Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An overlooked potentially keystone species is disapprearing

Great op-ed in the New York Times today.

Do you take fish oil capsules? Lots of people do but I doubt many--if any at all--know what type of fish go into the capsules. The NYT article focuses on identifying the species and provides a lot of information on its importation to the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem.

What the piece doesn't tell you is the ultimate cause of the decline, which is of course our broken food system. The Nutritional-Industrial Complex grinds up the fish for corn-fed animals and our beloved pets, a practice that is depleting this fish, which is the food for most of the fish we like to it. Big Ag long ago abandoned grass-fed meat, which is usually two times or more higher in omega 3 content than grain-fed beef, so people now want to take fish oil supplements to get more Omega 3's. You're also seeing processed food on the shelves that has been enhanced with Omega 3's, which I'm sure probably comes from this "trash" fish as well. I'm sure fish oil plays a small part compared to what's ground up for animal feed, but our desire for Omega 3 fatty acids, caused by abandoning grass-fed animals is now taking a toll on the oceans.

“WHAT’S the deal with fish oil?”

by Stephen Savage

If you are someone who catches and eats a lot of fish, as I am, you get adept at answering questions about which fish are safe, which are sustainable and which should be avoided altogether. But when this fish oil question arrived in my inbox recently, I was stumped. I knew that concerns about overfishing had prompted many consumers to choose supplements as a guilt-free way of getting their omega-3 fatty acids, which studies show lower triglycerides and the risk of heart attack. But I had never looked into the fish behind the oil and whether it was fit, morally or environmentally speaking, to be consumed.

The deal with fish oil, I found out, is that a considerable portion of it comes from a creature upon which the entire Atlantic coastal ecosystem relies, a big-headed, smelly, foot-long member of the herring family called menhaden, which a recent book identifies in its title as “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”

The book’s author, H. Bruce Franklin, compares menhaden to the passenger pigeon and related to me recently how his research uncovered that populations were once so large that “the vanguard of the fish’s annual migration would reach Cape Cod while the rearguard was still in Maine.” Menhaden filter-feed nearly exclusively on algae, the most abundant forage in the world, and are prolifically good at converting that algae into omega-3 fatty acids and other important proteins and oils. They also form the basis of the Atlantic Coast’s marine food chain.

Nearly every fish a fish eater likes to eat eats menhaden. Bluefin tuna, striped bass, redfish and bluefish are just a few of the diners at the menhaden buffet. All of these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids but are unable themselves to synthesize them. The omega-3s they have come from menhaden.

But menhaden are entering the final losing phases of a century-and-a-half fight for survival that began when humans started turning huge schools into fertilizer and lamp oil. Once petroleum-based oils replaced menhaden oil in lamps, trillions of menhaden were ground into feed for hogs, chickens and pets. Today, hundreds of billions of pounds of them are converted into lipstick, salmon feed, paint, “buttery spread,” salad dressing and, yes, some of those omega-3 supplements you have been forcing on your children. All of these products can be made with more environmentally benign substitutes, but menhaden are still used in great (though declining) numbers because they can be caught and processed cheaply.

For the last decade, one company, Omega Protein of Houston, has been catching 90 percent of the nation’s menhaden. The perniciousness of menhaden removals has been widely enough recognized that 13 of the 15 Atlantic states have banned Omega Protein’s boats from their waters. But the company’s toehold in North Carolina and Virginia (where it has its largest processing plant), and its continued right to fish in federal waters, means a half-billion menhaden are still taken from the ecosystem every year.

For fish guys like me, this egregious privatization of what is essentially a public resource is shocking. But even if you are not interested in fish, there is an important reason for concern about menhaden’s decline.

Quite simply, menhaden keep the water clean. The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we “reduce” into oil every year.

So what is the seeker of omega-3 supplements to do? Bruce Franklin points out that there are 75 commercial products — including fish-oil pills made from fish discards — that don’t contribute directly to the depletion of a fishery. Flax oil also fits the bill and uses no fish at all.

