Archive for the ‘Eat it or not’ Category

Delectable Abalone

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

When you eat an abalone, which is a kind of marine gastropod or snail, you eat the chewy and tasty muscle that is – or was – its foot.

Have you eaten farmed abalone lately? Might be worthwhile.

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus - each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus – each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

The immense stretch of floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China is one of 20 stories featured in Watermark, the new movie by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, whose previous film was the remarkable Manufactured Landscapes.

Burtynsky's photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom,com)

Burtynsky’s photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom.com)

Although Waterpark lacks much narrative or a clear focus, the videography is again extraordinary, and the story on the abalone farms stands out – it includes a little more detail and complexity, even a little explanation with the briefest of reflection. Millions of acres of Luoyaun Bay are covered with tethered, floating pens where abalones are grown, fed on kelp until they reach harvestable size. There is no larger abalone farming site in the world.

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Abalones are grown increasingly easily, in onshore water runways, in floating pens in the sea, and in sea ranches where bottom predators and competitors have been removed. Abalone are herbivores, eating microalgae when they are small, kelp when they get larger – and neither kind of food supply is in short supply. Done right, the farming has little effect on the kelp canopy which is cut for feeding the mollusks, for it regrows rapidly.

Only a few species are now cultured, and most of the aquaculture occurs in China, with much less in Chile, USA, and Australia. Any sea ranching gets bad press from Monterrey Seafood Watch because of the ecosystem modification that is involved, but farmed abalone get ‘Best Choice’ designation from MSW.

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

This all is very recent. Few abalones were farmed in 1970, though there was a limited commercial fishery which soon depleted the available stocks. Commercial fishing is now illegal most places, though not yet in Mexico. By 1990, a few farms around the world produced about 300 metric tons of abalone, by 2000 about 1000 mt. Now the annual total is more than 100,000 mt, and most of it is in China.

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

There are few drawbacks to sea-pen aquaculture, but they do exist – mainly risks from disease and from storms. The Chinese now culture an abalone that is a hybrid of the naturally occurring Chinese stock and the more disease-resistant Japanese stock – both from the same species, Haliotis discus. As for storms, tying the floating pens together in immense masses reduces the potential wave impact- though how much so is still untested by an intense typhoon.

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010.  (fishtech.com)

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010. (fishtech.com)

An aquaculturist working on the Luoyuan Bay pens, interviewed briefly in Watermark and thinking about the possibility of typhoon impact, observed that nothing lasts forever. Clearly a healthy attitude to have these days, but even if a damaging storm hits, the pens can be quickly rebuilt and the culture reestablished, and it can all continue.

Unlike fish farming – think salmon, halibut, cod, shrimp – abalone farming is resilient, sustainable, low-impact, non-polluting, non-destructive, algae-based farming. What more can we ask for?

And cut thin, pounded well to tenderize it, then pan fried or sauteed briefly, abalone is no second-best substitute: this is fine food.

Shark Finning Decline?

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Probably everyone knows the sad state of the world’s sharks, and that the indefensible shark fin trade is largely responsible. Just Google shark fin or shark fin statistics – the grim pictures are overwhelming.

Many shark species are considered to be threatened, vulnerable to extinction (slidepoint.net)

Many shark species are considered to be threatened, vulnerable to extinction (slidepoint.net)

Trader in Hong Kong drying shark fins outside his seafood store (scmp.com)

Trader in Hong Kong drying shark fins outside his seafood store (scmp.com)

Shark fin soup may cost $175 (made from dried shark fins that may$700/lb) is another luxury food that became an essential component of any formal Chinese feast, especially weddings, not only in China but in Chinese communities in cities around the world.

Hong Kong is the distribution hub, with half of all total shark fins imported from legal and illegal fisheries everywhere. Because of the unusual cruelty of the fishery, and because so many shark species have declined to dangerously low levels, the criticism of the fishery has become intense.

