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Why I went to Safeway for my birthday


That's what I'm talking about

I am king for a day

In my little world, celebrations and holidays just aren’t complete without copious amounts of food. My birthday is no exception – I look forward to it every year as an excuse to throw caution (and, perhaps, responsibility) to the wind and to indulge myself. I like to get together with loved ones and either cook up a feast or dine at some up-and-coming restaurant that I’ve been salivating over for months.

I realize I talk a lot about moderation on this blog — staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that — and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.

Anyhow, my thirty-second rolled around last week, and as per my usual routine, I decided to celebrate with a feel-good dinner. This time, though, I went about things in a slightly different way.

This year, I went to Safeway for my birthday.

I know that sounds like a bit of an odd place to celebrate, but I felt it was important to pay Safeway a visit. See, the company had just done something very special – something that deserved celebration far more than me surviving another trip around the sun. But by a fun coincidence, both events happened to occur on the same day.

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

On April 7, 2011, Safeway went public with a commitment to avoid purchasing seafood from the imperiled Ross Sea – the world’s last remaining relatively pristine ocean ecosystem. The company then took a second step by publicly encouraging all countries involved in Antarctic fishery governance (this takes place within under the aegis of a management authority known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine and Living Resources, abbreviated CCAMLR and confusingly pronounced “cam-lar”) to designate the Ross Sea a marine protected area.

This is huge.

Of all the major seafood retailers in the United States, only one other company – Wegmans, a well-regarded and progressive grocery chain in the Northeastern United States – has made such a statement in support of the Ross Sea. It’s nearly unheard of for a retail operation to foray into the political sphere in the name of the conservation movement. And Safeway, with the buying power of over 1700 stores, is an extremely powerful voice – just the kind of voice we need on the side of ocean conservation if we are to have any hope of protecting and resuscitating our ailing seas.

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

I admit to being a borderline fanatic when it comes to Ross Sea conservation, but it’s of critical importance. Not only is it a unique and invaluable ecosystem for a myriad of reasons, both scientific and ecological, but sending fishing vessels to this far-flung area raises a host of red flags from a sustainability perspective. It goes beyond issues relating to discrete fishery management and into a larger philosophical realm, which is where the core battle for sustainability needs to be fought.

I know I’ve said this before, but it merits repeating: sustainable fishing simply cannot occur when the fishery in question exists only as a reaction to an out-of-balance food system. We have depleted the fish closer to our homes and cities, so we sail ever outward in search of more – but there is a limit. The Earth is finite. Industrial fishing in the Ross Sea – or anywhere so far from human habitation and so close to the “end of the world,” as it were – must end if we are to develop a balanced and healthy relationship with our food and our planet.

One small step for Antarctica

So, here’s to you, Safeway. Your public commitment to this key initiative was one of the reasons you took the top spot in Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, and I salute you for your drive and courage. The Ross Sea — and the entire ecosystem that depends on it, including migratory whales, krill blooms, and countless other animals — is a little closer to safety because of you.

Thanks for standing up for the planet, and thanks for such a nice birthday present.

Oh, and check it out – I got myself a present, too.

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4 Fish We Just Shouldn’t Eat

Dynamite fishing?

This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 1, 2011.

The thunderous power of the dollar can obliterate nearly all barriers between consumers and the objects of our desire. If one is willing and able to throw out enough cash, there’s very little in this world that we can’t have. Sadly, this reach extends to a number of aquatic species that just aren’t built to cope with such pressure. In this month’s “4 Oceans,” we examine several seafood items that we just shouldn’t eat, even if we have the wherewithal to acquire them.

Bluefin tuna

This is probably old news to a lot of readers, but the current state of the world’s bluefin tuna populations have been reduced to shadows of their former glory. The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.

I can answer that

I can answer that

Last year, a smattering of different countries attempted to grant the bluefin protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which would have effectively ended international trade in this animal. This push was mercilessly quashed by a larger and more committed cadre of governments led by Japan, which hosted cooperative delegates at a pre-vote banquet where they served – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.

Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.

Orange roughy

Over the last four years, ten of the twenty largest seafood retailers in the United States have discontinued orange roughy. Some stores, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, even made public statements on the environmental impacts associated with this fishery when explaining their decisions to stop selling this species. It’s comforting to see for-profit retail enterprises taking stands that seem based more on ethics and long-game considerations than simple quick-fix cash grabs.

Rough day

You're having a rough day, orange you?

Anyhow, orange roughy is a fish that has no business playing any significant role in our seafood industry. The animal simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity – a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age – ninety-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all.) Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.

To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.

Shark (and shark fin)

Mmm-mmm-bad

Mmm-mmm-bad

The more we learn about the role that sharks play in our oceanic ecosystems, the more bat-shit crazy we have to be to keep slaughtering them. Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring that the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms that they prey upon, and so on and so forth. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.

While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those the shark fin industry. Shark fins – used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities – can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth. Luckily, the world is waking up to the damage that finning wreaks upon our ocean. Shark fin bans have been enacted in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan (Mariana Islands), and have been proposed in California, Oregon, and Washington State. If these landmark pieces of legislation pass, we will have taken a great step towards protecting these unique and mysterious creatures.

Chilean sea bass

The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Still, there are those that claim there is such a thing as a sustainable Chilean sea bass fishery. Some would argue that a particular population, under the guidelines of a particular management authority, governed under a certain catch quota, can in fact be fished sustainably, and that this particular fishery, cut off from the larger amorphous Chilean sea bass industry – dominated as it is by pirates and a rapacious gold-rush mentality – merits our support.

So that's why they call you "toothfish"

The face of overfishing?

Allow me to propose a slightly different line of thought.

The world is a finite place. I know it doesn’t seem as such, but the ocean is a contained area, and it has boundaries. It does not go on forever. It ends – and in more than one sense.

Over the past century, the way that we fish has changed. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable – geographically (ships are going farther), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories – by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.

That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.

Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system — a food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes. The very existence of a Chilean sea bass fishery is in itself evidence of an unsustainable fishing paradigm. To label a Chilean sea bass fishery sustainable only serves as evidence to the contrary, as the claim itself underscores our failure to grasp and to apply the true meaning of sustainability to our seafood industry.

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A royal pardon

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements

In the embattled world of sustainable seafood, it’s always nice to see positive change in a major public venue.   As heartwarming as it is to hear from someone who has pledged to stop eating Chilean sea bass or unagi, it feels even better when a restaurant – or even better, an entire seafood distributor – drops it altogether in the name of environmental preservation.

In this vein, I’m thrilled to see a spark of light appear in the otherwise relentlessly dismal saga of the bluefin tuna.

Bright lights and sharp knives

Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with Food Network’s Iron Chef America, a culinary contest wherein a visiting chef races against time to prepare an assortment of gastronomic delights for a panel of judges.  At the same time, one of the resident masters – a star-spangled group known as the Iron Chefs – embarks on the same task in an effort to defend his or her title against the upstart challenger.  The dishes are linked by the requirement that they must all involve the day’s secret ingredient, which is revealed only moments before the contest begins.  The entire exercise takes place in front of dozens of cameras and a few quirky announcers in a regal arena known as “Kitchen Stadium.”

The chefs are allotted one hour to prepare their items and are subsequently judged on the relative merits of their menus.  The chef whose culinary tour de force is deemed to “reign supreme” by the panel is considered the winner of the day’s contest.

Wait -- WHAT?!?

Iron Chef America is a interesting show, to be sure, but it has historically concentrated on strict gastronomic hedonism – it seems that no ingredient is too expensive (or too endangered) to be included in the Stadium’s massive inventory.  I remember one particular episode of its forerunner, the Japanese TV cult smash Iron Chef, where a chef cooked down half a dozen lobsters with a few stalks of asparagus only to subsequently serve the lobster-infused vegetable and throw the crustaceans themselves in the trash.

Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is to highlight what I consider to be a significant shift towards ocean conservation in the highest levels of the modern American foodscape.  Iron Chef America has catapulted any number of victorious challengers into the spotlight – perhaps it can now do the same for a fish.

On Monday morning, a well-known food blogger and sustainable seafood enthusiast named Richard Auffrey threw his cyber-gauntlet at the feet of culinary celebrity and TV personality Alton Brown.  Mr. Brown, the host of Iron Chef America, is known to be a vocal advocate for seafood sustainability.  He has, in fact, gone as far as publicly announcing that until sushi kingpin Nobu Matsuhisa removes bluefin tuna from the menus of his eponymous restaurants, he will not set foot in any Nobu anywhere.

Leave me out of this. I'm feeling prickly.

So why did Auffrey take aim at someone who seems to be fighting on the same side of “Battle Bluefin”? (apologies to the Chairman)

Last week, Kitchen Stadium was visited by Makoto Okuwa, the former sous chef of Iron Chef and sushi icon Masaharu Morimoto.  Over the course of the contest, Chef Makoto prepared five dishes, all containing the day’s theme ingredient (which, auspiciously for the sushi chef, happened to be sea urchin.)  One of Okuwa’s offerings was his “uni surf and turf”: urchin-kissed wagyu beef paired with a ribbon of otoro, the belly flesh of a bluefin tuna.  Brown did not raise any objections or offer any comments on the unsustainability of the dish, and Auffrey reamed him for it.

I’m proud of Auffrey for sticking up for the flagging bluefin, but that’s not why this is so interesting to me.  The fascinating thing is what happened immediately after Auffrey posted his rant: Brown responded.  Like, right away.

Brown fenced with Auffrey a bit over the aggressive and accusatory tone that the blogger had adopted, but he also admitted that the use of bluefin in Kitchen Stadium was lamentable and unnecessary.  The two traded barbs and questions for a bit, but in the end, Brown took action and the oceans got what they needed.  According to Brown, bluefin tuna is now banned from Iron Chef America.

Bluefin? Not in our house... at least, not anymore

This is fabulous.   Iron Chef America is both one of the pioneering shows behind the recent explosion of food porn in the United States as well the American rendition of a classic Japanese TV program.  To have the pseudo-traditional otoro excluded from the Kitchen Stadium arsenal is an extremely powerful statement about the reality of our ailing oceans and the need for immediate action if we are to save them.

There are so many things about this story that I like.  I like how Auffrey stood up to Brown and called him out.  I like the prompt, gentlemanly, and constructive response Brown offered in spite of his indignation.  I like the quick decisive action that Brown took to rectify the situation.  I love the fact that bluefin tuna is now pisci non grata on a major Food Network television show.  And the icing on the cake?  Chef Makoto decisively lost the battle to Iron Chef Michael Symon, who didn’t use any bluefin at all.

Score one for the oceans.

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Death knell

Sharks selling eels, eels slinging shark

The seafood show at the end of the world

It’s been a while.  Sorry for the silence.

There were any number of reasons for my delay in writing this.  March was a busy month for sure: the resurgence of competing priorities, such as working towards the successful end of Greenpeace’s Trader Joe’s campaign, certainly did their part in keeping me away from this blog.  The Boston Seafood Show and related pandemonium was no help either.  But to be honest, the main reason that I haven’t written is much simpler than that.

I’ve been sad.

Last meal

Last meal?

The Northern bluefin tuna was doomed to commercial extinction last month at the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar.  In spite of all the work done by millions of caring people around the globe, the Japanese delegation managed to defeat our best efforts and corral enough votes to deny the bluefin even the most meager of protections.  Truly, the ocean’s most majestic fish has been sentenced to death for the twin crimes of being profitable and delicious.

