Category: seafood

Eat Wisconsin fish, urges UW campaign

EatWiscFishLook what showed up in my Twitter feed today. I don’t generally act on organizations’ suggestions that I give them a bit of my attention, but I had already planned to mention the new Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign today, and I figured there was no need for this bit of outreach to derail me.

So, what’s the scoop? As Aaron Conklin describes,

More than 90 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans is imported from other countries. That’s a puzzling statistic for those of us in Wisconsin, where a proximity to two of the five Great Lakes and a fleet of fish farms gives us access to a wealth of delicious Wisconsin fish.

That’s one of the reasons why the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute is using the month of March to launch its Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign, an effort designed to educate consumers about the benefits of eating local fish.

The Institute has complied a wealth of information online. There’s a good dose of boosterism in the campaign, so you’ll have to dig a little deeper if you want the full story. For example, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates Lake Trout from Lake Michigan as a fish to “avoid.” As the UW Sea Grant Institute’s website describes,

Historically, lake trout, along with whitefish, sturgeon and herring, were one of the “big four” species of Great Lakes commercial fishing. As early as the 1880s, lake trout numbers began declining, probably due to overfishing and pollution of their spawning areas. However, it was the invasive sea lamprey that nearly wiped out lake trout when the lamprey entered the Upper Great Lakes in the 1930s. Today, Lake Superior supports the only remaining naturally sustaining population of lake trout in the Great Lakes.

Lake trout are a favorite target of sea lamprey, eel-shaped parasitic fish that have no natural predators in the Great Lakes. Sea lamprey have been managed since 1960 by using the selective chemical TFM that kills young lamprey in streams and rivers. This keeps lamprey numbers low, but without continuous treatment the lamprey population would explode again. After TFM treatments lowered the numbers of lamprey, fisheries biologists began restocking the Great Lakes with lake trout. Some remnant wild lake trout populations in Lake Superior remained, and they eventually fully recovered. However, wild lake trout were completely eliminated from Lake Michigan. The lake trout rehabilitation program in Lake Michigan, coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, began in 1965. Since then, 2-3 million yearling lake trout have been stocked each year, funded by the federal government. The fish grew well to adult size, but they failed to reproduce. Finally, in 2013, the Green Bay office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the discovery of a significant number of young and wild lake trout in several areas of Lake Michigan. It appears that lake trout are finally reproducing again in Lake Michigan. While it will still take significant effort to completely restore the population, this is an important step forward.

If you’re a fish eater, do consider local fish. But, like all aspects of the modern food system, it’s worth being curious and getting informed. Consider the pros and cons of wild versus farmed, the problems and strengths of different catch methods, concerns regarding specific species, and more.

Importantly, all diners—but especially women of childbearing age and children—should take into consideration health concerns regarding their consumption of inland (non-Great Lakes) fish.

What do clam diggers do in winter?

Working Loagy Bay Grant

Harvesting clams in Wellfleet when winter is still months away. Photo by Flickr user Beth Knittle [bknittle], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Boston Magazine’s Supply Chain series — “where we go behind the plate to get a feel for the day-to-day of Boston’s most relied-upon restaurant purveyors” — recently featured a “winter edition” that checks in on some folks who’d been previously profiled.

First up, Cassandra Landry revisits the Woodburys, who provide Boston restaurants with clams in season. And when the cold and snow and ice arrive? As Pat Woodbury tells it,

Winter is my summer vacation! We harvest up through New Year’s. Things get difficult out on the flats this time of year, because where we grow—and in most of Wellfleet—is intertidal. We get ice and the temperature makes it difficult, so we stop, and we’ll be off until spring. It’s a unique time of our season. The first month we pick up the pieces that we’ve left during the season, try to figure out where we are and analyze how the year went and what our next move is. Another part of our business is research and design, so during the year, we got a grant to design a clam-sorting machine. We built it and tested it, and over the winter we’re going to be rebuilding a machine we have in our shop that sorts sizes of clams, and then build a clam-counting machine. Fun stuff like that.

For more from Woodbury (like why harvesting clams in the dead of winter is not a smart idea), along with two additional interviews and some links, head here.

Take heed, pescetarians

The Feast

Photo by Flickr user Renée S. Suen, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alistair Bland had a great post at NPR yesterday, highlighting a number of the problematic ways that some marine species are caught. As he notes,

If sustainability is a top priority when you’re shopping at the fish counter, wild-caught seafood can be fraught with ethical complications.

One major reason why: bycatch, or the untargeted marine life captured accidentally by fishermen and, often, discarded dead in heaps. It’s one of the most problematic aspects of industrial fishing.

For example,

Tuna fishermen don’t only catch tuna. In fact, they mostly don’t catch tuna — especially when they use long lines rigged with hundreds of baited hooks. A recent commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization found that tuna fishermen hauled in 750,000 tons of tuna and 828,000 tons of non-tuna creatures per year in the mid-2000s. In some regions, a quarter of the total catch is sharks, according to a published in 2007. Many sharks are thrown back dead — including 20,000 tons of blue sharks annually in the North Atlantic, as in the Marine Ecology Progress Series.

For each aquatic animal he discusses, he offers suggestions for good alternatives. For tuna, the alternatives are

Pole-caught tuna, often yellowfin and albacore. As with other species, finding these alternatives may be a matter of chatting it up with those selling the fish.

Check out the full post here. You’ll come away informed and prepared to make better choices at the market and when dining out.

Chain appeal

Red Lobster Detour

Image by voteprime via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Oh Red Lobster. You are a delicious treat!” So said an acquaintance once in my Facebook feed. Since I was having a hard time understanding this statement in the absence of any winky irony, I decided to take some time to consider the appeal of chain dining by way of Dead Lobster (as I suspect some folks still snarkily call it).

In this piece from the Toronto Standard, John Semley examines what some find to be the reassuring comfort of the Red Lobster dining experience. (USA-folk, don’t be scared off by his Canadian references — the writing, save a few grammatical clunkers, is worth it, even if you aren’t entirely sure what Jack Astor’s is.) As he puts it,

Tacky, faux-faded plaques with names for businesses like the AMES BOATWORKS deck out the wood-paneled walls, alongside replica oil paintings of mighty Maine lighthouses, which seem so essential to the idea of eating at a Red Lobster that they’re practically conceptually loadbearing. The result is weird, but fitting considering the marginalized place of chain restaurants like Red Lobster: the restaurant seems to exhibit a sense of nostalgia for itself…. Imagine, driving out with your best gal to the Bar Habror [sic] Bar in Kennebunkport, circa 1968, to enjoy one of those not-yet-patented Red Lobster Shrimp Caesars with a side of homemade biscuits, cheese sifted straight from Cheddar Bay! The idea itself is phantasmal, referring to something that never even really existed. But this desperately nostalgic Red Lobster restaurant concept breeds a weird sense of urgency, like you’re eating in a restaurant that’s on the verge of extinction. (The cheesy dated signage certifies this feeling, collapsing time into space, like when people talk about dying and your life flashing before your eyes instantaneously.) And while a sense of necessity may help you scarf down a pound of reliable-but-ultimately-mediocre crab legs, it also undermines what’s supposed to be, above all else, a comforting experience. Because it’s dependably delicious [a]nd because the uniform sameness of the chain itself proves reassuring….

As an unofficial followup to that essay, The Onion AV Club (Toronto) ran a piece by Semley [no longer available online] that reports his annual participation in Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp promotion. He mentions aspects of the restaurant that draw him in regardless of the current promo (“As usual, the server was friendly, attentive, and helpful, ensuring a steady rotation of shrimp, beer, and fresh-baked Cheddar Bay Biscuits. The restaurant is an absolute joy.”), but never-ending shrimp take center stage. Where his earlier essay paid homage to the comfort of chain predictability, this one revels in the gluttonous, painful pleasure of overindulgence.