Shark fins are sent from around the world to Hong Kong for further distribution (kleanindustreis.com

Shark fins are sent from around the world to Hong Kong for further distribution (kleanindustreis.com

Buying and selling shark fins is now illegal in a cluster of US states, mostly west coast. Activists in China have worked hard to discourage the use of shark fin soup, but efforts to reduce the extent of global shark finning seemed to be getting nowhere. The total catch of sharks continued to grow, reaching more than 1.4 million tons in 2010, representing around 100 million sharks per year.

 The total catch of sharks has risen precipitously since 1950 (commons.wikimedia.com).


The total catch of sharks has risen precipitously since 1950 (commons.wikimedia.com0.

But now something has changed. Demand for shark fins in China declined by 75% in 2012 from the previous year, and reports for 2013 indicate a further steep decline.

In a world of seemingly endless bad news, this is good news indeed.

The shark fin traders in Honk Kong are of course upset by the public criticism – enough that many have moved to drying the fins on roof tops where they are not so easily seen by the public.

Activist on a roof-top covered with drying shark fins, hidden from public scrutiny (mission-blue.org)

Activist on a roof top covered with drying shark fins, hidden from public scrutiny (mission-blue.org)

This is reassuring for so many reasons. We may not drive so many shark species to extinction after all. We may cease the horrible practice of cutting off the fins and throwing the remaining huge and often still living body back into the sea.

And we can show ourselves that habits thought to be culturally engrained can change. With enough information, enough evidence, we can stop doing something we should not be doing, and look for less damaging alternatives.

If all this is real, and it seems to be, imagine what other attitudes and beliefs we can change when we have strong evidence before us!

Live Reef Fish Food Trade

Monday, July 8th, 2013

If you live in Hong Kong or in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, you can choose the fish you want to eat at a restaurant from a tank full of living, swimming fish. It will probably be a grouper, and it will be very expensive, perhaps $300 a plate, but it will be fresh, and it will taste good.

Groupers ("coral trout") at a restaurant in Shanghai (tracc-borneo.org)

Groupers (“coral trout”) at a restaurant in Shanghai (tracc-borneo.org)

Though the Live Reef Fish Food Trade started slowly in the 1970s, it has exploded in the past decade. It is causing extraordinary damage to coral reefs.

The target species are mostly groupers, snappers and wrasses. They are caught as adults and shipped to the restaurants, or they are caught as juveniles and kept in cages, fed small reef fish until they are plate sized, and then shipped to the restaurants.

They come from the Coral Triangle area, the region of the tropical Pacific with the greatest density of coral reefs. They are caught by hand, but usually after they are stunned by dynamite (illegal everywhere) or by cyanide poisoning (also illegal everywhere).

The Coral Triangle, including the reefs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and Solomon Islands). (natureconservancy.org)

The Coral Triangle, including the reefs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and Solomon Islands. (natureconservancy.org)

A masked diver applies cyanide to part of a reef in hopes of finding a few young groupers among the stunned fish (fishchannel.com)

A masked diver applies cyanide to part of a reef in hopes of finding a few young groupers among the stunned fish (fishchannel.com)

Another fisherman detonates dynamite to stun fish (turingfoundation.org)

Another fisherman detonates dynamite to stun fish (turingfoundation.org)

As reefs are stripped of the fish, the collectors go ever farther away – an expansion that has extended into the Indian Ocean and through the South Pacific.

Fish are collected from ever further sources as reefs are serially over-fished. (wwf.panda.org

Fish are collected from ever further sources as reefs are serially over-fished. (wwf.panda.org

Fishing has been ‘open access’, which essentially means few regulations, and where any exist, little enforcement exists. The catch is largely illegal, unregulated, and under-reported (the discouraging IUU designation).

Three countries provide most (but not all) of the fish – Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. China (including Hong Kong) is the single major market and it continues to expand rapidly: a novel, good tasting, living grouper is a fine luxury meal in a newly affluent society.

