearly half an hour, I found four choices that were on the best or second best list: U.S. swordfish (a second choice for environmental impacts, but also flagged for potentially high mercury), wild Alaskan salmon (a best choice and a poster child for a well-managed fishery), U.S. farmed catfish, and sea scallops.

I finally made a rare splurge on sea scallops largely because after all that time mulling over my purchase I needed something I could put on the table in five minutes.

The card was almost unuseable; most of the choices didn’t mesh with what was available locally and the process was extremely time-consuming. I’m a firm believer in the idea that, to a degree, we buy the world we want to live in, but this situation was over the top.

The real problem is that this is not a problem that should be solved by citizens at the fish counter. It should not be the job of parents buying dinner to ensure that they are getting healthy food, harvested in a way that leaves their kids a healthy planet.

Non-profits have better things to do than to tie themselves in knots keeping people updated about the impacts of each and every fishery and each and every harvesting method.

This is the job of a sane national food policy. Perhaps we should leave our fish cards at home and call our representatives.

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Some of you may remember Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis.  The son of an unfortunate family, he wakes one day to find that he has changed into an enormous cockroach – a creature that evolution apparently perfected 350 million years ago, before it even got going on dinosaurs – and hasn’t touched since.  This is one primitive bug.  


Perhaps you could, with an effort, imagine a family member turning into a mammal of some sort: a smart, warm-blooded creature, definitely furry, like a golden retriever or a three-toed sloth.  But a cockroach?  Forget it.  Kafka’s story draws its unbearable horror from the contrast between a highly evolved intelligent consciousness trapped inside the primordial casing of a roach’s body.


The fact is we are sharing our planet with a number of creatures that are hundreds of millions of years old.  Roaches have not soldiered forward through time on their own; they came with hoards of horseshoe crabs, dragonflies, army ants, velvet worms, salamanders, chambered nautiluses, crocodiles, and a coelacanth or two.


You’ll notice that many of these time travelers are small.  Larger creatures are often less adaptable to the dramatic changes in climate, habitat, and food sources that come with the passing of millennia.  Nor is there much room in our developed world for gigantic, primitive, scary beings, like 6 foot tall roaches.  Poor Gregor, it should be no surprise to discover, was confined to his bedroom for the rest of his short buggy life.


Yet there is a place in our neighborhoods where large prehistoric creatures still dwell: they are just below the thin bright mirror that separates us from the underwater world.  Gregor might have had better luck if he’d turned into an Atlantic sturgeon.


Beneath the surface of mid-coast Maine’s Merrymeeting Bay, or the lower reaches of the Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin Rivers, you will find lurking these bony, reptilian, dinosaur fish.  Sturgeon fossils, virtually unchanged from modern fish, date back 200 million years.  These are not your run-of-the mill pond guppies.  They are an ancient great sea-faring race, living up to 60 years and by some accounts reaching lengths of 15 feet (just about the size of your canoe).  Like other sea-run or “anadromous” fish, sturgeon spend most of their lives in salt water and return to spawn in the same fresh water rivers in which they were born.


Sturgeon are so fantastic-looking they would draw the attention of even the most Nintendo-weary child.  They appear to be a cross between a crocodile and a catfish, with just a hint of porcupine.  They mingle the dark sexiness of the shark with the calm invulnerability of the turtle. Their armored bodies are covered with bony plates called scutes (ha! that finally stumped the spell-checker) and their long snouts end in whiskery sensory organs called barbels.  


Although the oceans deep and rivers wild have offered some protection for these darlings of evolution, that fishy film of safety is thinning.  Atlantic sturgeon have suffered a precipitous decline in the last century.  Loss of spawning habitat due to development and damming of rivers, pollution, and over-harvesting are all causes of their decline.  


The east coast commercial sturgeon harvest peaked in the 1890s and by the 1920s sturgeon landings in the Chesapeake were down 90% (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).  Atlantic sturgeon are under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act (their closely related cousins, the Shortnose sturgeon are already protected under the Act).  In 1998 the government issued a moratorium on harvesting any wild sturgeon until the populations had recovered sufficiently.  Plans to help the sturgeon are largely focused on improving water quality in spawning rivers as well as creating sufficient passageway around dams.


Why am I telling you about these fish?  These sturgeon that even now are swimming under the Route 1 bridge between Bath and Woolwich?  Do I have something especially cheery to tell you about them?  Not exactly.  Some populations appear to be rebounding, while others are still depressed.  Do I have ten easy things you can do at home to save the sturgeon?  Not really.


I’m telling you about them because they are great.  Knowing that sturgeon have been snuffling river bottoms and ocean canyons for millions of years before the Androscoggin River existed simply demands a bit of respect.  On those grounds I suppose the cockroach deserves the same respect, but roaches seem to be doing just fine and by all predictions will be the ones turning out the lights.  


I’m telling you so that perhaps you too will be be amazed by one of earth’s amazing creatures.  And perhaps, in time, humans may evolve just a bit more so that the sturgeon can continue swimming along just exactly as it is. 

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