Because shrimp are slight, fairly insubstantial things on their own, it’s easy to take down a whole bunch of them before the feeling of satiation begins to bear on you in any real way. (Unless you’re one of those people who sensibly knows when to stop eating, instead of just waiting, counting on your body’s disapproving reproach to tell you, “Put the fork down, fatso.”) Personally, I took down in excess of 70 shrimp, which was on the high end for our party, but not earth-shattering or anything. Just enough to get full in a way that makes you feel both proud and ashamed—the Janus-face of crapulence itself. It’s when you get home, and the overload of shrimp and garlic-butter begins churning through your disgusting gut that the Red Lobster avenges itself on your hubris.

Red Lobster’s appeal seems to be fading for some, though, as its parent company reported weak performance in 2012. As CNBC notes, “unsuccessful promotions led to a decline in sales at its Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse chains…. The decline in traffic comes despite the company’s efforts to revamp the menus and marketing for its flagship chains…. At Red Lobster, it added options for people who don’t like seafood.” Things haven’t improved much in 2013. As USA Today reports, “Darden Restaurants’ third-quarter net income dropped 18%, as it dealt with soft sales at Red Lobster…. Darden Restaurants (DRI) has been struggling to make its brands relevant again as diners increasingly head to chains like Chipotle and Panera, where they feel they’re getting restaurant-quality food without paying as much.”

I haven’t joined the (apparently shrinking) camp of Red Lobster fans, but familiarity and plenty are two quintessential American values, so I think I understand the appeal a little better. Competition from Chipotle and Panera notwithstanding, Red Lobster in particular seems to have succeeded in part by marketing itself as a “fancy casual” place. Prices aren’t cheap — at $17.25 (here in Madison), the pick-two Create Your Own Feast is on the lowish end of their prices, and doesn’t include beverage, tax, or tip — but they aren’t approaching the nosebleed heights of high-end places. Folks can splurge on a night out without making a reservation or getting dressed up, without worrying about which fork to use, and without wondering what skate wing, beurre blanc, or almond foam are. No one will look down on you for ordering a Diet Coke with your baskets and plates full of (superficially) satisfying salt, fats, and carbs, and your car is conveniently waiting for you in the parking lot to whisk you home at the end of your meal.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on December 17, 2011.

Is your “certified” seafood really sustainable?

Photo by Plan It Green Printing (Rob Tossberg) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo by Plan It Green Printing (Rob Tossberg) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In case you missed it, I wanted to highlight the great special series that NPR ran last week from Daniel Zwerdling and Margot Williams (supported by researcher Barbara Van Woerkom). In three separate reports, they examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the group that runs the world’s most extensive program to certify seafood products as sustainable.

The opening of the text version of the first entry provides a good introduction to the key issues:

Rebecca Weel pushes a baby stroller with her 18-month-old up to the seafood case at Whole Foods, near ground zero in New York. As she peers at shiny fillets of salmon, halibut and Chilean sea bass labeled “certified sustainable,” Weel believes that if she purchases this seafood, she will help protect the world’s oceans from overfishing.

But some leading environmentalists have a different take: Consumers like Weel are being misled by a global program that amounts to “greenwashing” — a strategy that makes consumers think they are protecting the planet, when actually they are not.

At Whole Foods, the seafood counter displays blue labels from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international, nonprofit organization. The MSC is a prime example of an economic trend: Private groups, not the government, are telling consumers what is good or bad for the environment. The MSC says its label guarantees that the wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete the natural supply. It also guarantees that fishing companies do not cause serious harm to other life in the sea, from coral to dolphins.

Critics, though, say the story is more complicated, arguing that

the MSC system has been certifying some fisheries despite evidence that the target fish are in trouble, or that the fishing industry is harming the environment. And critics say the MSC system has certified other fisheries as sustainable even though there is not enough evidence to know how they are affecting the environment.