But I’ve come to realize that, as with many issues surrounding fish, more powerful fulcrums than consumer choice need to be put in motion to fix things. President Obama and the Congressional leadership have repeatedly stressed their commitment to wresting the wealth of the nation from the hands of a few. A demonstration of this commitment would be to ban the fishing of menhaden in federal waters. The Virginia Legislature could enact a similar moratorium in the Chesapeake Bay (the largest menhaden nursery in the world).

The menhaden is a small fish that in its multitudes plays such a big role in our economy and environment that its fate shouldn’t be effectively controlled by a single company and its bottles of fish oil supplements. If our government is serious about standing up for the little guy, it should start by giving a little, but crucial, fish a fair deal.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why I never take out of town guests for seafood

In Birthplace of Local Food, Fish Imports Take Over the Menu
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Paul Johnson has worked at the Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco for 30 years and has witnessed a dramatic downward shift in the local supply of seafood.

Published: December 11, 2009

Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s oldest seafood restaurant, now serves farmed salmon flown in from Scotland. Sam’s Grill & Seafood, which also dates to the Gold Rush, features shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan halibut.

The San Francisco region is where the locavore movement got its name. And decades before restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley were recommending their local leeks, the establishments near San Francisco’s wharves took pride in their fresh, local sand dabs and petrale.

These days, fish flown in from around the world is more likely to be on offer. The change began gradually, but has recently sped up. Data from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal advisory group, reveal the cumulative effect: a 71 percent drop in commercial fishing revenue along the north-central California coast since 1990.

The effects are everywhere, seen in the number of idle fishermen or those who have left the profession altogether — membership in the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is down by two-thirds in 15 years — and the fish markets filled with Vietnamese catfish and Mexican spiny lobster.

Fish from local bays has been “one of the last local foods to go,” said Jessica Prentice, a Berkeley chef known for coining the word “locavore.” She added: “Seafood was one of the few things, well into the industrial age, that people associated with place. If you’re on a particular coast, or bay, or lake, you typically want to eat the seafood that’s fresh and local.” These days in the Bay Area, that means Dungeness crab in the winter and precious little else.

With beloved local petrale scarce for the past three months, Andrew Carvalho, the head chef at Sam’s, has had to make do with sea bream from Greece.

Not long ago, said Larry Collins, a San Francisco hook-and-line fisherman, “we fished salmon in the summertime, crab in the wintertime and rock cod whenever we needed to make the mortgage. Now we fish crab in the wintertime and scramble in the summertime.”

San Francisco’s situation is part of a national phenomenon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly China. Yet the trend has special resonance around San Francisco. Robert E. Ross, executive director of the California Fisheries and Seafood Institute, a trade group, estimated that Bay Area residents eat, on average, about double the amount of fish consumed annually by most other Americans.

Many diners recall when local seafood — salmon, red snapper, abalone — was abundant. “I think about it all the time,” said Paul Johnson, the chief executive of the Monterey Fish Market, which supplies up to five million pounds of fish a year to 150 regional restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the Googleplex in Mountain View.

“In the fall when crab season comes around, and the boilers are steaming and all the guys are coming around with the fresh crabs, it just makes you sad to realize that this is the last major fishery we have left,” he said.

The decline and fall of California’s fisheries is an intricate tale. Eighteenth-century Pacific Coast explorers described a paradise teeming with life. “No country is more abundant in fish and game of every description,” said the French naval officer Jean-Fran├žois de Galaup, who mapped the Pacific Coast in 1786. Two centuries of robust harvests followed, with occasional off-years.

Now off-years are the norm. Still, the drop in local harvests doesn’t precisely reflect the decline of fish in the sea. The confluence of expanding global markets and more assertive local controls has produced dramatic change. One fishery after another petered out in the wild, and regulators curtailed fishing to preserve species. As with other environmental problems, every person with a stake in the Bay Area’s seafood decline has a villain of choice.

