Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise -- and like a fool, I keep reading.
The last fish fry?
Before turning up the fryer under this week’s fish story, a quick disclaimer. A few irate readers have been e-mailing my campus to complain about my columns. While I’m happy to defend the inalienable right of anyone to disagree with me, please remember that I do not now nor have I ever written a single word in any public forum as an agent for the University of Wisconsin. What I say in print is solely my responsibility and in no way represents the policies or opinions of the University of Wisconsin or its administration. As I’ve said before, they don’t even like it when I speak up at meetings.
Besides, there are more important things to think about this week – like whether we’re running out of beer battered cod.
I’ve spent the last few years looking into food production and distribution and how these have affected the quality, and sustainability, of what we eat. For instance, when I was a kid you could find a dozen different kinds of apples at the store. Nowadays we’re down to about four. I particularly miss Northern Spie Apples from Michigan.
But despite the crumbly apples and corky peaches now sold as “real fruit” in the supermarkets, I always believed we’d have enough Atlantic cod – until I read Taras Grescoe’s book, Bottomfeeder. It’s funny how global issues always eventually end up on the plate in front of you.
I was aware, for instance, that overfishing had crashed the stocks of many harvestable species on the George’s Bank, once the most productive fishing grounds on Earth just off the east coast, but I was in complete denial about the relationship between that overfishing and the fabulous Friday planks of cod and tartar sauce that make my eyes roll back in my head. Grescoe connected the dots for me.
Grescoe loves fish and, so, set out to see what he could eat in good conscience.
First, the bad news. Never eat these: Bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod (from the U.S. and Canada), Atlantic halibut, Chilean sea bass, Asian tilapia or shrimp.
Grescoe gives these fish a “never” because they’ve been over-fished, nearly to extinction, or because they’re harvested using bottom-trawling – a gigantic carpet sweeper netting technology that destroys the ocean floor. Bluefin tuna and halibut can also be relatively high sources of mercury – not something you want in your diet unless you’re already a Mad Hatter, or wish to become one.
Seeing Atlantic cod on the list nearly gave me a heart attack since most of our local fish fries once used Atlantic cod. Those are precisely the fish we’ve nearly wiped out over the past 50 years. We’re accustomed nowadays to hear about overfishing or overgrazing or over use of natural resources, but here’s how bad the Atlantic cod stocks are doing: Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a clearing house for information on fish stocks and fishery management, says that there is wide agreement among scientists that we’re now fishing “the last 10 percent of this population and that the population may never fully recover.”
Now for the good news. Always eat: Arctic char, Pacific halibut, Icelandic cod, herring, mackerel, mullet, oysters and pollock (the stuff that goes into McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.)
Atlantic cod was out but, thank heavens, Icelandic cod gets a big “yes.” The Icelanders have been using sustainable harvest techniques for years. And, happily, Pacific cod from our side of the Pacific also gets a thumbs up. Cod from the western Pacific is another matter. Because of ineffective, or completely missing, management of their fish stocks and because they’re mining their oceans the way we did the George’s Bank 40 years ago, Seafood Watch suggests avoiding cod imported from Japan or Russia.
For more information about fish to avoid eating (for health or environmental reasons – and aren’t those finally the same?) Google Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
So from now on, when you order fish on Friday, ask your server where it’s from. I’ve found that asking for information about your dinner has two pleasurable effects: 1) the chef, when they hear that someone is asking where the cod/shrimp/salmon is from, will think you’re some kind of fish connoisseur and do a nice job on your order and 2) you won’t be culpable in over grazing the planetary resources. Eating well and eating responsibly turn out to be the same thing – and, um, are you going to finish your fries?