Fish are shipped to Hong Kong, and then distributed to other cities in southern China (sciencedirect.com)

Fish are shipped to Hong Kong, and then distributed to other cities in southern China (sciencedirect.com)

Groupers are the main victims. They live for a few decades, they grow relatively slowly, they don’t mature until they are relatively large and 5-10 years old, they don’t swim fast making them easy for human divers to approach, and they spawn in aggregations in predictable places, making it even easier to find and catch them. Targeting juveniles and using destructive fishing techniques should have disappeared decades ago yet they are flourishing in the current hunt.

A tiger grouper, now listed by IUCN as threatened or endangered (bergoiata.org)

A tiger grouper, now listed by IUCN as threatened or endangered (bergoiata.org)

Territorial conflicts have arisen among all of the players – between local fishermen and outsiders, between local and state fishers and agencies, between communities and between states, between conservationists and the need for jobs. And as usual, despite the market value of the fish, the fishers/divers are paid little.

This is a classic boom-and-bust scenario. Given the lucrative and growing market in China, the ease of capturing the fish, the lack of both regulations and enforcement, a projected demand that far exceeds the projected supply, and inadequate knowledge of the biology of the species, groupers in the region are declining rapidly to extinction.

Certainly there are efforts to underway to protect the fish and regulate the fishing. In February 2013 government representatives of the six Coral Triangle nations met with those from a few SE Asian countries to address the threats and propose more effective management and sustainable trade in living reef fish. They proposed the development of marine protected areas to protect spawning aggregations, accreditation procedures for fishermen, and methods to detect cyanide in fish in order to prohibit its use. They addressed the issues of capture of juveniles for grow-out farms, and the capture of feed fish for the groupers that would otherwise be food for fish communities on the reefs. Worthwhile initiatives that may be too late.

Perhaps groupers are just unlucky, carrying the wrong suite of characteristics to survive unregulated human greed and predation. But that’s an inadequate conclusion. The ‘illusion of plenty’ has been dispelled in many parts of the world, and it needs to be dispelled in the Coral Triangle nations and communities. Governments and NGOs can do a lot to change perceptions and habits.

A goliath grouper, one of the largest species, easy to approach and photograph, easy to capture (thebuzzmedia.com)

A goliath grouper, one of the largest species, easy to approach and photograph, easy to capture (thebuzzmedia.com)

At the same time China is a huge and voracious market, perhaps insatiable. If a lack of eco-consciousness is also driving the desire for live reef fish in the restaurants, then it too can change.

But this is much more than just another sad example if boom-and-bust overfishing. Coral reefs are also under increasing stress from climate change, and the community disruption and damage resulting from the Live Reef Fish Food Trade will only increase their vulnerability.

The Live Reef Fish Food Trade is ethically wrong, environmentally catastrophic, and quite unnecessary. If all participants truly understood the impact it is having, surely they would agree to end it.

A Plague of Lionfish

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

This was unexpected and it is catastrophic, a true ‘Black Swan’ event.

Pacific Red Lionfish invaded the US southeast coast and the Caribbean about a decade ago, and they have now successfully invaded the rest of the Gulf of Mexico, including the coasts of Belize and Texas. They are most common on coral reefs, but they are generalists, and turn up in grass beds, mangroves and rocky caves as well, down to depths of 200 meters.

The Pacific Red Lionfish perhaps looks like seaweed, but in any case it is unfamiliar to small Atlantic fish who are easy prey (ucgs.org).

The Pacific Red Lionfish perhaps looks like seaweed, but in any case it is unfamiliar to small Atlantic fish who are easy prey (ucgs.org).

The invasion probably started from a dumped aquarium on the US south east coast sometime in the 1980s. Now it is the single best example of a successful invasion of a marine fish species. We’re accustomed to invasive marine plants and invertebrates, but fish species are rarely successful. This one is.

Lionfish still had a limited distribution in 2001 (insights.wri.org)

Lionfish still had a limited distribution in 2001 (insights.wri.org)

By 2007 they were common in the Bahamas and parts of the northern Caribbean (insights.wri.org)

By 2007 they were common in the Bahamas and parts of the northern Caribbean (insights.wri.org)

By 2011, lionfish had spread throughout the Caribbean.