Salmon fishermen tend to blame the decline on inland water users, like farms and developers, who, they say, diverted water needed for spawning new generations of fish. Scientists suggest that a warming ocean has put the fishes’ food supply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others blame mismanagement. Similar finger-pointing is evident around other wounded fisheries.

Wild abalone was one of the first local seafoods to vanish, after state officials closed depleted fisheries in 1996. In 2002, trawling for rockfish — the bottom-dweller often called “red snapper” and used in the spicy stew cioppino — was barred on much of the Pacific Coast. In the past two years, fishing bans multiplied as salmon and herring grew scarce.

In all cases, the regulators responded to evidence of sharp declines in local species. But many local fishermen, who have sustained staggering economic losses, feel the actions of state and federal officials have been excessive.

“In California, we have the least exploited fisheries in the world, but the toughest regulations,” complained Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. At the Monterey Fish Market, Mr. Johnson’s 30-year career has spanned the most dramatic downward shift in local supply. When he began, he said, he was importing only about 30 percent of his fish from outside of California. Now, he said, the figure is closer to 80 percent.

While industry insiders are all too aware of the change in Bay Area menus, diners may have been slow to grasp it. “People still don’t get it,” said George Leonard, a marine biologist at the Santa Cruz office of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

“Restaurants will go to great lengths to make it seem like the fish is local,” he said. “They’ll advertise the ‘fresh catch of the day,’ and half the time, it’s farmed fish from halfway around the world.”

The illusion of fresh local fish became harder to maintain after a 2005 law obliged vendors to label wares by country of origin. This has combined with the trend to advertise the pedigree of foods, like the “Bolinas black cod” at Chez Panisse.

CleanFish, a San Francisco-based supplier of “sustainable seafood,” boasts its wild and “sustainably farmed” fish, like the “Carolina Mahi-Mahi” and the Loch Duarte salmon featured at Tadich Grill. Yet its use of air-shipped and farmed fish rankles some environmentalists. “When you put fresh fish in an airplane,” Mr. Leonard said, “all bets are off,”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium includes all farmed fish on its “red list” of fish to be avoided, citing concerns like the discharge of waste and parasites from farms. The founder of CleanFish, Tim O’Shea, said this ignored differences among the farmers.

A few chefs, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, vigorously advocate serving local seafood whenever possible — “We collected our own mussels from a legal zone recently. Divine!” Ms. Waters recounted in an e-mail message. Still, she occasionally resorts to “sustainable” shrimp from New Orleans.

While the globalization of fish may seem unstoppable, some dream of San Francisco seafood’s resurgence. Mr. Johnson of the Monterey Fish Market foresaw encouraging trends over the next few years, if federal strictures help rebuild rockfish populations.

Recently, environmental advocates took heart in the state’s decision in August to protect 155 square miles of ocean, permanently banning professional fishing in reserves covering 11 percent of California coastal waters.

The decision, to take effect early next year, has prompted complaints from struggling fishermen, yet it is meant to preserve habitat crucial in rebuilding species like rockfish and abalone.

“We can no longer treat the ocean and its fish and wildlife as an all-you-can eat buffet,” said Kaitilin Gaffney, the Pacific ecosystem program director for the Ocean Conservancy. “But the ocean is pretty resilient. If we allow nature to restore herself, she will.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

"I just wanted to say that I'm a hipster, and I'm here tonight to stand up for the rights of other hipsters. I mean uh, all our lives we've been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we're self-absorbed? Cause we look different? Well, we're not. I'm a hipster, and uh, I'm pretty proud of it."

"Hi, Kendall. I'm a hipster too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There's a lot more of us then there are of you. I know there's alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams you might've been called a scenester, or a douchebag, or a snob. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you're a hipster or not, why don't you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on."

"Just join us 'cause, uh, no-one's gonna really be free until hipster persecution ends."