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A fish is a fish is a fish

I remember when I fell in love with food that had a story to tell. Homemade honey butter trickled through a rosemary roll; the honey cured in hives out back and the rosemary grew in planters on the porch. The roll leaned against a pair of day-old eggs, tiger-orange and rich. Through the kitchen window, I admired ripe figs (dessert) on slumped branches. These Middle Eastern fruit trees grew within arm’s reach of stately live oaks draped in Spanish moss—a botanical melting pot. At 23, I met the ingredients of my meal—face-to-face­—for the first time.

My rapture is inspired by the thing that foodies seem to love: a story behind the steak. Over the past decade or so, locavore connoisseurs have helped inspire the farm-to-table movement. It seems every other restaurant serves some version of “organic chicken” or “locally raised beef.” This is all fine and good, but our menus have largely left out a crucial part of our collective diet, and it accounts for 17% of the animal protein we consume each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In the height of summer in the Pacific Northwest I stumbled into a trendy locavore restaurant. The menu had an extensive list of nearby purveyors, and an exhaustive list of reassuring adjectives for each menu item. I located the fish & chips, a dish I grew up loving until I learned we loved it to death. To my dismay, all that described this storied dish was a story-less fish: “seasoned cod.” I asked the server if he knew what kind of cod it was or at least where it was caught. He kept his eyes from rolling and asked the manager. Neither manager nor chef had a clue. We’re proud to name farms and farmers, but unaware and unable to name waterbodies and fishermen. To this restaurant, and others like it, a fish is a fish is a fish.

A fisherman shows off his bluefin catch at the U.S. Atlantic Tuna Tournament in 1971. Bluefins are among the world’s priciest fish, but populations are nowhere near their historic levels. Photo: NOAA

A week later I was on the road through eastern Montana with NPR’s Here and Now on the radio. Resident chef Kathy Gunst eloquently described recipes for zucchini fritters, fresh tuna garden Nicoise salad, and a summer galette. As she listed the fritter ingredients she spoke of the bounty of her garden, farmer’s markets, and how it was a great time of year to be an eater. She cultivated the produce and her neighbor delivered the homegrown eggs. Then came the salad: “fresh bluefin tuna”, “white anchovies”, a passing joke about growing her own tuna, and on to the galette. The most crucial ingredient had no local flare and or meaningful narrative. Worst of all, she failed to mention that some bluefin tuna are depleted, others are endangered, and that white anchovies are usually an unsustainable choice. A fish is only a fish as long a fish exists (as a species).

Sushi plate of yellowtail, bluefin tuna, salmon, tiger shrimp, and smelt roe. Photo: Lou Stejskal (Wikimedia Commons)

From hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to consumers in an industrialized food system, our relationship with food evolved over millennia. Along the way, maize migrated from indigenous staple to colossal commodity, while jungle fowls became chickens and chickens begot nuggets. We may be at a pivotal moment. Whether it be in the name of animal or environmental welfare, with our wallets and our documentaries in tow, we’ve begun to demand change. This progress is promising, but in a sea of local food movements, fish haven’t managed to catch the boat.

Our relationship with seafood followed a similar historical trajectory to that of our terrestrial fare. We hooked our own fish and stayed (relatively) close to shore. Then we bartered and paid to have someone else catch our dinner. Eventually, our appetite grew. We sent vessels built for 20th century warfare to wage a war on fish. When the dust settled, we had more fish sticks and Fillet-O-Fish, but fewer fish and fishermen.

A seafood restaurant in the UK, named after the quintessential British dish. Photo: John Lord (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, what foodie knows their seafood the way they know their drumstick and beefsteak? Hell, what eater can even tell you the ocean from which their fish was caught? The distance between hook and fork is so vast that the fish on our plate is hardly a fish at all. Isn’t it time that we at least acknowledge that our fillets and sushi rolls were once living, swimming beings? If nothing else, we must understand the consequences of how they find their way from sea to shore. NPR and locally-sourced restaurants, you can do better. As consumers eaters, we can too.

Farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares have helped support the demand for sustainably produced crops. Will seafood follow suit? Photo: Christopher Paquette (Wikimedia Commons)

We can appreciate the diversity of our fish stocks and admire the fishermen who sustainably bring in the haul—we do so with our wallet and an open mind. Traceability and transparency will be paramount as we journey to rediscover our local catch. Find a community supported fishery near you, ask questions at your favorite pub, and take a pass on the seasoned cods of the world. A fish is NOT just a fish.

Two of our staff, Carl Safina and Erica Cirino, wrote about the potential of community supported fisheries (CFSs) in 2016. Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Writer in Residence, in 2018 chronicled the fraudulence at Sea to Table, a former posterchild for the local fish movement. Those pieces provide some background information on the (re)emerging markets for local seafood.

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