I have spent the last few weeks seething over the unconscionable actions of the Japanese delegation.  CITES wasn’t even about coming together and discussing the real issues – frankly, it never got that far.  Riding in on a horse of flame and bluster (earlier that week, the Japanese government had stated that “even if the bluefin were awarded CITES protection, the Japanese would ignore it,”) a fifty-strong group of delegates from Tokyo stormed the meeting, bullying and coercing smaller nations into supporting their myopic, arrogant agenda.  And the cherry on top of this bloody sundae?  The Japanese delegation hosted a dinner during CITES to discuss this issue, at which they had the audacity to serve – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.

Am I the only one appalled by this unbridled hubris?

Ummm... a little help?

Ummm... a little help?

To worsen matters even more, a measure aimed at restricting the trade of corals was defeated, and of the eight species of shark that were tabled for potential protection, not a single one was given any succor whatsoever.  Oh, and I almost forgot – the polar bear was left out in the cold as well.

The 2010 CITES meeting was nothing short of a travesty.  The few countries that were finally able to get things together and support an environmental agenda fell apart in the face of a well-organized, well-funded Japanese delegation that treated these matters as nothing short of issues of national security.  In one fell swoop, the CITES parties have sacrificed ten key species – northern bluefin tuna, oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, great hammerhead sharks, smooth hammerhead sharks, porbeagle sharks, spiny dogfish, sandbar sharks, dusky sharks, and our noble polar bears – for the benefit of short-sighted economic gain.

Citizens of Earth – our leaders have failed us.  Miserably.  So what do we do?

No port in a storm

No port in a storm

Although it may not seem like it from the title of this post, I’m still not ready to take the bluefin’s death certificate to the local notary public.  We do have a slight glimmer of hope here in the USA.

The western population of the Northern bluefin tuna spawns in a small area in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is located within US waters.  Even if we can’t yet regulate international commerce, we can still do our part to protect these bedeviled creatures while they are visiting our coastline.

Targeted bluefin fishing in the aforementioned spawning grounds has been forbidden (under ICCAT, believe it or not) since the 1980s.  Still, that doesn’t stop fishermen from targeting other species – mainly swordfish and yellowfin tuna – in those areas, and bluefin bycatch is a serious problem.  Hundreds of spawning animals are killed every year by longliners that are operating in these areas.

Not in our waters

Not in our waters

It is within our power to rectify this situation.  If the US government bans the use of longline fishing gear within the spawning grounds, it will drastically reduce the overall bluefin bycatch rate in the Gulf and allow more fish the opportunity to reproduce.  This is one way that we can bolster the population while we continue to push for the international management that the bluefin so sorely needs.

Please support the PEW environment group’s campaign to give the bluefin tuna at least a modicum of protection by banning longlines in the Gulf of Mexico bluefin spawning grounds.

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Red, white, and bluefin

Stars, stripes, and scales

In an age and state where the word “patriotism” has been misinterpreted, manipulated, maligned, and mangled beyond recognition, it is often difficult to discern not only what it means to be patriotic, but what it means to be an American.  In my experience, it is only on a rare day that it becomes unnecessary to differentiate between vying definitions – nationalistic pride, support of entrenched policies, endorsement of governmental shift, facebook-friendship of standing politicians, etc. – before I can state without equivocation that I am proud to be an American.

Today is one of those days.

Early this morning, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the US Department of the Interior, finally stood up against those who would doom the beleaguered Northern bluefin tuna to death by sushi knife.  Citing the management failures of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and underscoring the unquestionable peril in which this noble fish finds itself, Strickland announced that the Obama administration will indeed be supporting Monaco’s proposal to list the Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.

A bloody shame

A bloody shame

This is a game-changer.  The world’s largest economy has finally weighed in on one of the most pressing issues facing the ocean conservation movement – the simple fact that commercially exploited fish have thus far been utterly ignored by the institutionalized international processes designed to offer respite to endangered species.  The Northern bluefin tuna, decimated by the rapacity of the global sushi industry and of bluefin traders like the Mitsubishi corporation, has hitherto been largely ignored by the world’s protectionary bodies in favor of ICCAT, a malfunctioning, incoherent (mis)management system that has brought the bluefin to the brink of the abyss… but perhaps this is finally at an end.

