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The new school of fish
February 4, 2011 9:31 PM   Subscribe

The Bay Area’s smartest diners, chefs, and purveyors now know (and care) where every cut of grass-fed beef and stalk of pesticide-free produce comes from. Yet nearly all look the other way when fish is on the plate. What will it take to stop the eco-fibbing?
posted by Joe Beese (47 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
And so the restaurant owned by the woman who has done more to promote responsible eating than anyone else in the country sometimes offers trawl-caught petrale sole and dredged Atlantic scallops.

Damn.
posted by polymodus at 9:46 PM on February 4, 2011


So basically, don't get the fish. (Because how can you know whatever acceptable species is rod/reel caught?) Definitely don't get the fish out of a cooler in the parking lot.
posted by smirkette at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2011


Joe Beese: "What will it take to stop the eco-fibbing?"

Gee um more awareness?
posted by gomichild at 9:59 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seafood is very complicated because there are so many factors to weigh.

1. Was the fish caught/raised in a way that is healthy to that particular fish species?
2. Was the fish caught/raised in a way that is healthy to the environment and other species?
3. Was the fish caught/raised in a way that is healthy to the end consumer?
4. Was the fish caught/raised in a way that is healthy to the fishermen and economy?

These are the categories one has to weigh for every species, and there is only 1 perfect fish that I know if that gets Grade A in all 4. Indoor farm-raised Baramundi.
posted by stbalbach at 10:03 PM on February 4, 2011


I realize it’s only lunch, but in fact the deci­sion I make today will have consequences that go far beyond the satisfaction of my personal appetite. Nothing less than the very future of our oceans is at stake.

Trying to figure out whether the author is merely a melodramatic hack of a writer or actually this solipsistic. I'm leaning toward the former, but it's more amusing to imagine the next few lines written in the latter case . . .

"Nothing less than the future of the oceans is at stake. For you see, my lifestyle choices will set the trend for generations to come. There is no greater force in the global fishery than upmarket San Francisco restaurants, and no diner whose preferences are more influential than mine. I'll leave it to my biographers - the plural is, of course, intentional and a foregone conclusion - I'll leave it to them to unravel the extraordinary chain of events set in motion by my meal this day and my overwrought retelling of its provenance. I am the world. I am the children. I had the lobster. The second tine from the left on my fork is the fulcrum of the biosphere. Don't thank me, I've already taken care of that . . ."

I mean, I do empathize with the argument, but it baffles me anyone still goes for this tone for any reason other than parody. Anyway, if you want to read a very good journalist's take on this subject, Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder is just a click away.
posted by gompa at 10:03 PM on February 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


More on the Baramundi:

Australis: The Better Fish (commercial farmer)

The Anti-Salmon: A Fish We Can Finally Farm Without Guilt (from The Atlantic)
posted by stbalbach at 10:12 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Monterey Bay Aquarium has Seafood Watch. I have the app on my phone, and though it is currently of limited utility, it does have crowdsourcing features that may make it useful someday.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:23 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lowering demand in hopes of raising the supply also lowers the price, without some sort of enforceable restriction. So boycotting is a good thing, unless it ends up on the shelves at Walmart as a result.
posted by Brian B. at 10:29 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brian B.: Paul Greenberg makes the same point in Four Fish. He claims the Monterey Aquarium's own studies show that consumer choices make zero difference in catch levels. If the conscious diners don't buy it someone else is sure to.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:37 PM on February 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


These are collective action problems; can't be solved by "knowledgeable consumers," but only through some kind of regulation. That's why we have government.
posted by wuwei at 10:50 PM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Like others have said above, the fretting at the dinner table described in the article is really mute. With the exception of a few major crimes against nature type of sea food; order what you want, vote how you feel.

Do not vote with your purchases, it does not work, it never has worked on a large scale.
Do not buy seafood that was obviously illegally taken (small scale and effective, also report it).

Do vote with donating money to organisations that fund political change.
Do jump up and down and scream for environmental protection to your reps.
Do vote for better regs.

