An Ocean of Questions

How well are grocery stores keeping up with using vendors that use sustainable fishing standards?

Twenty-five years ago we found ourselves in Digby, Nova Scotia. Call it an adventure. We did. Digby is the home of the prized Digby scallop, harvested from the picturesque Annapolis Basin over which the town looks. And it was our first up-close and personal introduction to the often controversial topic of sustainable fishing.

At the time the scallop farmers were embroiled in a heated debate over whether the Digby scallop was overfished and thus at risk. There wasn’t much middle ground. We’d go into town and the farmers offered to sell us their delicacies. Contraband! If anything, the discussion of healthy fish and seafood raising, fishing and eating has only gotten more complicated in the ensuing decades.

Former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl certainly drew a line in the sand five or six years ago when she told us that she had recently come to the conclusion that eating Chilean sea bass was immoral. As delicious as it was, we were killing the species. Delicious is only half the equation when addressing the issue of fish and seafood.

Appreciation—heck, desire—for fish was matched by a new (at least in this country) recognition of the health benefits of eating fish. We became rather obsessed with omega-3 and fish oil as part of a heart-healthy diet, and like many such obsessions in this part of the world we overdid it with gusto.

Of course fish is good for us—some varieties more so than others. And chefs became extremely skilled at cooking fish, and in the process discovered new varieties. Some fisher-people saw opportunities to increase their harvests to meet demand. Others found ways to raise fish out of their natural environments, in human-made fish farms, and some fish, like tilapia, do very well in those environments.

But in the last decade the industry has taken a bad turn. The demand for fish from our oceans has grown and smart fishing practices have not kept up. We are removing many fish from the wild faster than they can regenerate. And that’s the definition of un-sustainability. Contributing to the problem is a lack of information, and in cases still rare—but not rare enough—unscrupulous fish sellers or restaurateurs who are simply lying to us.

The New York City media in particular have uncovered scandals on both ends of the chain with fish markets as well as restaurants
peddling fish on their menus that weren’t the fish they claimed to be. Meanwhile in the grocery store we’re looking for the fish that are best for our health, and sometimes we buy fish that are unsustainably harvested or raised, or we’re buying farmed or line-caught fish that aren’t as healthy for us as we’d like. In the best cases this dilemma can be resolved the same way we do it at the farmers’ market.
While we’re not as likely to meet the person who actually caught or raised our fish, a good, knowledgeable fishmonger can be a trustworthy source of information. We’ve been pleased with the folks at both Seafood Centers here in Madison. But there are also a growing number of organizations that are keeping an eye on the fish industry from the boat to the market and are tracking both numbers and fishing practices.

For example, Metcalfe’s Market has partnered with FishWise, a nonprofit focused on improving fish sustainability along the supply chain. So at Metcalfe’s Market you’ll see labels like “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative,” but also “Unsustainable,” that help you know how fish is raised and caught. Whole Foods does something similar with their program.

Last month the international environmental organization Greenpeace analyzed a number of local stores in the U.S. and ranked Metcalfe’s #8 in the nation for its sustainable fish program. That’s huge. That’s helpful. And that’s sustainable. We’ve come a long way from Digby.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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