Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wild Salmon: Responsibility and Sustainability

Two weeks ago, the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced a "total shutdown" of all commercial and recreational salmon fishing in the oceans off California and Oregon. The organization made the decision based on incredibly low numbers of chinook spawning in Northern California. The shutdown could last well into the summer.

Over at the WeLL in the cooking conference, we've been having a discussion about this decision and, more importantly, how we as food lovers play a part. We've become accustomed to ubiquitous fish like salmon year round. We buy it at Costco or Trader Joe's for $11 a pound without blinking an eye. It's the standard seafood entree on every restaurant menu. We think farm-raised just means it will have a bit less flavor. But when it comes to seasonality and sustainability, there are broader issues. When do we as food lovers begin to take responsibility for supporting sustainability? As consumers -- diners and shoppers -- we have to begin to understand the consequences of the availability of seasonal products like seafood 12 months out of the year.

The problems with farm raised fish don't seem obvious at first, but the data is a bit alarming. Studies this year have shown increasingly high levels of carcinogens, contaminants, and pollutants in many farm raised fish. (One well-publicized study released last year goes so far as to say it's only safe to eat once a month.) Farms raise environmental concerns as they mine the ocean for feed and upset ecological balances. And farm raised salmon can contain more parasites, fat, mercury, and less protein. While there's a fair amount of west coast activism coloring the argument for and against, what bothers me more is that no one is suggesting that we as eaters take responsibility. Since when did we abdicate all knowledge of what we were eating? We'll go out of our way to eat 100% grass fed, locally raised steak, but we blithely eat any fish put in front of us without regard to how far it traveled or how it was grown.

Last fall at a wine dinner, the chef was describing a seafood dish and noted it would be the last halibut of the season. A diner noted "but I can get halibut year round." The chef, a fan of seasonal and sustainable foods, gently educated the diner that while we can find it year round, halibut is a seasonal fish. As responsible sustainers of seafood, it's appropriate it be served seasonally. Why can't we see more of this? ("Ma'am, we only serve wild salmon here and it's out of season right now. We have a lovely xxx which is similar in texture to the salmon, a very mild fish that you will enjoy.")

Sadly, few chefs have the luxury of taking a stand in this tight market. Few will know that ordering salmon for the next few months (and possibly for the rest of the year) is a bad idea. Business owners just know that the woman who wants salmon is going to go down the street. We need to understand and reward those who want to help preserve the best of what we eat! Does it make it hard to buy seafood at the grocery store or Costco? Absolutely, especially when wild salmon can run upwards of $25 a pound. But education is understanding what your choice to eat salmon means for the overall food supply. The frank fact is that if wild salmon populations aren't allowed to regenerate, they will disappear. (Coho salmon is well on its way.) That $25 per pound for wild salmon you're paying now may be hard to swallow, but it's ultimately less expensive than the toxic chemicals and environmental payback coming with the $11/pound stuff.

At the heart of it is eating -- and serving -- seasonal foods. Chefs, you can help by ensuring the fish you serve is responsible (Chilean sea bass, not so much) and sustainable (serve fish that has a season). Train your staff to help educate your diners. They should understand the issues. Be a responsible member of the food community. At the very least, make sure your servers know the *honest* answer if diner asks "Is this fish wild or farm raised?" Diners, you have a responsibility, too! Expect more. Expect your chefs to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to seasonal eating. Opt to *not* buy that farm raised salmon at the grocery store. Discover some new seasonal seafoods. Ask restaurants what they're serving. Together, we can all take a little responsibility and ensure long-term sustainability while giving up little in return.


Daisy said...

Amen Braingirl! I could not agree more. I'll try to find the link (if it still exists), but about two years ago, I downloaded a list that lays out what fish is in season when, what questions to ask your fishmonger and what "buzzwords" to look for so you know that the fish is wild caught (although as we know,the labeling on fish varies from vendor to vendor). I had it laminated and try to carry it around with me when I go to the fishmonger's.

I think we sometimes forget how delicate the ocean ecosystem is - in many ways, much more fragile than the land. I have no problem paying $25/pound for seasonal, sustainable wild fish - it makes me appreciate it more and I would (and do) support more chefs who do the same.

Anonymous said...

blueocean. Org/ seafood

This is a great place to start.

Anonymous said...