By 2011, lionfish had spread throughout the Caribbean.

For a continually updated map of the invasion, check the US Geological Survey website.

With its elaborate fins, stripes and spines, this is one very beautiful fish. The tips of its spines concentrate a powerful neurotoxic venom that protects it from most predators – including any human who handles it too casually. By the time it is an adult it about 45cm (20 inches) long, able to reproduce a few times each month all year long.

The beautiful predator (luis rocha nytimes.org)

The beautiful predator (luis rocha nytimes.org)

It is a slow-swimming predator, eating fish up to about half its size. At the high densities it is now reaching in many communities on many reefs, prey species are declining by 90% or more. The degraded reefs of the Caribbean need an abundance of herbivores if they are ever to recover. so the invasion of lionfish is a further catastrophe in the sad litany of catastrophes that have converted so many of the reefs to algal rubble.

In the Indo-Pacific, large predatory fish like eels, sharks and groupers somehow manage to eat lionfish and help to keep their numbers under control. In the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico we’ve fished out most large fish already, and those that remain are learning to avoid them, not how to eat them without being stunned.

No wonder it is such a successful invader – an efficient and cryptic, with a rapid growth rate and huge reproductive potential, and pretty well free of predators.

So what’s ahead? Either lionfish will become so abundant that they will eat up all the available prey, wreck the available ecosystems, and then starve – a miserable outcome to say the least.

Or we can eat them.

This is an astonishing development. Everywhere in the Caribbean, in the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida we are now encouraged to hunt them down by spear, line or trap. Fishing derbies have emerged in many places. There are no restrictions – just catch and kill as many as you can.

What about those spines and their neurotoxins? Internet videos show you how to handle the fish and clip off the spines. What’s left is free of the toxins.

How to spear a lionfish: Easily done since it swims slowly, but still  be very careful. (seabelize.org)

How to spear a Lionfish: Easily done since it swims slowly, but still be very careful. (seabelize.org)

And lionfish are not just safe to eat, but they are tasty. Again, the internet offers lots of advice on pan frying, stewing, grilling and filleting the fish.

So go forth and kill. As many as you can. We may never have an opportunity like this again – a chance to exploit a new fishery, free of any regulations, a last echo of the old days when all fish were superabundant and we were not.

And if you can’t go killing lionfish, ask your restaurant to include them. This is not a trivial matter – if we don’t stop them, lionfish will wreck whatever is left of the precarious reefs in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Fishing for the Halibut

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The Atlantic Halibut is an extraordinary fish, once one of the world’s largest. Old reports suggest males could have grown to 700 pounds and 15 feet (320 kg and 4.7 m). Long lived, slow growing, late maturing, and easily caught by bottom trawls and long lines, they were quickly overfished once people acquired a taste for them. Now not many are left, and the species is labelled Vulnerable or Endangered, depending on the agency assessing them.

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Halibut are bottom dwelling flatfish that prey on other fish as well as crustaceans. This is the Pacific halibut, which has been fished sustainably. Atlantic halibut are too rare to be able to photograph in the wild like this (marinesciencetoday.com)

Fishing along the New England coast and on the offshore fishing banks remains a disaster. Collapsed stocks like halibut recover very slowly, if at all, and even cod, which ought to be more resilient, have failed to show signs of recovery. Quotas are small and getting smaller, and so are fishing fleets.

An 8 foot, 444 pound Atlantic halibut caught off Norway in 2008, no doubt one of the last of this size (tiptheplanet.com)

Whole Foods Market is going to sell only the fish species considered sustainable by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, and that eliminates the Atlantic halibut – as it should. Plenty of other markets exist, but it sets a good example. We simply should not be eating any wild caught Atlantic halibut.

A very new method of aquaculture involves submerged, ‘deepwater’ AquaPod Net Pens – geodesic spherical enclosures that have been used for cod, salmon, and other species, but not yet for halibut.