I had a professor say that voting with your spending money was akin to masturbation. It makes you feel good, but in the end its just you playing with yourself.
posted by Felex at 10:55 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think maybe you meant 'moot'. It's a difficult word to hone in on.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 11:07 PM on February 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Do what's right even when others are doing wrong. Don't shrug your shoulders and make excuses for bad behavior.
posted by pracowity at 11:11 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


yes, damn you edit button.
posted by Felex at 11:12 PM on February 4, 2011


Yes, despite the evidence that my choice will have no effect, I can't imagine ever eating Bluefin tuna after reading Four Fish.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 11:36 PM on February 4, 2011


I guess I'll uh, have the salad.
posted by Ritchie at 11:51 PM on February 4, 2011


"fish2fork is the world’s first website to review restaurants according to whether their seafood is sustainable, and not just how it tastes."
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:13 AM on February 5, 2011


I had a professor say that voting with your spending money was akin to masturbation. It makes you feel good, but in the end its just you playing with yourself.

This professor sounds like a real winner. Good of him to share his thoughts on his recreational practices with you, but to suggest a strict dichotomy between utilitiarian value and masturbatory value, with nothing in between, is simplistic to put it very kindly. He is actually comparing refusing to support practices you find loathsome to masturbation?

So for example, if your refusal to buy a product of, say, slave labor will not end that slave labor, then it's not only okay to buy it but it amounts to self-pleasuring not to? Frankly I'd put it the other way: saying "oh well, not buying this thing I want won't put a stop to it being produced, so I'll just go ahead and do what I want" seems rather more masturbatory to me -- certainly more self-indulgent.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:38 AM on February 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Didn't we just do this vis Legal Seafood?
posted by fixedgear at 1:40 AM on February 5, 2011


Check the prices for dinner at Chez Pannisse and have your people call my people so we can set something up.

One dinner a day times 30 days in a month times $80/meal = $2,400 a month = $28,800 a year.

Ches Panisse and its ilk are no more than a well appointed confessional where wealthy people go for absolution and restaurant reviewers go for free food.

"Eco-fibbing" (?!) will persist as long as there is money to be made.
posted by vapidave at 2:31 AM on February 5, 2011


The oceans are well and truly fucked, no amount of individual consumer action will defuck them. You'll be telling your grandkids about how there was more than just jellyfish in the oceans. Might as well enjoy your tuna, or it will just be enjoyed by someone else, elsewhere.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:58 AM on February 5, 2011


If this was a problem, the market would have solved it.
posted by doublehappy at 5:04 AM on February 5, 2011


If A) this was a problem, B) the market would have solved it.

A) Overfishing is a problem, and has been empirically studied as well as theoretically modeled. Look it up.

B) I believe there's this thing called negative externalities that the market is really bad at handling.

The market's solution is to make the population of fish ≈ 0. That is a solution, but not one that most human beings actually desire, for various good reasons.
posted by polymodus at 5:22 AM on February 5, 2011


> Do not vote with your purchases, it does not work, it never has worked on a large scale.

That is a morally bankrupt statement.

If you pay someone to prepare a member of an endangered species for you to eat, you are assuming some of the responsibility for killing that species.

(I'd also add that boycotts and consumer movements have been extremely effective in the past, from lettuce and grapes to beer. Since you didn't bother to present any evidence for any of your other claims either, I'd assume you're making them up just like that one.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:36 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Might as well enjoy your tuna, or it will just be enjoyed by someone else, elsewhere.

There's a huge difference between these two cases, and the difference is that if I don't eat the tuna, I won't share the blame for killing it.

The argument that "everyone is doing this evil thing, so I can do it too with no moral consequences" is appalling.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:38 AM on February 5, 2011


Meh. This is not about individual acts, it's the human race doing this en masse and only concerted international sanctions / regulations would be able to turn things around. LOL

"Yeah the commons is fucked, but at least I kept my sheep at home."
"The atmosphere is no longer breathable, but at least I was carbon neutral."
posted by Meatbomb at 6:27 AM on February 5, 2011


In the future, there will be only five fresh fish left.
posted by Wolof at 6:44 AM on February 5, 2011


Any moral argument presenting a solution that is only sustainable for a small percentage of wealthy people (rod and reel caught?!) is intrinsically problematic.
posted by stp123 at 8:04 AM on February 5, 2011


World's first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in (where else) Portland:
posted by gottabefunky at 8:30 AM on February 5, 2011


If this was a problem, the market would have solved it.

Tell that to the Atlantic cod (see especially George's Bank). Unless by "the market" you mean "government agencies" imposing catch limits and limiting or closing seasons altogether (see: California salmon commercial fishing, which has been closed or extremely limited for three or four seasons now) while commercial boats push back.
posted by rtha at 8:33 AM on February 5, 2011


Don't worry. Corporations and fishermen will ensure the future of Tuna on Earth!

From an article in the Independant, from 2009:

Japan's sprawling Mitsubishi conglomerate has cornered a 40 per cent share of the world market in bluefin tuna, one of the world's most endangered fish.

