Revolution at Sea

Katey Parker

Katey Parker › Katey's first food memory involves herself hands deep and covered in Gregg's famous chocolate cake, resulting ...

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Navigating the fish counter at the grocery store these days comes with boatloads of doubt. 

Growing up on the coast in Rhode Island, I was used to watching big fishing vessels crawl back and forth along the coast against a red summer sky. I remember seeing the fishermen unload their catch amongst the painful cry of seagulls and the powerful smell of salt and fish guts. I was accustomed to eating whatever shell or fin was on my plate, and the pleasantness of lobster, clam or oyster juice running down my chin.

So why do these encounters with the fins behind the glass ensue doubt? While I still live less than a mile from the ocean, it has become hard to distinguish where it all comes from. And it matters.

As the local food movement heats up nationwide, and Americans focus more on the connections between diet and health, consumers are beginning to recognize the need to include seafood. However, many questions arise when considering what is sustainable and safe. 

In the late 1980’s, expanding fleets and new technology made it easier to locate fish, and increase landings. In some cases, the surge of the industry, while providing an economic boost, overpowered the rate of repopulation and overfishing occurred. At the same time, environmental degradation, impacts from climate change, and changing food chain dynamics have effected fish populations off our coasts and some fishing methods, such as bottom trawling, dredging and long-line fishing, are controversial in terms of physical damage to the sea floor or unintentional catch. Now, it has become increasingly challenging to achieve the right balance and support both sustainable resources and livelihoods. 

Luckily, much research is being done by both government and private organizations, such as the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, to determine safe harvest levels, sustainable fishing techniques and how to support those who depend on it. As we begin to acknowledge that both the sea and local industries are in danger, we can learn to prevent repeating the same mistakes.

In the meantime, here are a few tips that can help next time you're looking for a seafood dinner:

1.  Shop where there are labels.

While more and more supermarkets are beginning to emphasis "sustainable", it’s hard to gage the actual level of sustainability and how far the fish traveled to get behind the glass.  Seek out stores that make an effort to highlight the origins of the fish being sold.  Whole Foods Markets use color-coding at their seafood counter, a helpful key based on population size and sustainable fishing methods, and have strict policies for farmed seafood. Other options may include local co-ops or markets that only sell local or seasonal products.

2.  Buy domestic, not imported.

The U.S. holds some of the strictest fishing regulations in the world, which means that many other countries, unfortunately, do not. Many fish farms in Asia use antibiotics and raise fish in unsanitary concerns, and fishing practices in places such as Chile, Southeast Asia, and Japan are questionable. It is best to stick to what we know.

3.  Avoid most farm-raised fin fish.

Unsanitary conditions and high concentrations of antibiotics, pesticides, and sea lice are common amongst salmon and tilapia farms, not to mention a lack of nutrients. It is better to stick to the wild when it comes to fins. Aquaculture, or farm-raised shellfish, on the other hand, has become highly advanced in its methods and the U.S. has strict policies in place, making it a viable and healthy option.

4.  Get to know your local industry.

If you live near the coast, don’t hesitate to hunt down those who know it best. Find out where catches are being landed and talk to fisherman or seafood co-ops about what’s local and seasonal. My favorite is the Newport Lobster Shack, where I can look the guy who caught my lobster right in the eye. Like agriculture, it makes sense to buy fish locally to boost the economy, cut down on emissions, develop a taste for what grows around us and eliminate the disconnect that arises from mislabeling. You’ll also get the freshest of the fresh!

5.  Inquire about that weird fish on the menu.

When you go out to eat, take a chance: order the fish, and ask where it came from. Many chefs are beginning to collaborate directly with fisherman to get fresher fish and support the local economy. A program called Trace & Trust in Rhode Island is a great example. This also means encouraging their customers’ taste buds, and bringing new sustainable and seasonal fish onto the dining scene.   

Are these tips helpful? Do you practice any of them already?