Now there is a proposal to farm Atlantic halibut in a bay on the central coast of Maine, starting with one Aquapod about 30 ft in diameter, tethered to the bottom by an 18,000 pound anchor, able to spin out with tide in a 150 ft radius.

An AquaPod Net Pen is lifted by crane onto a barge and then later into deeper water offshore (oceanfarmtech.net)

The halibut would be raised in a hatchery from egg to settled stage, and then moved to the AquaPod, fed fish pellets designed for halibut, monitored to prevent over-feeding, and grown rapidly to marketable size.

An AquaPod is neutrally buoyant, can be rotated to clean, and can be partly emerged or totally submerged depending on ocean conditions (ecofriend.com)

But will it work? There are legitimate environmental concerns about the impact of uneaten food and feces on the existing bottom community, and very careful monitoring is essential. Though the Aquapod would be set in the deeper water where the dozen or more lobstermen who work the bay don’t set many of their thousands of lobster pots, other commercial fishing would be blocked.

Each year farmed fish make up more of the total fish production

Some halibut farming will be helpful. Done right, done carefully, it should work. But AquaPod culture of halibut is very much an experiment, and it needs to occur where other fishermen are not affected, and where coastal communities are sparse. A bay that is saturated with lobsterpots, cottages, summer residents and their boats is not the place for this experiment.

Soon more half of the world’s marketed fish will be farmed – a reflection not just of the collapse of wild caught fisheries but also of the growth of farming.

So let’s farm halibut. Let’s try to farm them in AquaPods. But let’s do it carefully, in places where other users are least affected, and where experimental failure has the least impact.

Still Eating Jellyfish

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

I reserved Eating Jellyfish as a domain name about 6 years ago, when the prospect of eating jellyfish seemed an absurd outcome of overfishing, coastal development and pollution now clearly associated with the occurrence of schools or blooms of jellyfish. Jellyfish as the top predators in coastal ecosystems are now even more common. As we are forced to adapt, the idea of eating jellyfish is no longer as absurd as it was. And yes, of course, some cultures have a long history of eating certain species of jellyfish: it is just a very alien idea to the rest of us.

Nomura's jellyfish, Nemopilema nomurai, in the Sea of Japan. Like all jellyfish, it grows to full size in a single season. (natruresmightypics)

Recent reports of unexpected and large jellyfish blooms have come from most parts of the world – from the seas of Japan, China and Europe especially, but also from West Florida and the Gulf of Maine. What actually causes the blooms is not certain, for until recently nobody was really interested enough to try to find out.

But what we know is this: jellyfish blooms are associated with coasts of dense human populations where overfishing, eutrophication, habitat modification, invasive species, and a warming climate may all be involved. One of the most famous and clearest cases occurred in the Black Sea, where overfishing, warmer water, and nutrient enrichment from the Danube made for perfect conditions for a succession of jellyfish to explode in number.

Probably the other most famous blooms involve the giant Nomura’s Jellyfish in the Sea of Japan, each a monster, hard to harvest even if you wanted to, and immensely damaging to fisheries and fishing nets.

Nomura's Jellyfish in the Sea of Japan, is a huge challenge to harvest without sinking the boat.(naturesmightypics)

The most prolific and widespread is Aurelia aurita, the moon jellyfish, for it is globally distributed, and capable of explosive growth into very large populations. I have fond memories from when I was kid on the coast of Maine heaving dead washed up moon jellyfish at my sisters.

The moon jelly, Aurelia aurita, beautiful, graceful, and in every ocean (fins.activin.com)

Why are jellyfish so successful in degraded conditions? In a health ecosystem they compete with fish for access to food – mainly zooplankton. Where overfishing has removed the competing fish, they have few limits to growth. In eutrophic conditions, for instance around the mouths of major rivers carrying high loads of P and N, they also tolerating the lower levels of dissolved oxygen that fish avoid: where coastal nutrients increase, so to do jellyfish. The result is a trophic cascade, a regime change, an ecosystem that is free of fish predators, dominated by jellyfish, and of very little value or interest to humans.

