Love seafood? You’ll need the FishPhone, wallet cards, and DNA testing before dining.
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IT'S ALL SO FISHY
Love seafood? You’ll need the FishPhone, wallet cards, and DNA testing before dining.
On the verge of ordering sword fish steak for dinner? Quick, call FishPhone, a new text messaging service set up by the Blue Ocean Institute of
East Norwich, N.Y. Text 30644, the message FISH and “swordfish.” Back will bounce the news it’s overfished in the North Atlantic, and more eco-friendly suggestions such as poleor troll-caught yellowfin tuna.
Extreme perhaps, but so is the need for guidance through the treacherous waters of “sustainable” seafood eating. More than threequarters of the world’s main fish-catch species are either fully exploited or tapped out, according to the United Nations. And, according to another survey, 90 per cent of the ocean’s largest predators—tuna, cod, flounder and the like—have been killed off since 1950. An oft-quoted 2006 report in the journal Science forewarned a total global fishery collapse by 2048 if aquatic plundering continued at current rates.
Rising awareness of the dire health of the aquatic ecosystem has made “sustainable” the latest buzzword in the imperilled-food-
chain lexicon. A Greenpeace survey released last week found three-quarters of respondents wanted to buy seafood from fisheries that employed “sustainable” practices, meaning those that allow depleted or threatened fish populations to recover to healthy levels and which protect healthy fish populations. Nearly 70 per cent said they’re not sufficiently informed about capture methods of the fish and seafood they buy.
Given the uncertainty, “sustainable” has become the new “organic”: an important if unclear label subject to hype, misrepresentation and opportunism. References exist for the wannabe ethical piscivore, including a wallet-sized card issued by SeaChoice, a consortium of environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, which offers “best choice,” “some concerns” and “avoid” guidelines. What to Eat, by nutritionist Marion Nestle, is helpful, as is Bottomfeeder:How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, Taras Grescoe’s global tour of scary fish tales that contend we’re eating our way to the end of the food chain.
Even culinary professionals like Bonnie Stern admit to being perplexed. “I look at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide and I use the SeaChoice card in my classes,” says Stern. “But you really don’t know where anything’s from. It’s the latest thing to worry about. If I can’t figure this out, how will others?”
What not to eat should be obvious: imperilled species like Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna, Atlantic halibut and cod, to name a few. But the list can change. Swordfish, overfished for years, is now a “best choice” provided you’re confident it has been harpooned in East Coast waters and willing to ignore its mercury content.
Method of catch is also key, though good luck tracking that down unless you’re on the boat. Consider SeaChoice’s variations on shrimp: side stripe and spot shrimp from B.C. are a “best choice” if they’ve been trap-caught; there’s “some concern” about shrimp trawled from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico; but tiger or white shrimp farmed from international sources are on the “avoid” list for reasons obvious to anyone who’s read Bottomfeeder. As Grescoe writes: “If you are eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide-and-antibiotic-filled, virus-ridden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest countries.”
The new dynamics of wild versus farmed fish need also be parsed. Many seafood lovers reflexively pay a premium for “wild,” believing it more healthful and flavourful even though, paradoxically, some wild stocks have been contaminated by disease and parasites transmitted from fish farms. Supply-demand
imbalances for wild Alaska chinook fillets have driven the price to $20 a kilo. Yet “wild” or “farmed” alone are meaningless descriptors. Some farmed fish, including U.S.-raised catfish, clams, oysters and mussels, are seen to be preferable for ecological and health reasons. Where the fish is farmed is also relevant. Tilapia, for instance, is a “best choice” if raised in the U.S., but on the “avoid” list if from China, the source of some 70 per cent of the world’s farmed seafood. It’s also useful to know whether the fish is farmed inland or in the ocean, with high marks going to concrete tanks now used to raise striped bass, trout, Arctic char, salmon, halibut and cod.
Aquaculture is as varied as agriculture, says Keith Froggett, the executive chef and co-owner ofToronto’s Scaramouche restaurant. “There are excellent chicken farms and crap chicken farms. It’s the same in the oceans,” he says. Froggett, who has been honoured by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a chef ambassador, says he too has been whipsawed by the politics of sustainability. He took farmed salmon off the menu but put it back on, even giving his supplier, Creative Salmon ofTofino, B.C.,
billing. Other prestige farmed products, such as Laughing Bird shrimp in Belize, are emerging. Robert Clark, executive chef of Vancouver’s C Restau-
rant, boasts that Swift Aquaculture in Agassiz, B.C., an innovative inland farmer, is the exclusive supplier of salmon to both C and its sister restaurant Raincity Grill.