The United States government’s role in this ecological chess match is unique.  Even though US economy does not have a significant share of the world’s bluefin production, it does constitute a sizable share of overall consumption.  Certainly it is not on a scale to match Japan (the world’s foremost consumer of bluefin, devouring approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna yanked from our ailing oceans) but the US sushi industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna.  Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out fat stacks of greenbacks for the ephemeral bliss of a two-bite communion with Our Lady of O-toro.  As such, the US is more than just a global economic engine in this scenario.  The conviction of the Obama administration to stand behind Monaco’s proposal is a food policy statement – an admission that as we as a global community grow, we need to begin to make difficult choices, and that desire and wealth can no longer stand alone as the market mechanisms that drive our luxury food supply.  We must begin to temper them with an awareness of the impacts our choices have on our environment.

Not on his watch

Not on his watch

Certainly this is not the end of the struggle.  Whether or not the bluefin will receive the support and protection it requires will be decided by a conference of all CITES parties in Doha, Qatar, later this month – and it will likely be a bloody affair.  Japan vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to break out every weapon in its considerable arsenal in defense of its hard-line position.  China, too, has announced its opposition to the listing.  Support for the proposal within the European Union is tenuous at best and could still sour.  Many other countries, such as Australia (which has a bluefin industry of its own, albeit a different stock and species), New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence.  There is still a great deal of work to do.

So while the champagne moment is yet to come, I would suggest making some room in the fridge to chill a bottle or two.  The support of the Obama administration was an absolute necessity if the bluefin is to survive the CITES gauntlet, and with it secured, there may just be some hope for the world’s most expensive fish – and, symbolically, for the oceans themselves – after all.

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A ray of light

Are we still talking about this?

Are we still talking about this?

I’ve spent a good deal of sweat and ink venting about the ignominious state of the bluefin tuna.  Overfishing and piracy has led to crashing populations across the globe.  Abysmal mismanagement by the relevant regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has allowed stocks to dwindle to tiny fractions of what they once were.  If current trends continue, we will be bidding a final farewell to the noble bluefin in the very near future.

Still, it takes long hours spent in darkness to appreciate the light of dawn.  Thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate — including an ironic change of heart by France’s President Sarkozy, who, a few months ago, would have seen the fish hunted to oblivion  — I’m thrilled to finally be able to report a positive turn of events chez bluefin.

Circle of power

Circle of power.. kind of

On February 10, the European Parliament confirmed its support for stricter protection of the Northern bluefin tuna.  In a plenary session, the parliamentary members signaled their support for a ban on the trade of the critically endangered fish, as well as for financial compensation for those European fishermen affected by the decision.

Now, the important thing to remember here is that the European Parliament does not in fact have the power to make this kind of decision.  According to the mind-numbing morass of legislation that makes up the Gordian bureaucracy of the European Union, this resolution by the Parliament is in fact a recommendation to the Council of the European Union, a separate legislative body representing the same countries that will vote to either reject the proposal or to formalize the EU’s support of the ban.

And it doesn’t end there.

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

Europe can’t do this by itself.  The plan is to award the Northern bluefin this protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international body tasked with restricting the trade of key species in order to protect endangered populations.  The next CITES meeting will take place in mid-March in Doha, Qatar, and is expected to be well attended.

Protections under CITES are awarded via a majority vote of participating nations.  The EU votes as a bloc at CITES, but there are many other countries as well that also all receive a vote.  One of these countries is Japan.

