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Cathy Erway Headshot

The Pescatore's Dilemma

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Seafood has enjoyed a long history of acceptance among people who otherwise do not eat meat. Whether for religious reasons, health or personal taste, this has helped give seafood a smack of gentility and relative animal-friendliness compared to other carnivorous choices, such as red meat. Yet today's food gurus -- scientists and writers -- are singing a different tune altogether, one that places pescatarianism at the height of ravenously irresponsible eating.

"Counting fish in the ocean is just as easy as counting trees in a forest, except that they're invisible, and they move constantly," quipped a scientist in the documentary film, The End of the Line. Yet what they are able to detect is that the world's fish population has dwindled rapidly since the industrial revolution, wiping out whole stocks of species in once-plentiful fisheries. Most of these fish we continue to eat; bluefin tuna is a highly endangered species that's prized by sushi-lovers. Red snapper is universally eaten -- and overfished. An estimated one-third of the seafood we eat is in a "collapse state," statistically fast on its way to extinction.

When I told a friend about the film, her eyeballs froze the size of walnuts. "What am I going to eat?" she shakily managed in response. She always ordered a seafood entree at restaurants. Another scientist interviewed in the documentary had a wry response: "Jellyfish hamburgers?" (The jellyfish population is booming due to less natural predators, as anyone who's hit the beach this summer may have observed.)

Hence, our insatiable desire for faster, cheaper and more seafood has harmed the ocean's ecosystem in more ways than overfishing certain species. Depleting larger fish may have plenty more repercussions in store that we have yet to see, besides more jellyfish, algae, plankton and worms crowding the seas. We have also developed industrial fishing techniques that could soundly be described as raping the ocean. Bottom trawling (scraping large nets across the seabed) kills coral, stirs up sediment causing pollutants to migrate into seaweed and other fish feed, and scoops up large amounts of by-catch -- other sealife, like turtles and dolphins unintentionally caught and wasted. Similarly clumsy and wasteful is the practice of "finning" shark: once a rare luxury in Asia, shark's fin has found its way onto more and more tables thanks to poachers who slice off just the shark's fin, leaving the animal to bleed to death, immobile on the ocean floor. While bans and limitations have been placed, in general, commercial fishing is grossly unregulated, and the regulations in place often proven ineffective. Fifty percent of the cod we eat, for example, is illegal.

A short while ago, the answer to this dilemma may have been aquaculture, whereby fish for food are farmed under controlled conditions instead of living in the wild. More than fifty percent of the seafood we eat today is farmed. But farming seafood is not all roses. To produce many commonly farmed species like salmon and shrimp, these fish are fed several times their weight in smaller fish like sardines and anchovies. Sustainable wisdom says, why don't we just eat the sardines? (Echoing the agricultural argument that cattle consume most of this country's corn crops for beef production, while the amount of calories in the corn itself could feed a small country.) Furthermore, farmed seafood contains much higher levels of mercury and other contaminants than its wild-caught cousins. Doctors ubiquitously recommend women to avoid eating seafood during pregnancy to reduce the risk of mercury poisoning in their unborn child. Then, what are we eating when we're not pregnant? More and more mercury than ever nowadays, thanks to the rise in farmed seafood.

The question on everyone's mind now seems to be, how does one eat seafood in good conscience? One beacon of hope might be the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch campaign, which publishes up-to-date information on the "Best Choices," "Good Alternatives" and the seafood to "Avoid." I'm looking at a pocket-friendly "Sustainable Seafood Guide: Northeast 2009" that the organization had stocked in a nearby grocery store, for anyone to take free. There are different-colored asterisks beside almost every fish on the list, colorfully illustrating just how difficult it is to provide concise explanations to these questions. It all comes down to an issue of traceability and transparency: salmon is acceptable if it is caught wild from Alaska (where it is not yet endangered. Yet). However, "Avoid" salmon that's been farmed. Last I checked, salmon was "salmon," unless it was smoked.

They say what you don't know can't harm you, but what you don't know about seafood is likely purposely kept from you so that you don't know about the harm. Here and there, fishmongers and retailers such as WholeFoods have made attempts at labeling accurate details on the origins of their seafood for sale. You'd be much worse off finding this information from restaurant menus. Commenting on the changing seascape, Mark Bittman recently wrote in the New York Times: "Say you're considering a halibut steak. The fishmonger or waiter has no clue where it's from (or may lie about it). Yet according to Seafood Watch, it could be one of six varieties, all wild. Of these, four are to be avoided under some circumstances, though all six are fine under others. Your mission -- should you decide to accept it -- is to find out whether a "set gillnet" has been used in the fish's capture, or if the hirame (one type of halibut) is from the Atlantic (avoid) or Pacific (just fine). I couldn't do this, and I'm in theory an expert."

If Mark Bittman is confused about something food-related, there is considerable reason for foodie panic.

Thus, I did not have an answer for my friend, who pondered the future of her fish-heavy diet. There have been other attempts at alleviating the overfishing epidemic beyond grassroots efforts to educate the public, too, but many seemed to have missed the mark, mocked the severity of the issue, or just have failed at enforcement. I would advise continuing to drill your fishmongers or servers for a reliable account on how and where their seafood was obtained. This will at least exert pressure on the establishment to find out.

My other advice is a one-size-fits-all food equation, which is, simply, to know where it came from. If you can't place it, trace it, or grow it/raise it/catch it yourself, don't eat it. Eat aware. Know your food. Don't wait on waiters or institutions to come up with ways to publicize it, meet your small fishmonger and chat him or her up at the farmer's market yourself.

As the Buddha instructed in the "Five Contemplations While Eating," "Think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow the food, transport it, prepare and cook it and bring it to the table."

I'm beginning to think that the oldest sages had the most cunning things on this current situation to say.

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