Of course, upmarket chefs have an advantage in knowing their suppliers, as do those able to forge a relationship with a reputable fishmonger. For the average shopper, fish is the ultimate mystery meat. The ubiquitous term “snapper,” for instance, is used to describe some 100 species of varying stock stability. Fish labelling is not only vague but occasionally fraudulent, according to a soon-to-be
published study in Food Research International by geneticist Robert Hanner of the University of Guelph and graduate student Eugene Wong. They found that 25 per cent of 100 fish fillets gathered from supermarkets and restaurants in Toronto, Guelph and New York City were mislabelled: red snapper was in fact Labrador redfish or Nile perch, and “white tuna” in sushi was tilapia. One fish-and-chip joint promising “halibut family” fish was selling deepwater hake. In the most egregious example, Atlantic cod, a victimized species, was labelled the more eco-friendly and expensive Pacific cod. (Hanner says their testing didn’t distinguish between wild or farmed fish, where mislabelling also occurs. Last year, for instance, the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency tests on
premium-priced “wild” fish sold by Sainsbury’s, Asda and Harrods revealed 15 per cent of salmon, 11 per cent of sea bream and 10 per cent of sea bass were in fact farmed.)
Whether the deception occurred with the supplier or seller is unknowable, says chef Robert Clark: “The seafood distribution system has always been the cloudiest, muddiest, greyest area of food distribution. With beef, there’s somebody inspecting, saying that’s grade A, that’s prime or triple A.”
Shellfish is monitored and labelled so it’s traceable for health reasons, he says, but finfish is not. “It should go through a federally inspected plan but there’s no federal inspector.” “There’s a ludicrous lack of regulation of seafood labelling in Canada,” says Grescoe, who notes the United States has tougher country-of-origin labelling laws. “There needs to be more traceability, as we’re doing with vegetables and pasture-fed beef.” He writes of the importance of “merroir,” the aquatic equivalent of “terroir,” the term used to describe wine’s distinct regionality. Environmental groups are pressing for labelling that includes the location the fish was caught or farmed, the method of catch, and, if farmed, feed contents, says Anna Magera, SeaChoice’s
East Coast coordinator.
Within this vacuum, a “sustainability” status label has emerged: the blue Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) seal conferred by the respected independent U.K.based non-profit agency. In 2006, Whole Foods began selling MSCcertified Chilean sea bass from the South Atlantic, a move met with skepticism. Some environmentalists expressed concern shoppers would be lulled into forgetting the species is overfished elsewhere. The fish formerly known as Patagonian toothfish is now one of the chain’s top-five fish, says Whole Foods rep Kate Klotz. In February 2006, Wal-Mart announced plans to stock its North American stores with wild-caught fresh and frozen fish from MSC-certified fisheries. Last month, Loblaw Cos. introduced three wild Pacific salmon products from an Alaskan MSCcertified fishery. It plans to bring 14 more to market by year-end and another 12 next year.
Grescoe calls for a more radical sea change in consumption—total rejection of toxin-laden top-feeder ‘prestige” proteins like tuna and shark in favour of bottom-feeders like sardines, herring, squid, shrimp and lobster. He has stopped eating salmon, believing it overfished and too expensive. Others talk of salmon and shrimp returning to their former status as a special-occasion fish. “Maybe salmon is going to be your Christmas turkey, not something you have four days a week,” says Rick Blackwood of Mike’s Fish Market in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market.
Back at the shopping mall, however, there’s talk of conscience-soothing labelling being extended to farmed salmon and shrimp. Darden Restaurants, which runs Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has announced plans for a certification process for its shrimp farmers. Loblaw is in talks with the MSC to see if it would extend its mandate from wild fish to certify responsible aquaculture as well. “There are some really questionable farming practices out there, but it’s the future of seafood-eating whether we like it or not,” says Paul Uys, head of Loblaw’s product development. When asked if any progress was being made, he sighs and uses a metaphor quaint yet apt within the maze of modern aqua-business: “Not yet,” he says. “It’s all such a huge can of worms. M
HALIBUT OR HAKE?A
SOON-TO-BE PUBLISHED CANADIAN STUDY FOUND 25 PER CENT OF FISH FILLETS ARE MISLABELLED.
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