Frozen assets

Frozen assets

Japan is expected to vehemently oppose any proposal that would restrict its ability to source the exorbitantly valuable Northern bluefin tuna from the withered stocks of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.  No doubt Tokyo’s resolute determination is far more galvanized than the shaky compromise arising amidst grumbles and groans in Brussels.  In fact, even if this clumsy amalgamation of European agendas — including those of Greece, Spain, and Malta, which are very unhappy with the idea of protecting the bluefin tuna — avoids strangling itself with red tape long enough for the EU to vote to protect this imperiled animal, we will still have our work cut out for us.  Japan is an influential power at CITES, and will likely pull out all the stops in order to ward off what would be both an powerful symbolic precedent (the first time a commercially important pelagic fish has been awarded CITES protection) and a significant blow to the global bluefin industry (an enterprise controlled largely by the Japanese zaibatsu Mitsubishi.)

Thus do we look to Obama.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

If we are to protect this fish, the United States must step up and stand with Europe.  Washington has been deafeningly silent on this issue — before the last ICCAT meeting in Recife, Brazil, Jane Lubchenco stated  that the US would turn to more drastic measures, such as CITES, should ICCAT fail again.  ICCAT failed again.  The US did nothing.

Now is the time to change that.  The European Union’s support for this trade ban is tenuous at best and could fall apart at any moment due to short-sited interests within Mediterranean member countries.  Still, the EU’s parliamentary vote was unexpectedly positive and offers us an unprecedented chance to strike a powerful blow for the sake of a future buoyed by healthy, productive oceans.

It’s not every day that we can stand up, raise our voices, and save an endangered species.  Today we can.  President Obama — this is our chance.  Do the right thing.

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The 2010 Seafood Summit

The rainy saison

Last week, the world’s fish geek community converged on a frigid, misty Paris to form the 2010 Seafood Summit, an annual event organized by the Seafood Choices Alliance and designed to facilitate discussion about the current state of the seafood industry and the future of our planet’s fish.  Over 600 representatives of industry, academia, the environmental movement, government agencies, and intergovernmental bodies came together to exchange ideas, intelligence, and insults while firmly ensconced in a Parisian conference hotel.

A wide swath of topics was covered by a diverse medley of panels and presentations over the three days of the summit.  Fisheries were analyzed, certification schemes were compared and contrasted, and environmentalists sparred with industry hardliners. Through it all, gossip ricocheted down the corridors of the conference center, partnerships were forged in the fires of crisis, and luminaries rained wisdom down on a parched audience.

Fortunately for seekers like myself, the conference was blessed by the attendance of the most illustrious group of aquatic icons since the cast reunion of Finding Nemo.

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Dr. Daniel Pauly, preeminent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, opened the event with a keynote speech that magnificently wove candor, charisma, and the statistical equivalent of howitzer fire together to illustrate the grave state of our oceans.  He pulled no punches.  Notable quotes from the address include: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as a sustainable trawler,” “[Carnivorous] aquaculture is robbing Pedro to pay Paul,” and my personal favorite, “You are all too fat!  You don’t need to eat so much protein!”

The peaceful yin to Pauly’s blood-and-thunder yang came at the end of the summit in a gentle, supportive, and passionate closing speech by Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a chairman of the ocean-worshipping Packard Foundation.  Packard’s words helped to sooth nerves rubbed raw by the energy and fervor that had electrified the Summit.  Eco-freaks, ocean plunderers, and everyone in between sat in silence during the address, thankful for the clarity and the solace in Packard’s words.

Clover condemns this creeping catastrophe

Clover combats culinary catastrophe

Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line and one of the planet’s most valiant defenders of the bluefin tuna, brought his mission to the Summit as he engaged in any number of discussions with key figures from the industry, academia, and the environmental movement.  His unique ability to meld the twin facets of his personality — “dashing eco-warrior” and “stodgy old tory” — into a surprisingly charming duality worked wonders as he promoted his newest venture, the environmentally-oriented restaurant review website fish2fork.

There were a number of themes that influenced the general direction of discussion.  Target’s decision to eliminate farmed salmon was a major focus of discussion, as was the progress being made in France towards the inclusion of Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.  The was a great deal of interest in the emergence of new and lesser-known fisheries, such as salmon runs in the Russian Far East, and there were some powerful discussions comparing and contrasting various sustainable seafood “approval” schemes and certification systems — this proliferation of rankings, stickers, and seals is clearly one of the most important issues facing the industry today.