Dan Pauly's famous illustration of the impact of fishing down the food chain, a trophic cascade that ends up with jellyfish as the top predator (ecomarres.com)

What’s ahead, then? All of the stresses – overfishing, eutrophication, warming waters, habitat modification, human population densities are all likely to keep increasing along our coastlines.

We can do a couple of things about this. Of course trying to recover such stressed ecosystems, restoring fish as top predators, is the best, but not most likely outcome. Instead, we can also learn which species of jellyfish are actually possible to harvest and eat (some taste horrible). There are also likely to be some yet-to-be discovered medical uses of some species. And perhaps jellyfish have some potential as supplements to animal feeds.

We also need biologists who can help integrate knowledge of jellyfish ecology with that of the whole ecosystem, making jellyfish part of what fisheries scientists must consider in their attempts to manage both fisheries and ecosystems.

Jellyfish as components of fisheries, and jellyfish as components of our own diets, are facts of life in this critical century.

We just have to suck it up. They’re mostly water anyway.

The End of Shark Finning?

Friday, April 1st, 2011

We have done a lot of horrible and embarrassing things to other species on this planet, but I am not sure if any example is worse than driving sharks toward extinction in large part because of the popularity of shark fin soup.

The story is well known. Sharks – somewhat maligned as vicious predators – are caught by the millions, their dorsal fins and tails are cut off for future soups, and they are then thrown back into the sea to die slow deaths.

Shark fins harvested by one boat, on one trip.

Overall numbers are discouraging. A ninety percent drop in shark populations has occurred in the past couple of decades and most of the 30 species are endangered, a third of them facing extinction. Attempting to get a reliable number of how many sharks are killed annually for their fins is difficult, for it is not in any way a managed fishery. Estimates are in the order of 70 million or more fish per year. Seventy million.

About 95% of the shark fins head to China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), and much of the rest goes to cities where there is a large Chinese population, like San Francisco and Vancouver. Shark fin soup has been an important part of celebratory banquets in China for about 2000 years, and it has become a very expensive dish associated with the rich elite.

But things are changing, and if it isn’t too late, sharks may get a reprieve. Last year Hawaii banned the sale and distribution of shark fins. California is now considering the same thing. Currently, as well, US federal law prohibits shark finning by US registered vessels, and shark fins cannot be imported into the US unless the entire shark is used rather than discarded.

The scalloped hammerhead shark was recently listed as 'endangered', at risk of extinction, in part because of the harvest of its fins for shark fin soup (metro.co.uk)

None of this, though, applies to ‘foreign’ registered vessels, and of course has no impact on the Chinese market where almost all the action lies.

Now, in China, Chinese lawmakers, led by Ding Liguo and 12 other deputies to the National People’s Congress, are proposing a ban on the trade of shark fins in China. The potential impact is huge.

Of course there is resistance particularly from parts of the Chinese populations in non-Chinese cities like San Francisco, accusing the legislators and environmentalists of racism and cultural insensitivity. There is a point, however, where environmental concern, in this case the actual survival of sharks, trumps tradition. Traditions can be changed – it happens all the time. Not so for extinction.

On top of this – or perhaps driving part of it – is a growing sense particularly of younger Chinese that shark fin soup isn’t necessary as a component of banquets: other expensive food, such as lobster, can make the same impression. A remarkable website, called Shark Truth, and run by Canadian activists of Chinese descent, is having a significant impact in helping to change the tradition.

Shark Truth is running a contest for those who agree not to include shark fin soup in their wedding banquets

The combination of Internet communication, growing disapproval of serving or eating shark fin soup, and laws that actually ban the sale of shark fins in China should actually work. Sharks get killed in other ways of course – they are abundant victims of long-line by-catch – but there should be celebrations throughout the oceans if finning ceases.

This is more than a small success. It recognizes the wastefulness and unethical practice of finning, and it recognizes the importance of sharks as top predators in sustaining the critical trophic structure of marine communities.

Shark fin soup today. Tunafish sushi tomorrow?

Eating Fish Raw

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Do you eat fish raw?