A corporation within the £170bn Mitsubishi empire is importing thousands of tonnes of the fish from Europe into Tokyo's premium fish markets, despite stocks plummeting towards extinction in the Mediterranean.

Bluefin tuna frozen at -60C now could be sold in several years' time for astronomical sums if Atlantic bluefin becomes commercially extinct as forecast, a result of the near free-for-all enjoyed by the tuna fleet.


I disagree with Meatbomb's market response. I haven't eaten maguro in over three years.
I quit eating ocean fish last year.

I abjectly agree with Meatbomb's assessment of the the future of the oceans, though.
We are going to fish the oceans until they free of all complex life.

And then we'll keep fishing.
posted by the Real Dan at 8:40 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have been out of the Berkeley marina many times, I have never seen the situation described by Belov of "dead fish carpeting the water"

I am going to find this guy though.

Thanks Joe.
posted by pianomover at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2011


If you pay someone to prepare a member of an endangered species for you to eat, you are assuming some of the responsibility for killing that species.

If we place a surcharge or tax on a single species of fish, it can cause the price to go up, then buying it will support the survival of the species. This happens, paradoxically, because the demand has been lowered and the revenue stream increased for profit, tax and oversight. The real danger in populist boycotts are delusions itself, because someone is going to catch the fish and it may end up as communist fertilizer instead, out of mind to the street saviors.
posted by Brian B. at 10:05 AM on February 5, 2011


Fish as food: per capita supply (average 2003-2005) via.
posted by adamvasco at 10:44 AM on February 5, 2011


I find it chilling how most people agree how truly fucked fish are but most throw up their arms and tell us we might as well party now cause the extinction of fish like tuna is inevitable. Are we collectively agreeing on a problem and then agreeing that there is no solution?

Gird up your loins, remember how the human spirit used to be aspirational. With regards to Bluefin Tuna the US is actually a leader in conservation: Bluefin Tuna ban proposal meets rejection. People in other countries need to put more pressure on their government through lobbying and donations to conservation groups. And yes, stop eating the vast majority of fish, stop eating tuna altogether. I don't buy catfood with fish in it and cheap, canned fish are some of the worst fish you can buy.

I find overfishing to be a problem similar in scope to carbon emission in that there is no single magic bullet that will solve this problem. But what comes closest, if anything, besides a ban with strong enforcement, is genetic engineering. They have already developed a genetically modified salmon and I would be shocked if we do not have the gnome of bluefin tuna and other important, endangered species on file.

Also be an advocate, if you believe this is a problem tell people. We, as a species, have overcome plenty of challenges and completed some amazing projects, but giving up before we have even lost is a sure way to failure.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:55 AM on February 5, 2011


World's first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in (where else) Portland:

On the east coast there's Miya's in New Haven. Miya's is very unique. It's the first restaurant I've ever been to where I felt like I needed cliffnotes for the menu. They also have PBR on tap which may scare some of the anti-hipsterites away, but to make up for it they also have sapporo on tap.

But what comes closest, if anything, besides a ban with strong enforcement, is genetic engineering.

Does anyone know if there is a project like this going on? I mean at this point genetic engineering is really the only solution.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:10 AM on February 5, 2011


Might as well enjoy your tuna, or it will just be enjoyed by someone else, elsewhere.

Yeah, and you personally refusing to patronize that brothel with the kidnapped 12 year old sex slaves isn't going to stop human trafficking so you might as well enjoy yourself, right?

And before anyone starts yelling that the two things are not comparable, the point is that the reasoning is not only comparable, it is identical. You either support practices you despise or you don't. Saying that your personal refusal to participate won't magically solve the problem is a lazy, self-serving rationalization.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:10 AM on February 5, 2011


You either support practices you despise or you don't.

Why would anyone support a practice they really despise? It's really not a contradiction as you framed it. If someone likes fish, they want them to be around more than anyone else, and they are willing to pay more. They are the rescue party. They can save the fish by keeping it out of the hands of people who see it as just another fish. The problem is made worse by black and white morality, because it runs the risk of shutting down a willingly funded solution.
posted by Brian B. at 11:24 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The linked article is very informative. Here is the penultimate paragraph:


Lastly, everyone at every step along the way has got to ask more questions. “How was this fish caught?” is the most important one. If the waiter doesn’t know, ask the chef, and if you don’t hear the right answer (and let’s be clear: “I don’t know” is not the right answer), order something else. Let the restaurant know that sustainability matters to you. If enough people start asking the right questions, even indifferent chefs will find their way to people like Belov.


