AFTER years of carving up tuna carcasses in my bathtub, catching cod in the dead of winter and cooking fish and chips for crowds of 50-plus I have come to be known among my friends as the fish guy.
Until recently I’ve enjoyed being the fish guy and my ability to correctly answer questions about fish has felt like a game of “Jeopardy” rigged for my benefit. How do you tell a flounder from a fluke? Easy, fluke have prominent teeth, flounder don’t. Should bluefish and striped bass be cooked differently? Definitely: broil the bluefish, bake the bass.
But lately being the fish guy has become complicated. With every new warning about a species being overfished into extinction, friends have started asking if they should eat fish at all. The Pew Oceans Commission report “America’s Living Oceans” first alerted the public to the desperate state of the seas in 2003 when it declared them to be “in crisis.” That year a study in the journal Nature reported that up to 90 percent of the stocks of the ocean’s major predators (Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna to name two) have been wiped out. In the next few weeks, Congress will debate what to do about the dire state of the nation’s fisheries when it takes up the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries management act.
Making matters more problematic, numerous recent studies on methyl mercury and PCB’s have connected these pollutants in fish with health problems like birth defects, heart disease and memory loss.
It might now seem advisable for a fish guy to hang up his hooks and start pushing flax or any of the other dull foods that contain the legendary Omega-3 fatty acid — a compound found in fish that ameliorates as many ills as the fish-borne contaminants seem to aggravate. But for those of us who feel passionately about the ocean, abstinence is just not an option.
Unlike the land animals we confine to pens, fatten on synthetic feed and selectively breed for growth, most fish we eat roam the open ocean, hunt down prey and choose their mates according to their own inexplicable desires. They feed us without any interference on our part. Giving up on fish would mean the end of the last large-scale hunter-gatherer relationship we have with wild food, as well as signal our capitulation in the fight to save the oceans.
If we can learn to harvest wild fish sustainably we will have succeeded in something we have failed at on land: finding a balance with a naturally productive ecosystem. In addition, by keeping a food connection with the ocean we will retain a motivation to stop polluting it.
The route to a well-managed sea is not as difficult as many environmental problems. And, curiously, many of the modifications that would repair the damage we have done to marine fisheries would also steer us clear of mercury and PCB contamination. With that in mind here are some things to strive toward:
First, go vegetarian, in a manner of speaking. Farmed fish have gotten a bad name in recent years — even while our production of them has grown to rival the wild fish harvest, as the Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week.
This is mostly because the farmed fish we eat in the West are carnivores. Raising carnivores like salmon requires the capture of wild prey fish that wild fish also consume. By eating farmed carnivores we rob Peter to pay Paul, stealing the food source for wild fish and feeding them to farmed.
There are, however, species of vegetarian fish that grow well in captivity like tilapia, carp and catfish. Because these fish generally eat lower on the food chain, they are often lower in PCB’s and methyl mercury.
In our ingredient-obsessed food culture, it might seem boring to order such commonplace fare. But I share the opinion of a fishing boat mate who once told me “fish is fish.” Often it’s the freshness and the cooking method that make a fish tasty, not its evolutionary provenance.
Second, don’t eat the cheap fish. Once upon a time, we had more fish than we knew what to do with. The United States government practically shoved fish down consumers’ throats after World War II, sponsoring ad campaigns on behalf of the fishing industry and subsidizing institutional purchases of seafood. But decades of this kind of behavior drove us to eat through our fish surpluses and we must now import the majority of our seafood, much of which is supplied by international conglomerates that use unsustainable fishing practices.
The modern commercial fishing vessel is most often a trawler — a large ship that pulls weighted nets along the seafloor, destroying all flora and fauna in its path. This practice does not have to continue. A new generation of hook-and-line fishermen is offering an alternative to trawl-caught fish. Line-caught fish cost more, sometimes twice the price of trawl-caught fish. But shouldn’t we be willing to pay more for the chance to eat a truly undomesticated creature? Should we really be paying just a few dollars for a fast-food fish sandwich made from the pureed flesh of a wild animal?
Finally, don’t eat the big fish. Dining on a 500-pound bluefin tuna is the seafood equivalent of driving a Hummer. Ten pounds of little fish are required to produce one pound of bluefin and all the pollutants contained in a tuna’s prey “bio-concentrate” in a tuna’s flesh, making it a particularly compromised animal, chemically speaking. And because it takes so many little fish to make a big fish, the sea can sustain only a relatively small amount of large fish.
It therefore follows that if we reduce our consumption of the big fish we can reduce our mercury and PCB load and reduce the burden we place on the marine environment. Sardines, mackerel and most fish that are shorter in total length than the diameter of a dinner plate are generally safer to eat.
I would like to report that I am now a fully reformed fish guy who adheres to all of the above. I know, however, that I would have a hard time throwing back a 500-pound bluefin and that I might be tempted to choose the swordfish over the tilapia in a high-end eatery. But fighting the American urge to consume whatever we want is a battle worth fighting with ourselves, particularly when it comes to the sea.
Considering what’s at stake is the survival of the ecosystem of the world’s oceans, I’d rather eat fewer, smaller and more expensive fish than no fish at all.
Paul Greenberg, the author of the novel “Leaving Katya,’’ is writing a book about seafood.