While I’m running around Minneapolis, the Center for American Progress’s Associate Director for Ocean Communication Kiley Kroh was nice enough to step in for me, interviewing journalist Paul Greenberg about his most recent book—and the most delicious and sustainable ways to eat fish. Thanks to her for this post.
The Center for American Progress’s Ocean Team will be on the road and on the water in New England next week, touring some of America’s oldest and most profitable fishing towns as we investigate the implementation of a new management structure in our nation’s first fishery, the groundfishery. European fishermen plied the waters of the northwest Atlantic for cod, haddock, and flounders for over a century before even Columbus “discovered” America. Today, the industry is in recovery from decades of overfishing, and attempting to climb back to a state of prosperity and abundance.
As we prepared for our trip, we enlisted award-winning author, journalist, and lifelong fish enthusiast Paul Greenberg to help us set the stage. His book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food recently won the 2011 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature.
We will be traveling in New England next week, talking with fishermen and policymakers, and plan to partake in the local cuisine; tell us about the best seafood meal you’ve eaten.
I am a big fan of eating what I catch. The mortality stats on catch-and-release don’t impress me and so over the years I’ve strived to fish less but make sure to eat all of what I catch. In that respect probably the most satisfying meal I’ve had recently was a New England/New York favorite – snapper blues baked whole with scalloped potatoes, garlic, olive oil and parsley. “Snappers” are young bluefish that come into the harbors in late summer and they have a much more delicate taste than their big brothers and sisters. It can also be argued that eating the smaller fish rather than the big spawners might be little less impacting on the environment. In any case, I adapted a recipe from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that was normally meant for large sardines. It worked great and nothing went to waste.
Fishing traditions run deep in New England, but fishermen there—particularly those fishing for cod, haddock, and flounders—have suffered in recent years as regulations have tightened in an attempt to make up for past overfishing. Will we ever see a return to the flourishing fisheries on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine?
I don’t think anyone can really answer that for sure but I can say that in my lifetime there have been improvements. I often fish out of Montauk, NY which is toward the most southerly end of the codfish’s range. For about 20 years we really didn’t have much of a codfish run at all off Montauk but then about 4 years ago it started getting good again. Previously people had thought that these were Georges Bank fish but I’ve talked to at least one scientist who suspects that they are coming from the Gulf of Maine stock. This would make sense since supposedly the Gulf of Maine stock is in much better shape than the Georges stock.
While some New England fish populations, like haddock, have made dramatic recoveries in recent years, many others have not. What other factors, besides fishing, have contributed to the general decline of fish populations and ocean health?
There are many component parts missing from the original fishery that we may never get back. Rivers are dammed throughout New England, limiting the runs of important forage fish like herring that fed a lot of cod and pollock. On the forage fish front, the vagaries of capelin in the North Atlantic seems to be having an effect on Canadian Grand Banks cod. In fact one of the reasons Grand Banks cod are not rebuilding at the rate of US fish is that their diet is much more simple. [They eat] capelin 24/7 whereas our fish have a more diverse range of things they eat. And capelin have suffered both from climate shifts and from exploitation from the “reduction” [or fish meal] industries that take a lot of that fish [and grind it up] for pig and chicken feed. Gulf of Maine herring fleets may also be impacting cod in that area.
Climate change seems to be a factor—winter flounder, once common in my home bays are now down to a sportfishing bag limit of 2 fish per day—many scientists I’ve talked with think that warmer water species may be forcing those fish out of their old niche.
There’s also recovery of ancillary species and systems that has to take place to support a full on groundfish recovery. Keep in mind that large parts of the traditional groundfish areas were dragged [with trawl gear] for many years, doing a lot of damage to the sea bed. Those communities have to rebuild (and indeed are rebuilding in some places) for the full range of cover and food to be present again on the fishing grounds.
Finally, I’ve heard fishermen grumble about the return of marine mammals to our shores. Since we started protecting those animals in the 70s they have indeed staged a remarkable comeback, particularly seals, to the point where you can now see them lolling around the pilings of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I certainly wouldn’t advocate culling those animals, not at this early stage, but they are probably eating their share of fish.
Sustainability is all the rage in seafood marketing these days, and chefs are peppering their menus with terms like “diver caught” “line caught” and “dayboat” to describe their entrees. What are your thoughts on the latest trends in sustainable seafood?
I think you have to look at the end result you are trying to promote with all these sustainable fish dishes. What kind of fishery do we want in New England? I would say we want a fleet of fishermen that is attuned to finesse and quality rather than brute force and mass quantity. So if we can create a market for better looking and tasting fish at higher prices and those prices make it into the hands of the fishermen then I am all for it. But also people should keep in mind that eating these sorts of fancy high-end dishes at expensive restaurants largely play the role of spectator sport and don’t change the main engine of the fish economy. The real participatory action happens at the wholesale level and at the levels of the major institutional buyers. I was encouraged to see in a recent visit to the Google campus in Mountain View, CA that the cafeterias there source mostly line-caught fish from small producers. A big institution like Google is a game changer and those are the ones we need to see changing their buying practices.
What’s the clearest example of how fishing has changed since you were a kid?
There are just many, many more restrictions and rules. The size limit on summer flounder has gone from 14 inches with no bag limit when I was a kid to I think something like 21 inches and a 2 fish limit. You can’t keep ANY river herring at all in Massachusetts. Winter flounder season is only 2 months long at most. I don’t mind all of this too much. I think rules test the skills of a fisherman but it would be nice to be able to have a day’s fishing be worth the expense and time in terms of meals on the table. And here’s one rule I’d like to ADD. Mandatory circle hooks on all sportfishing vessels. Circle hooks have much lower catch-and-release mortality rates because they tend to hook a fish by the jaw rather than in the gut. With so many size limits in effect now, I worry that we are throwing back a lot of fish that will go on and die. Mandatory circle hooks could really fix that problem.
As you describe in Four Fish, you’ve been a lifelong avid fisherman. What’s your favorite fish story?
Well there are of course many but one that sticks in my mind was told to me by a fisherman in Oregon. Once he was fishing for cutthroat trout in the spring and found that the fish wouldn’t take anything. Then it started to snow and the trout rose to nip at the snow flakes, mistaking them for mayflies. The guy who told me the story said that he pulled out his fly tying gear, pulled a piece of down out of his coat and made a fly that looked like a snowflake. He went home with a full bucket.