The problem with fish:

Prompted by the Australian government’s plan to create a $14.5 million dollar fishery certification process, a recent article in the Australian Hospitality Magazine tackles the question of Seafood Sustainability in that country. According to the article there is no need for sustainability certification there, as only fishing of sustainable seafood is permitted in Australian waters.  “According to the Magazine, Sydney Fish Market managing director Grahame Turk has come out criticizing the “multitudes of self-appointed arbiters of sustainability” saying they are more about “clever marketing” than fact.”

But not all Australian seafood is fished by legitimate Australian fisheries or in Australian marine territory. Australia, like the US, imports considerable amounts of seafood, and foreign trawlers do manage to enter Australian waters, which mean that non endangered species are still under threat. Australian, American and Japanese marine critters, furthermore, with the exception of limpets and the like, are not homebodies. They do not necessarily stay within boundaries. The problem is not local or national. It’s global.

We here in the US  have been dealing with the issue admirably.  American chefs and increasingly American grocers have been sensitive to the question of seafood sustainability. Michael Cimarusti states in an Eater.com interview: “Sustainability is really important. That’s the first decision that we make. We wait to ask if something is fresh or consistently available. The first question we ask is, “Is it sustainable?” If it doesn’t meet that first criterion, it’s not on the menu.”  Not only elite retail food corporations like Whole Foods have committed to sustainability, but national grocery chains like Safeway  and a growing number of fast food and quick serve groups have pledged to maintain sustainability in their seafood departments.

Make no mistake: the motivation behind these decisions is most likely not one of social responsibility, but rather a highly intelligent business decision based on prudent product management for the future and a solid understanding of the fast growing customer sentiments regarding food ethics.

That customers have embraced the need for maintaining sustainability much faster and more broadly, it seems, than they have adopted other ethical food concerns is understandable. The question of running out of tuna is a more immediate threat than the issue of local food or organic turnips, and with celebrity chefs like Blue Hill/Stone Barn’s Dan Barber on sustainable seafood and Barton Seaver’s Ted Talk on Sustainable Seafood, the general public is on board, possibly in time.

So what’s the problem?

Supply and demand. There are more of us than there were three or four decades ago, when abalone was not just a distant memory, and more of us like and demand fish. Enriching the third world and sophisticating the second (those of  you over thirty will remember a time when the majority of American households would not think of eating seafood for dinner except in fish sticks and tuna sandwiches) has expanded the market beyond what the oceans seem capable of providing.  There are tens of millions more people demanding more of a decreasing resource, creating incentives to deplete it even more, often illegally.

The rising price of meat and the increasing uncomfortable sense of the environmental impact of red meat combined with the growing awareness of the health benefits of seafood makes fish an oddly ethical choice of protein for the world’s increasing omnivore population. In other words, demand is quickly outpacing supply.

There’s an app for that: Farmed seafood, which, at least theoretically, would solve the world’s seafood needs. Unfortunately, the practice is not without its detractors and probably valid objections:  Antibiotics required an a captive population, pollution of surrounding land (just like livestock), genetic threats to wild populations by escaping farmed fish. The new trend is “responsibly” farmed seafood, and perhaps it will provide for our needs. When you come to think about it you have to admit that we no longer chase our beef around open woods with bows and arrows, so what not apply the same principal to fish. Or no?

The free market place will soon, as a matter of fact is currently, provide one solution as prices rise in direct proportion to restricted availability.  Seafood will be available to those who can afford it, which, in fact, will make it just like other food.

Crime works, or course, but only as long as there is a product to be criminal with. Seafood Fraud, once revealed in most major dining areas considered a cavalier’s sin – if they can’t taste the difference, who cares?  – is now being revealed frequently.

The real challenge, we all understand,  is one of population – too many of us and growing want too much of a finite product.  A word here to the religious right: If you keep obstructing birth control distribution in the third world – or here –  no Tilapia for you. As soon as they are weaned, the 210 million babies born this year are going to eat your wild salmon lunch. If China had not administered its admittedly detestable One Child Only policy, your skin-on Bass would likely be nothing more than a memory.  Population control has ceased to be the media cause celebre, but that is the ground floor of the seafood issue.

Rationing: If you believe, however, that fish is good for people and should not become privilege of the elite, the inevitable answer to the too little fish too many mouths problem has to be rationing and the black market that generally follows. Of course, Seaver’s admonition to eat smaller portions of fish (or beef or anything that bleeds alive) is wise and advisable, but we all know that a nation accustomed to large protein portions and other nations just achieving the means and desire to demand them will not voluntarily submit to tidbits instead of full sized fillets. Rationing, at least, would give the poor something to sell on the black market to the well off. Perhaps not the worst idea, that.

“But,” you say, “you were going to give us your wing-nut theory on how to solve this.” Hell, no. Wherever did you get that idea?  I was just going to say we had a problem wrapped around a few paradoxes and neatly tied with a conundrum. If you figure it out, you tell me.

 I have a yen for squid. Actually abalone, but squid will have to do. The **** otters and poachers got all the abalone. I miss abalone.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply