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Mekong delta blues

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I’m not here for the sushi.

As difficult as it is for sushi snobs such as myself to accept, there is a whole world of fish and seafood outside of our comfortable little tatami rooms.  In fact, it’s because of trouble on a distant front – the murky waters of the catfish industry – that I’ve crossed the Pacific to participate in a series of meetings here in Southeast Asia.

Endangered species

Endangered species

The fisheries that we have traditionally relied upon for our fish sticks, surimi, and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are showing signs of distress.  First it was Atlantic cod, which we fished to death in 1960s and 1970s.  In the years following, various stocks of haddock, plaice, and similarly uncharismatic fish began to flag, mainly in the Baltic and North Seas.  As I mentioned in a recent post, even Alaska Pollock, which had for years been heralded as an inexhaustible source of cheap, mediocre fish protein, is starting to tank.  This ominous pattern spells trouble for the oceans, but it’s also worrisome for those megacompanies that have built their empires atop a foundation of inexpensive, lightly breaded marine life.

The question has become a manner of simple logic for these large corporations.  Ocean conservation and ethics aside, companies like Bird’s Eye, Gordon’s, and McDonald’s want to be able to sell their whitefish products throughout this bright new 21st century of ours.  This becomes a rather unlikely possibility when one considers that there may be virtually no whitefish left to sell in the coming decades.

So what do these seafood buyers do?  Boundlessly pragmatic, they begin to look for a new source of comparable whitefish, one that can withstand the demand pressure from all the people out there that are shaking their fists in the name of fish sticks.

In other words, these companies need a sustainable fishery.  For this is indeed the very essence of the word’s meaning, in a literal sense – a resource that can be exploited without compromising its capacity for similar exploitation in the future.

Thus do the eyes of the world’s seafood merchandisers turn to the smoky, motorbike-infested streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.

Catfish country

Catfish country

Can Tho is the center of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish farming industry, a burgeoning enterprise if ever there was one.  Two distinct species of pangasius are farmed in any significant amount: Pangasius hypopthalamus (marketed as tra or swai) and Pangasius bocourti (sold as basa).  These South Asian river fish are much like our Mississippi-born domestic channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with a similar bewhiskered countenance and the same muck-dwelling habits.  They are raised in ponds, enclosures, and cages all along the muddy banks of the creeping Mekong River, and over the past five years or so have been snapped up in exponentially increasing quantities by a European Union that is starving for whitefish.  In fact, with crashing cod and Pollock stocks contributing to a flood of unanswered demand, pangasius is quickly becoming one of the main fish fingers in the dyke.

Meow?

Bad kitty

Unfortunately, the pangasius industry is fraught with all manner of problems.  Abuse of chemicals and antibiotics, unchecked resource use, massive environmental negligence and rampaging cascades of effluent are threatening the entire ecosystem of the Mekong delta.  Concerns about health issues related to pangasius products are common, and western consumers are meeting the incoming catfish with anything from light skepticism to blaring sirens and biohazard-level health alerts.

Catfish cascade

Catfish cascade

Luckily, there is a ray of hope for both the eco-loco and the health nuts.   Championed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creation of a new aquaculture certification body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is underway.  It is the hope of all concerned that this standard will separate the wheat from the chaff within the industry, as well as raise the quality bar in general.  A farm’s acquisition of the standard is theoretically linked to its production of a more desirable product on the market.  This type of commodity differentiation would then lead to higher profits for those that invested in running a cleaner and more responsible operation.

This is the fourth meeting of what is known as the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), a subset of the ASC process.  I will be posting an update on the progress of this round of meetings later in the week.

I know catfish is far from the most interesting subject out there, but this industry has grown by orders of magnitude in the last decade, and we must give it the attention it deserves.  The creation of a strong and defensible certification standard for pangasius farming is absolutely critical if we are to save the ailing Mekong River from a fishy free-for-all.

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Update: Freshwater Eel / Unagi (CONTEST)

Please stop eating unagi.

An adult European eel, Anguilla anguilla.

A recent article in the Guardian, a prestigious UK newspaper that has an entire department devoted to environmental issues, has reported that eel populations across the European continent have dropped by 95% in the past 25 years.  Sadly, this isn’t really that surprising.

Steven Morris, the article’s author, writes that “a ban on exporting eels out of Europe – they are a popular dish in the far east – is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences [sic -- heh].”  Unfortunately, that is the extent to which the article discusses the connection of the eel’s dire situation to the sushi world.

Eels in captivity.  Chances are exceptionally good that they were captured from a dying European or American population.

The unagi industry is based primarily in China and relies on glass eels (babies) caught in the wild rather than hatching animals within the farms.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to my current entry on unagi.  It already ends with “Don’t eat it.”  I guess this isn’t so much of an update as it is me beating the same old drum.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this animal is in serious trouble.  We need to give it a break.  There are other options.  Honestly, drench just about any fatty, sustainable whitefish (I suggest Alaskan or Canadian black cod) in kabeyaki sauce, broil it or sear it with a blowtorch, and serve it with sesame seeds over rice: it’s gonna taste a whole lot like unagi.

Listen, I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this.  I just am particularly passionate about this issue.  The eel is an incredible creature, and we know so little about it.  All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic swim all the way to one small tract of ocean — the Sargasso Sea — to spawn.  For the longest time, we actually thought they simply incarnated from mud and weeds in rivers because we had never seen breeding eels. There’s still so much we can learn about this animal.

Your entry will be prepared in this fashion.

Let me put something out there, as added incentive.  How about this — everyone who reads this post, please comment on it with your alternative to eel.  It could be anything you want (but black cod, aka sablefish, has already been taken, so that doesn’t count; and no unsustainable items — that goes without saying.)  I’ll wait ten days from posting.  On the eleventh day (May 15th), I’ll take all the suggestions to Chef Kin Lui at Tataki Sushi Bar.  He will look at the list of suggestions, try them out as kabeyaki-style dishes, and choose a favorite.  I’ll post a picture of the winning dish.  Whoever wins will receive a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco, as well as a signed copy of my book.

Good luck!

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