While some of the same old baggage was trucked in yet again — I found myself in yet another hard-headed shouting match with a salmon farmer, for example — there was actually a great deal of progress visible at this year’s summit.  People were actually discussing real issues.  An entire day was devoted to tuna, and while some of the weaker industry-WWF collaborations (such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation) did receive an inordinate share of unjustified back-slapping, there was some positive, reality-oriented talk as well.  No one stood up to defend ICCAT during the discussion on bluefin stock management, for example.  One can only hope that those days are over.

A light in the darkness

A light in the darkness

As we move forward into 2010, I am optimistic and full of hope.  There was a genuine, palpable desire for change rippling through the attending body at the Summit.  Our patience for the plausible (and implausible) denial of the changes our planet and our oceans are undergoing seems to be at its end.  I sincerely believe that if we work together and challenge old, broken paradigms without fear, we will be able to capitalize on this desire for change, and rebuild the seafood industry into something that works.

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Little “s” meets the Big “O”

Quite possibly, nature's perfect fish

I love sardines.  They’re not only beautiful fish, with their gleaming scales, streamlined bodies, and astounding synchronized swimming skills, but they seem to be engineered to be dependable, nutritious food.  These little animals grow quickly, die young, breed in tremendous numbers, and contain lots of protein, omega-3s, vitamin D, and other beneficial nutrients.

Unfortunately, sardines have a scandalous reputation.  Most Americans view them as cheap, lowbrow fare that is best consumed down by the train tracks, generally accompanied by fortified wines, tall tales, harmonica music, and lots of scratching.

As such, it can be surprising to learn that the sardine has a long-standing seat in the sushi pantheon.   While we generally encounter sardines only after they have been quartered, drenched in oil or mustard sauce, and encapsulated in tin, the true potential of this diminutive fish far outstrips such an ignominious fate.

Who'd have thunk it?

Sardines and similar fish have been used in sushi for over a century, and some of the most “traditional” edomae sushi dishes involve these tiny animals.  That being said, only in the last five or so years have US sushi restaurants began to rediscover this minute delicacy.  Matters are complicated by the fact that tremendous amounts of our domestic sardines are purchased by foreign fish farms, which whisk the away to be ground up into fish meal for bluefin tuna and other penned carnivores before our local chefs even have a chance to purchase them.

Luckily, things are changing.  A loose affiliation of chefs, restaurateurs, and other stakeholders calling themselves “the Sardinistas” continues to pressure the seafood industry for access to these delicious little treasures – and it looks like the barriers may be breaking down.

No, really, it was this big!

No, really, that sardine was this big!

The sardine revolution got a major boost this week when none other than the fabulous Oprah Winfrey declared them one of her top 25 superfoodsWinfrey’s website discusses the merits of sardine consumption and urges consumers to rediscover this forgotten treasure.

When heavy hitters like Winfrey weigh in on seafood issues, they can be serious game-changers.  Sometimes it can be severely damaging (Paul Prudhome probably did more to wreck the heavily over-exploited Gulf of Mexico redfish stocks than any other single factor), but in this case, it’s very much a positive influence.  Increasing consumer interest in sardines will shift out seafood demand to away from our traditional prey species, such as tuna, down the trophic scale to a level that is better able to withstand fishing pressure.  Additionally, it will send market signals to the sardine industry, which may start to think twice before selling their entire catch to bluefin farms for a few handfuls of copper coins.

The first thing we do, let's eat all the fishies

The first thing we do, let's eat all the fishies

So, a few questions for my readership: What do you think about this?  What are your impressions of the lowly sardine?  Would you be willing to wipe the slate clean and give this little fish the opportunity to prove itself to you?