When a customer sees the MSC’s sustainable label at the supermarket, “the consumer looks at the fish and says, ‘Oh, it has the label on it, it must be sustainable,’ ” [Gerry] Leape [of the Pew Environment Group] says. “And in some fisheries that the MSC has certified, that’s not necessarily the case.”

The reporting is NPR at its best: thoughtful, probing, considered, and in depth. It covers the origin of the MSC, the Walmart effect, and more. You can find the full series, some related posts, and plenty of links here.

Shrinking numbers of old cod in North Sea

Chris and Cod

Photo by Chris Blanar via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As a sort of follow up to last week’s post about the troubles lionfish are causing for Atlantic ecosystems (and where one strategy to combat their numbers is to go after the big fish), I thought I’d share this post from Grist about shrinking numbers of cod of a certain age in the North Sea. As Philip Bump describes,

The headline in the Telegraph is startling: “Just 100 cod left in North Sea.” One hundred fish? Over a massive, 750,000-square-kilometer expanse of the Atlantic near Northern Europe?

Sort of. There are more than 100 cod in the North Sea. The problem isn’t that there are almost no cod, the problem is that there are very few cod of a certain age and size….

“There should be a lot of much-older cod in the North Sea,” [York University marine biologist Callum] Roberts said. “Cod can live for at least 25 years — or probably much older in the olden days when we fished them a lot less. It’s the big, old fish that contribute the great majority of the offspring that replenish populations. They are the anchors of reproduction. If we lose the big old fish, then the reproductive output of the population as a whole goes down steeply.”

Head here for the full post (and the link to the mentioned Telegraph article), and head here for recommendations on which seafood are the best to consume from an environmental perspective.

The beautiful, relentlessly destructive lionfish

Lionfish tamer am I!

Photo by praline3001 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a recent series of guest posts at Marc Bittman’s New York Times blog, ecologist Carl Safina discusses the lovely lionfish, describes how it is wreaking havoc on Atlantic ecosystems, and details what is being and should be done about it.

As he describes in Part 1 of “Scourge of the Lionfish,”

Lionfish are native to the west Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea; they’re quilled with venomous spines…. Lionfish are here in the Atlantic, it seems, because of owners of living room aquariums who tired of the upkeep but didn’t want to kill their fish. With compassion in their breasts, they released them, in numbers sufficient to get them established. Then—remember the phrase, “balance of nature?” Well…

No native fish in the Atlantic looks like the lionfish, hunts like it, or stings like it. Result: No native fish in the Atlantic recognizes it as a predator. No native fish in the Atlantic gets alarmed when lionfish are on the “hunt,” because a hunting lionfish looks like a drifting piece of seaweed. And no native predator — sharks, say, or barracuda — wants anything to do with those venomous spines.

And so, as I said, there are millions of them. The problem: they’ll eat anything in sight.

In Part 2, he takes us to a catch-the-lionfish derby where fishers compete to snag the most and/or biggest specimens:

Derbies are only part of the solution, of course. There are now millions of lionfish inhabiting the west Atlantic. However, preliminary studies suggest that when divers targeting lionfish hit a patch of reef or a wreck, they can kill more than half the fish, and the fish they get are the larger-sized half.

Contrary to what we learn as kids about letting the little ones go, it’s the biggest fish that are most valuable to a population. They’re the most prolific breeders. So if you want to hurt a population, target the biggest. With lionfish, it makes a sensible enough eradication strategy. (Unfortunately, most fisheries for most kinds of fish do exactly this, a major reason for our widespread fisheries disasters.)

In Part 3, he considers whether Atlantic lionfish might make for a commercially viable fishery (they apparently make for not bad eatin’), and Part 4 offers some closing thoughts. Use the links above to check out the posts for the full story, then watch for Saving the Ocean, a documentary series that will cover this topic on PBS this fall. In the meantime, you can check out prior episodes here.