If you do, there is probably no harm, and probably more nutrition in it – provided that you are careful.

There isn’t a whole lot of sea food that someone, somewhere doesn’t eat raw. Of course pretty well everyone eats raw fish as sushi, and I don’t think anyone cooks oysters. But we also eat raw scallops, abalone, conch, clams, sea urchins eggs, caviar, and octopus (sometimes with their tentacles still writhing).

Raw oysters, fine sauces. Gulf of Mexico oysters are still not cleared for human consumption, but perhaps they will be soon. (Consumerist.com)

The Inuit have eaten raw seal and whale pretty well forever. In March of 2009, Canada’s Governor General made headlines when she ate some raw seal heart at an Inuit community festival.

Perhaps most spectacular is the Dutch love of young herring that arrive fresh and fat each year around the beginning of June. The first day of the catch is called Vlaggetjesdag, which means ‘flag day’ – unlike the flag days of most countries, it celebrates the arrival of the herring, and Dutch around the world do what they can to join in on their feast.

The herring are about 6 inches or 15 cm long. They are very rich in Omega-3 fat. They are gutted, their heads are cut off, and they may be lightly salted. Then it’s your head up, holding the fish by its tail, sliding the fish gradually into your mouth, and biting off whatever you think you chew or swallow. Hmmm. Very nutritious and beloved by all, but I suspect it helps to grow up with the practice.

Dutch treat - eating fresh, fat herring (design-your-travel.com)

The real thing (bing.com)

Perhaps we should ask what’s the point of cooking any of it? If the fish, or other sea food, is clean and fresh, there is little danger in eating it. But there may be parasites to deal with, and bacteria grow quickly on anything dead and aging.

Parasites are usually fairly obvious – just pick them out if you see any. Usually they are not harmful anyway, for they usually just pass on through you. Cooking kills parasites, though, and is a reason for cooking. Freezing also kills them, and even the best sushi chefs freeze salmon, which is very susceptible to parasite infections, before serving it up. Fresh water fish, like trout and bass, have lots of parasites, and eating them raw is never a good idea. But occasionally someone who eats sushi – eg raw salmon – gets a tapeworm which usually grows to 8 or more feet in length before it the host finally feels lousy enough to get medical help. A rare event, but it happens.

Parasites of marine fish. Photographs of the real thing may wreck your appetite. (fao.org)

The other main problem is the bacteria which accumulate if the fish isn’t fresh or has been handled a lot. Refrigeration is not sufficient, as anyone who has kept fish in a fridge too long knows all too well. Cooking again solves the problem, though the taste of an aging dead fish leaves something to be desired.

Best bet if you are fishing for fish to eat raw? Make sure you are fishing in an ocean, bleed and gut the fish when you catch it, and put it in a bag of ice to take home with you if you don’t want to eat it on the spot.

Best bet if you don’t catch it yourself? Any farmed fish from US, Norway, Britain, Canada, Japan – the standards are high, and there should be no parasites.

For myself, I’ll still cook it.

Seared Pacific halibut, smothered with stuffed olives, red peppers and oregano (foodnetwork.com)

Certified Fish

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

There’s a little more hope for the world’s declining fish populations.

The Marine Stewardship Council started up about 10 years ago. It has now grown into the single most important global organization responsible for certifying whether the fish you want to buy comes from a sustainable fishery. If it does, then it comes with the MSC certification label, and you can be sure it has met the global standard required for certification.

The MSC logo that you should look for (msc.org).

This is ‘ecolabelling’ at its best. If the label is there, you can feel reasonably sure that you are not doing harm. If the label isn’t there, you probably shouldn’t buy it.

What’s changed recently is that major supermarkets across the US and Canada have declared that within several years, all the fish they sell will be MSC certified. Leading the pack is Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retail company. Wal-Mart is so full of contradictions. By emphasizing that all of its fish products will soon be certified by MSC, they force their many competitors to take similar action. Wal-Mart appears to be taking a leadership role in sustainable fisheries just as it is in some other ‘green’ issues. At the same time, it intends to sell its fish at the lowest price possible, raising all the familiar social justice issues its employees face.