We have strong, sustainable sardine fisheries right here in North America, but sardine fishermen sell off the lion’s share of the catch as feed for aquaculture operations.  If we the consumers begin to pay more than the tuna ranchers for sardines (and even with this overbidding, we’re still talking about incredibly inexpensive seafood here), it will become more economical for our seafood markets to start stocking them.  We will start to see domestic sardines glistening on the ice in our fishmonger’s wetcase — whole, fresh, and glorious, just as nature intended. ¡Viva la sardinista!

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The Vanguard – Part 3: Mashiko

What problem?

What problem?

It is a frightening concept to mess with success.  The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is alive and well in our modern economy, and the seafood industry is no exception.  Many seafood purveyors, when confronted with pressure to change their ways, can be resistant – especially if they see success and growth in their businesses.  Why change, if the status quo seems just fine?

The fact is, however, that all is not well.  There are a plethora of rocks and growlers lurking in the murky waters of the seafood industry: overfishing, habitat destruction, IUU fleets, and more.  Still, it’s not common that a business owner is able to see all of these obstacles clearly… especially if ones perspective is obscured by the constant back-and-forth of a ringing cash drawer.

Chef Hajime Sato, however, is different.

A tiny revolution

A tiny revolution

Mashiko restaurant has been operating in Seattle for fifteen years, and it is by no means an unsuccessful operation.  Chef Sato has a line out the door nearly every night, and unless you arrive just as the restaurant opens, it’s almost certain that you’ll be waiting for a table.  By all standards and appearances, this is a prospering business.  And frankly, Chef Sato had all this to lose when, in August of 2009, he took his entire business model and turned it upside-down.

Mashiko is the first sushi restaurant in the world that has transitioned from a conventional operation to a sustainable one.  With only minimal help from myself and the other players in the movement, Sato turned his restaurant into a sustainable operation.  He bid good riddance to his bluefin, hamachi, eel, monkfish, and other unsustainable items.  These days, he directs his efforts towards innovation, education, and the identification of local and sustainable options.

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New moves

Moreover, Chef Sato is the first traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef to embrace the sustainable sushi movement.  In his words, however, he is simply returning to the basic principles that gave rise to sushi over a hundred years ago: utilization of local and seasonal products, reverence for life, and interpretation of the bounty of the oceans in a respectful and reverent manner.

In the last few months, Mashiko has achieved a much greater degree of exposure than ever before.  Interviews with Chef Sato have run on any number of popular food blogs; he received a glowing review of his operation from the Seattle Times and has appeared on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he discussed innovation in sushi, local seafood sourcing, and the amazing bounty of Puget Sound.

Through his bravery in challenging the conventional model, his determination to hold ethics and ocean conservation over the maximization of profit, and his contribution to the nascent sustainable sushi movement as well as the overall awareness of the consumer public in the Pacific Northwest, Chef Hajime Sato has brought a new spark to the sustainable sushi movement.

Good to have you on board, buddy.

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The year in review: 2009

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Days gone by

It’s been quite a year.

As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come.  It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings.  After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.

I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks.  Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many  fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe.  It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.

So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard.  The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.

There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak.  It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:

  • das

    We will rue the day

    The Copenhagen climate change conference missed the mark and fell short of setting any global reasonable emissions goals, paving the way for the increased acidification of the world’s oceans.

At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year.  All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:

  • dsas

    Unwanted attention

    The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released.  This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin.  This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.

  • It's finally over

    It's finally over

    The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide.  Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco.  Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins.  The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”

  • 2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists.  In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.

The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans.  Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues.  The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.

Stand and fight

Stand and fight

Yes, it’s true that the bluefin tuna is in dire straits.  It is true that eel poaching continues unabated, that bottom trawlers still prowl the seas, and that we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years.  Still, as menacing as these threats are, they are not the most important issues at hand.

The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet.  We are more aware.  We are more alert.  And we are much more energized and focused.

Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference.  Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer.  Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word.  It doesn’t matter – it all helps.  Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.

Brave New World

A brave new world

So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts.  It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future.  There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back.  And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone.  We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.

Take heart — we are winning.

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