(Me holding a 5lb. live lobster)
This past weekend I had the pleasure of tagging along with my friend Laura to a Slow Food event at a sustainable, wholesale fish company in D.C. called ProFish. The purpose of the tour was to get a tour of the facility, learn how to determine whether a fish is sustainable or not, and what to look for when buying fish. The tour was led by a ProFish employee named Peter. Peter was a former fisherman in Gloucester for over 20 years and was even a fisherman on the boat the Andrea Gail 3 years before it was lost at sea. Those of you who’ve seen the movie the Perfect Storm recognize the Andrea Gail as the swordfish boat that went down at sea after returning from an expedition to the Outer Banks, Newfoundland back in 1991. As you can imagine, Peter was a wealth of knowledge about all things fish-related.
Peter explained that Profish has over 700 types of seafood that come from as far away as Australia. Once the fish land into Profish’s hands, they inspect it to determine the quality and freshness of the product. For example, they will open up the fish’s gills to see how red they are. The deeper the shade of red the gills are, the fresher the fish. A fish with brown-colored gills is not as fresh as one with red gills and therefore, the quality of the meat will be inferior. Moreover, because a fish is considered fresh does not mean that it will smell more fishy. On the contrary, the fresher a fish is, the less it will smell. After handling several different fish, including an Arctic Chard from Iceland, an Escolar, a Branzino from Turkey, and a King salmon from WA, it was surprising how little these fish actually smelled. What was also interesting, and something I don’t think most consumers know, is that salmon often has coloring added to it. In other words, the salmon is dyed to look pretty-in-pink merely for the consumer. That is not actually how pink it really is. Many times, the color of the fish is determined by what the fish was eating before it was caught.
(Cleaning a skate fish)
We then discussed what it means if a fish is sustainable. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, “seafood is sustainable when the population of that species of fish is managed in a way that provides for today’s needs without damaging the ability of the species to reproduce and be available for future generations.” In other words, overfishing is unfortunately quite common around the world. Swordfish at one point were being over-fished to such extents that fishing licenses were revoked in order to curb their over-fishing and eventual extinction. There were also many regulations enforced to prevent over-fishing such as a weight requirement — a swordfish had to weigh more than 100 lbs in order to be kept. Because of strict fishing regulations that were put into place, swordfish is starting to come back and will hopefully continue to thrive. Moreover, bluefin tuna is another fish that is in dire straights as a result of overfishing and lax fishing regulations. In March of 2010, a proposal led by the U.S. to impose restrictions on bluefin tuna was shot down by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Bluefin tuna continues to be over-fished and is on the verge of extinction.
So you might be reading this and thinking well what can I do as the consumer? How can I make a difference? First, when purchasing seafood from the market or the store, always ask where the fish comes from. Someone knowledgeable should be working behind the counter and should know exactly where this fish has been caught. If no one behind the counter knows where that fish was caught, a red light should go off immediately in your head that this fish may not be the greatest quality. Next, it’s always best to buy the whole fish in order to see what you’re getting. You can ask the person handling the fish to open up the gills for you, let you see how red those gills really are. They should also be able to fillet the fish for you since you may not want to bring an entire fish home with you. Next, always ask if the fish is sustainable. Farm raised fish is sustainable. According to NOAA, if you are buying fish from a U.S. fishery you can rest assured that the fish is meeting various national standards (10 to be exact). These standards help ensure that the “fish stocks are maintained, overfishing is eliminated, and the long-term socioeconomic benefits to the nation are achieved.” Fish is a wonderful food that provides us with numerous health benefits. As a consumer, you can play your part in preventing over-fishing by asking these simple questions and making sure you eat sustainable fish. Eat smart — eat sustainably!