I love fishing. I also love seafood. As a recreational fisherman, I almost invariably release what I catch. Which, incidentally, belies the rhetoric of some of my fellow recreational anglers who advocate for fuzzier science, looser regulations, longer seasons, more allocation, and larger limits. “We want to catch more fish! We need to catch more fish!” they say. But the point is: you can catch all the fish you want – you just can’t kill as many as you want, not without doing harm to the fishery. For those of us who are in it for the love of the game, catch-and-release remains the most responsible dictum. One need not concern oneself with slot limits and the like when all you take are pictures.
I say that I “almost” invariably release what I catch. I admit that from time to time I have been known to toss a few fish in the cooler for supper, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Hogfish are particularly hard to resist. Nevertheless the vast majority of the seafood I consume I get from either the grocery store or a restaurant. And of course grocery stores and restaurants don’t make fish ex nihilo. They in turn buy them from wholesalers and suppliers who, in their turn, get them from commercial fishermen, who take them from the ocean. This we know, although the mediation of the supply chain can make it feel like one is immune from having to make conscientious choices in favor of conservation. But that clearly isn’t so. It may seem like your red snapper came from a pile of ice at the grocery store, but in truth it came from some reef in the Gulf of Mexico.
It can feel awkward squatting in the aisle of Trader Joe’s, rooting through their canned tuna offerings, cross-checking labels with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app on one’s iPhone. I speak from experience. People are apt either to look at you as though you were insane, or to ask whether you work there and whether you might be able to point them toward the kimchi. Be that as it may, when you get a hankering for a tuna salad sandwich, you have a duty to remember that way down the line from your consumer choices there are fish being removed from the ocean. Some of them are being removed responsibly and sustainably. Others aren’t.
Using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app is one way to make sure you’re not inadvertently contributing to overfishing and the companies that underwrite it or turn a blind eye. There are other ways too, easier ways, ways that don’t require you to learn the ins-and-outs of the health of various stocks, the differences between longlines and purse seines and so forth. You can, for example, patronize only those retailers and brands that have a demonstrable and transparent commitment to healthy oceans, such as, in the case of tuna, Wild Planet, Whole Foods, American Tuna, or Ocean Naturals. You’ll generally pay a little bit more, but virtuous business practices aren’t the cheapest, and the benefit to you is an environmental apocalypse forestalled, and a clean(er) conscience.
With some species, the choices are even simpler. For example, Capitol Hill’s favorite fish, red snapper, can be purchased from retail outlets with reckless abandon if you can afford it – and that’s a big “if” at $21 per pound the last time I checked. Red snapper only come from the Gulf of Mexico, and buying them from grocery stores or restaurants means rewarding a commercial fishing sector that has, over the past decade or so, demonstrated a pretty steadfast commitment to conservation, fishing under the sector’s allocation year after year, and generally playing by the rules. That’s in stark contrast to my own recreational sector, which has more often than not been out of compliance, exceeding its annual catch limits, and generally about as accountable as a drunken rodeo clown. I hold out some hope that this is changing, with the novel management regimes introduced this summer for recreational red snapper under the guise of exempted fishing permits for the five Gulf states. We shall see. But in the meantime, order red snapper from the menu, and rest assured that the premium you pay goes to the good actors under a management regime responsible for the recovery of a fishery that was about two-minutes-to-midnight in the early 1990’s.
Which brings us to the subject of restaurants. When I was growing up, there was nothing finer than a plate of fried catfish, coleslaw, and hushpuppies at the local catfish joint. They also served frog legs, shrimp, and a variety of nastiness made from surimi. The joint burned down a few years ago under suspicious circumstances – and those suspicions were confirmed when arson investigators finished their work and the owner went to jail. I’m confident that sustainability was pretty low on the owner’s priority list, most of his energy being devoted to insurance fraud. On the other hand, the ecological impact of catfish aquaculture seems negligible as compared a number of alternatives.
To this day I’m not above tucking into a plate of fried catfish, but my gustatory horizons have expanded. So has the vision of restaurateurs. Last year I attended a Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) appreciation event hosted by Chef Ryan Prewitt at his New Orleans restaurant, Peche. We sucked fresh Gulf oysters, drank beer, and listened to several fishermen, chefs, and line cooks explain the benefits of MSA to seafood lovers. Later that evening I rode to heaven in a bowl of Prewitt’s gumbo and a plate of Gulf shrimp. To make a long story short: quite a few formerly depleted fisheries have recovered or are in the process of recovering from overfishing thanks to management under the MSA over the past several decades; more fish in the oceans means more fish to catch; more fish to catch means more fish to cook and eat. And that’s very good news for seafood lovers like me.
Ryan Prewitt and his tribe are leading a revolution, doing for marine fisheries what Alice Waters and her followers did for local and organic food at Chez Panisse back in the 70’s. And thank God for their willingness to enter the fray of politics and advocacy, and even more for their willingness to educate their patrons and the rest of us, to push back against the unexamined assumption that the story of the best seafood available begins in the ocean, and not in the backroom of a restaurant or a grocery store.