Wal-Mart is everywhere (womensvoicesforchange.org)

Social corporate responsibility clearly has its limits, but it’s good to see that it exists at all.

Any success in improving the sustainabiilty of the world’s fish, shrimp and other marine species deserves our attention. The species and populations that MSC certifies as sustainable are the same ones that the Monterrey Seafood Guide recommends. If you go to the MSC website, you can see the details behind the decisions. How does the process of certification work? What are the criteria for receiving certification? How is the system protected from inclusion of illegal stocks and species? Even information on how you can become a certifier – it’s all there.

Map of some of the MSC certified fisheries. There are a lot of others currently under assessment. (msc.org)

So look for the MSC label on what you buy. Look for it, and ask for it, at the restaurants where you eat your seafood. Congratulate a restaurant owner where you see the MSC ecolabelling in place. Trader Joe’s has recently become enlightened, and is worth a visit if you live near one.

We may have become a consumer society, with all the associated worrisome implications, but it also means that as consumers we have the power to make corporations and businesses more environmentally responsible.

Even Wal-Mart.

Bluefin Sushi

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

What an extraordinary fish. Bluefin tuna have the potential to grow huge, the largest of all bony fish – the record for one caught is 1496 lbs, and 1000 lbs (450 kg) used to be common. Like all tuna, they thermoregulate, staying relatively warm in cold water, and that lets them chase down colder, slower fish. A magnificent predator.

Their story as human food is well known, for they are by far the most valuable of fish, provided they are frozen quickly and properly as soon as they are caught, decapitated and gutted, and sent to the famous fish markets of Japan. The Japanese pay dearly for their bluefin sashimi (raw slices, dipped in a delicate sauce) and for their bluefin sushi. Communities around the world depend on bluefin fishing, paid for by the Japanese market.

Bluefin sushi, ready to eat (calories-nutrition.buddyslim.com)

As the whole world also knows, stocks of bluefin tuna are in serious decline, and collapse looms ahead. In the Mediterranean, the average size of a captured bluefin in 2001 was 124 kg; now it is close to 60 kg. That’s not just small – that’s too small to have had a chance to reproduce. Reproductive failure is the usual cause of collapse.

The decline of bluefin stocks has been particularly fast during the past decade (wildlifeextra.co.nz)

As a result, bluefin ranching has become widespread, for instance in the Mediterranean, where the small tuna are fed massive amounts of bait fish to grow and fatten them to then harvest, freeze, and send off to Japan. Sounds more sustainable? It isn’t. Each tuna eats many times its own weight in bait fish to grow large enough to become sushi.

Bluefin tuna are grown in 'ranches' along the coast of Spain befroe they are killed, frozen and flown to Japan (photography.nationalgeographic.com)

This past week, bluefin tuna have gathered headlines once again. Despite efforts to ban the global bluefin hunt, the 175 nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (known as CITES) easily voted down the ban. Japan lobbied furiously, and all the countries that need the income provided by their tuna fishing added their support. The hunting and the ranching will continue, at least for another two and a half years when CITES meets next. That is coincidentally about as long the World Wildlife Fund considers it will take for the collapse to occur.

Japan is very defensive. They deny that bluefin collapse is imminent, and accuse the rest of us of attacking their culture. If they had lost the UN vote, they intended to ignore it anyway.

There is, however, a solution. The problem is not eating sushi or sashimi, it is eating endangered species such as bluefin. There are plenty of alternatives. No doubt raw bluefin tastes especially fine to the experienced palate, but surely a secure culture can persist on the backs of sustainable species instead.

And we can help. Though 80% of the bluefin catch goes to Japan, the rest mostly goes to Japanese restaurants elsewhere in the world. Perhaps you also love the taste of sushi and sashimi. If so, the best place to start is to follow the Monterrey Bay Sushi Guide. And where you notice bluefin on the menu, challenge it!

Clearly we can’t wait for the UN to mandate appropriate conservation measures. As always, it is up to us.