Fish that make you go… hmmmm

By Pamela Flash
NAMA Volunteer
Long Island, NY

So I am standing at the fish counter at Whole Foods, which I do on a regular basis, ever since I’ve been responsible for cooking for myself and for my family.

Which fish am I going to buy for dinner? Hmmm…

Will my dinner decision heal or harm the ocean? How will it impact local fishing communities? What about the environment? Will my choice have a large carbon footprint by being transported to the USA from another country?

When did this decision get so complicated?

I have been a conscientious shopper since the late 1980’s. I want to buy food that is good for my family but as with the cleaning products in my home, I want it to be green.

So what is green? Whole Foods, to which I am a loyal customer although not blindly, has decided to let Seafood Watch, decide what fish are “green”, “yellow”, and “red” as guidelines to buying sustainable fish. If you don’t know by now, Whole Foods will no longer carry fish on Seafood Watch’s “red” list.

(click to read NAMA’s blog related to Whole Foods, Seafood Watch, and MSC certification)

So lets go back to the fish counter. I can choose from farm-raised shrimp from Thailand, or I can buy tuna from Venezuela, maybe cod from Norway, the list goes on. The only local choice that day was flounder from New England. I asked, “If you are going to carry cod from Norway, why can’t you carry haddock from New England?”

So at this point, I need to disclose, that I am a born New Englander, living on Long Island. I grew up eating haddock, cod, and salmon bought in season (when salmon swam up stream in Maine the way salmon are supposed to), and clams, (steamers were my favorite) and of course our beloved lobster which we would only eat in the state of Maine, fresh from the ocean that day. Needless to say, I know the taste of fresh fish.
Fisherman Ed Snell lands cod and haddock off the coast of Portland, Maine.

I spent many summers visiting New England fishing communities. Although we didn’t fish ourselves, fresh fish was in all the restaurants from Point Judith, Rhode Island to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Today, so many restaurants carry frankenfish, such as tilapia, or whole branzino, that are sometimes raised in plastic tubs, and are often fed with genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) or soy feed, rather than with food that actually grows in the ocean. And if the feed does come from the ocean the net protein is often a loss. However, Whole Foods claims that the farmed-raised fish they offer is not fed GMO’s or soy feed. I will look into this. I am not an expert on farm-raised fish but I have to think local and fresh fish has the best omega threes for my family’s nutrition.

So lets go back to the lobster, I remember very clearly when the lobster supply was in trouble. They were expensive and in danger of extinction. I am not sure if everyone knows the story of how Maine lobsters came back, but it goes something like this: the lobstermen banded together and made some tough choices of how to replenish the lobster supply. First, they increased the acceptable catch size allowing the lobsters more time to multiply and ultimately replenish. Second, they created a requirement for each boat to have the licensee on the boat with the license, thereby preventing absentee owners and making it uneconomical for big business to buy up the rights to fish lobsters on a large scale. (click to learn more)

Today the lobster population is strong, and we have the local lobstermen’s own policing efforts to thank. The fishing industry and government should learn from them and trust local fishermen to monitor themselves and help replenish the fish in their communities.

So, what fish am I going to buy for dinner or order in a restaurant? What do I think is “green fish”? Fish that lived in the ocean, that ate its natural, local food source, that didn’t travel too far to get to me, and hopefully fish that was fairly traded; meaning a local fisherman got paid a fair price for the fish I am consuming. My experience tells me from the lobster story, that community-based fishermen are the best stewards of our oceans and we as consumers would be best served to trust and support them. Their livelihood depends on healthy oceans.

Everyone can be mindful of how our food purchases impact our family’s healthfulness as well as the health of our communities and environment. There is a big buzz about farm-to-table, which is very important, but just as important is ocean-to-table. Direct marketing programs like Community Supported Fisheries are growing and offer families affordable, local, and tasty food from the sea. If we want to eat fish, ultimately there are choices to be made. We can choose farm-raised fish, fish imported from other countries, or fish from the USA benefitting the fishing communities in the USA. So next time you are at the fish counter pause for a moment, hmmm… and ask yourself which fish will bring the most value to your own health, the community, and ocean.

NOTE FROM NAMA: Thanks Pamela! Folks can also check out our ‘Who Fishes Matters’ seafood card below and download here.