"Atlantic" is one of the big ones. "Atlantic" salmon is by definition farm-raised.

Also, increasingly "Organic" salmon means farm-raised on organic feed. Still farm-raised.

Anonymous said...

^^^He/she is right ^^^

Atlantic=Organic=Farmed=Fed Crap

There are a few east coast farms that are really progressive in their farming approach, like creating simulated rushing waters for flushing away waste and for exercise, but these farms are the minority(I know of one).

Wild Alaskan Salmon is considered to be the greatest success story in sustainable fishing, with wild alaskan halibut not far behind. Alaska's Dept. of Natural Resources wild fishing program is used as the gold standard all over the United States by other fishing industries. Most notably, Wild American Shrimp in the gulf region (too bad their efforts were completely derailed by Katrina) and also the Wild Striped bass anglers of the east coast.

More and more restaurants in Indy are becoming more and more aware of what is acceptable to buy. But I know plenty, some the best in the city, that still put Salmon on their menu's year round, and wouldn't even think about taking Chilean Seabass off their menus.
I am guilty of the "Tuna Trap" myself. Bluefin Tuna has been fished to the brink of extinction, and Yellowfin tuna is not far behind. In the last 6 years, the sizes of the fish that I get in are significantly smaller than the fish that I used to see.
Maybe I'll take tuna off.


Anonymous said...

Recently I read an article about a scientist that is developing sustainable urban tilapia farms. He has started developing a system for farming the fish in the labs of his office at Brooklyn College using fish tanks. I know it all sounds fairly unappetizing, but so far he has found that the fish grow well, have little or no contamination and the process in absolutely sustainable. As for taste, I am sure that it doesn't compare to wild fish, but this seems that a better alternative than our current system. It would allow people to get fresher fish and transportation costs (both monetary and environmental) are mitigated substantially. The article I read specifically talked about tilapia, but if the science is there it is only a matter of time before many other fish varieties will work also. here is a link:

Anonymous said...

Auquaculture is nothing new. There are many companies out there that are "farming" in ways that aren't gross. But it seems the open ocean methods are much better than inland fresh water farms. Rushing Waters Trout farm is a pristine inland farm, you can actually see to the bottom of the ponds, this is because the ponds are fed from aquifers that occur naturally on that piece of land..this is most definitely the exception not the rule. The best fish farming methods are the Open Ocean methods that I can assure you, you will start to see everywhere. It basically consist of a large plot of the ocean that is netted off (or Fenced?) so that the fish that are being raised have ample "fresh" ocean water circulating around them and are of course protected from their natural predators, aside from us of course. Kona Kampachi is an excellent example of this farming method. These vast plots of "pasture" hold the most hope for sustainable fishing but have already begun to fall under scrutiny by some with moral objections.

braingirl said...

My understanding, though, is that the large ocean farms for salmon are creating many of the environmental and biological problems associated with farmed salmon. Everything from higher concentrations of uneaten feed to various parasites the wild fish can pick up.

Are these salmon pens different than the open ocean methods?

Anonymous said...

I have been told that the biggest problems with Salmon farms is the actual farm method that each farm employs (which is different at each farm for the most part). I have always heard that what it really comes down to is the size of the pens and how much room the fish have. Think Overpopulation. Lessons have been learned because of these mistakes and most new aqua farms make sure to provide LOTS of space for the fish in deep waters.

I have always had a problem with the disruption of Salmon's natural life cycle, and I believe that Salmons natural migration from salt water to fresh water *in swift waters* certainly could account for a lower incident of parasites in wild fish. With farmed, they can't run, and certainly can't hide.

bakerman said...

Anonymous said:
"'Atlantic' is one of the big ones. 'Atlantic' salmon is by definition farm-raised."

For all intents, this is true; however, wild atlantic salmon can be obtained, but should be discouraged since it is endangered.

Brandon said...

There is a great article in the latest Eating Well magazine. It answered a lot of my questions on farm raised salmon. And now that I have researched it more, have decided not eat farm raised salmon until they raise the bar on how the salmon are farmed.
The consumption of salmon has raised something like 30% since the 90's. The farmers can hardly keep up with the demand. Something like 85% of the worlds salmon supply is farm raised. With such a large demand the salmon farmers are cutting some corners to raise more and more salmon. They have estimated that something like 1 million salmon escaped each year. These farm raised escapers threaten the wild salmon.