This past weekend at a local forum I listened to a young, energetic chef speak about seafood. He advocated enthusiastically for our fisheries, talking about how we need to expand our seafood production, using aquaculture, using the many species we ignore today but that are out there in our waters, using social media (of course!) to get the idea across. His message boiled down to one basic maxim: Eat more fish.
For your own health, for the health of the environment, for the health of our coastal culture here in Maine: Eat more fish.
Fine, I’m completely in agreement, but how do “we” go about that? In my family, we eat fish at home at least twice a week, which is probably twice as much as most American families. And when I go out to eat, I often order fish of some sort simply because so many places have interesting and attractive ways to present it. That same evening, after I left the lecture, I went to Nina June in Rockport and ordered Arctic char. The fillet was seared till the skin on one side was crispy and the fish was thoroughly cooked but still rosy in the middle, exactly the way it should be. It was served on a bed of tiny lentils, garnished with sliced pink watermelon radishes and a curly pile of leaves from Castelfranco radicchio, creamy with flecks of pink—a beautiful dish and a tasty one.
So that’s me and my family. But if, as my chef advocate urged, we should all be eating more fish, how do we go about doing that?
The chef advocate had no suggestions, or at least none that made sense to me. Fishermen could catch more fish–but they are already at the limit for most of the regulated seafoods. (Here in Maine, we have just seen the shrimp harvest banned for the third season, and no one expects it will ever be restored. Or at least not in my lifetime.)
Fish farmers could expand production, raising more salmon, shrimp, oysters, whatever, but they are up against public indifference and even, in the case of salmon, outright hostility, much of it, I’m told on good authority, backed by promoters of wild fish—the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute being one of the foremost. (I just looked at rodalesorganiclife.com to see what they say about farmed salmon—it is almost 98% incorrect.) Fish farming, especially salmon farming, has evolved in recent years to become one of the most environmentally responsible ways of producing protein—far more than most of our land-based systems for raising meat and getting it to market.
But there’s really no point in pushing fishermen to harvest more, in urging fish farmers to increase production, unless there’s a market for seafood. And currently, embarassingly, there is not. Americans consume per person a little less than 15 pounds of seafood annually (four pounds of that in the form of shrimp). Most Americans consume almost no seafood at all. Another interesting statistic: nearly 80% of the seafood consumed in this country is scoffed up in restaurants, primarily Red Lobster which, with its sister restaurant system, Olive Garden, eats up millions of pounds of seafood from all over the world. That’s a lot of shrimp cocktail!
So I’m left with the problem: yes, we should eat more seafood. It’s good for us and most of it, when it’s grown and/or harvested wisely, is also good for the environment. Now tell me please: When did you last eat a dish of fish and what was in it? Did you cook it yourself or did someone make it for you? I’ll be looking for what you have to say.