Asking these questions at restaurants and fish markets and then making your decision based on their answers will make a difference and has made a difference in the way fish are caught and marketed. It is quixotic to believe otherwise, eggs from a cage-free-hen hasn't always been an option, nor grass-fed beef, or organic produce, and biodegradable trash bags and cups. Demand can, has, and will drive the market.

If enough people demand restaurants source their fish responsibly this will have a huge effect on fishermen practices and ultimately begin creating a culture where irresponsible fishing is unacceptable which in turn will create an environment where bans on critically endangered fish are possible. This is, like most political actions, about getting each and every individual you can to change behaviors and habits. We are social animals who, like a cloud of birds or a school of fish, can quickly and collectively change directions.
posted by Shit Parade at 11:28 AM on February 5, 2011


If someone likes fish, they want them to be around more than anyone else, and they are willing to pay more. They are the rescue party. They can save the fish by keeping it out of the hands of people who see it as just another fish.

I'm sorry, what? If I eat an overfished, destructively harvested fish I'm rescuing it from being eaten by someone who somehow doesn't appreciate it in the special way I do? There's something in your proposition that makes absolutely zero sense to me. Like, um, all of it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:29 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]



1. Was the fish caught/raised in a way that is healthy to that particular fish species?
... etc


You could add to that list, considering that Orange Roughy (formerly known as Slime Head,) gets a mention:

5. Is the relatively small fish on your plate more than 200 years old?
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:49 AM on February 5, 2011


(according to wikipedia, those orange roughy might only be 149 years old, but still...)
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:52 AM on February 5, 2011


I'm sorry, what? If I eat an overfished, destructively harvested fish I'm rescuing it from being eaten by someone who somehow doesn't appreciate it in the special way I do? There's something in your proposition that makes absolutely zero sense to me. Like, um, all of it.

Saving a fish means a tax and oversight, including catch limits, which is paid by the consumers. In turn, the suppliers are regulated specialists who get something extra like a tax credit for quality control and other subsidies and price supports. If we are really debating the morality of eating animals, then say so, because I'm assuming we want the fisheries to return to normal to supply food in the most efficient and sustainable way. Sustaining them is not done by simply rallying the wealthiest consumer to stop eating them so they can be made into cat food somewhere else, for obvious reasons to me.
posted by Brian B. at 12:01 PM on February 5, 2011


Brian B., if you have a vision for a program to restore the world's fisheries to sustainability through a regime of taxation and regulation, terrific. I think many of us want that. Good luck, I agree wholeheartedly with the approach and I'd actively support it in any way I can.

But you framed it as a response to a comment from me about the ethics of personal consumption and spending, irrespective of whether your individual choices are going to change the world. Is it really essential to your plan that people abrogate ethical choices personally? I don't see how that follows at all. And if your plan doesn't require or need people to decline to make ethical purchasing decisions, why are you framing your great idea as a rejoinder to it? It's confusing at best, almost bizarre.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:20 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The cat-food maker is not going to pay the same price for tuna that a wealthy consumer
would. The net profit will be much less for tuna sold as cat food than tuna sold as
maguro or toro. Some fishermen may get out of the business of fishing for tuna, because they won't be able to make a living at it anymore.

I think Brian B. makes an important point, though. Economic action taken toward a desired outcome without fully considering the likely chain of economic responses can be as bad as no action at all. Putting it another way, punching the market hard, once, and then eschewing it thereafter is fatally underestimating it.

Look at the success of duck hunters in preserving habitat for ducks (and some other birds, incidentally). Look at the success of deer hunters in preventing the re-introduction of wolves and other predators in their hunting range. But look also at the wasting disease that is affecting deer and elk, that would have been prevented by wolves. Look at the genetic selection for smaller individuals in game species.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:54 PM on February 5, 2011


I enjoyed the read. It was informative and well-written, in sort of an anecdotal Omnivore's Dilemma way. Thanks!
posted by archagon at 5:36 PM on February 5, 2011


The market's solution is to make the population of fish ≈ 0. That is a solution, but not one that most human beings actually desire, for various good reasons.

No it isn't. The market's solution is for prices to rise as supply declines, and an economist's solution fishermen tradeable property rights (which will become worthless if the fish population goes to zero). What actually happens in many places (especially Europe, I'm ashamed to say) is that fishermen stage protests and whine about the destruction of their way of life (by fishermen of other nations, never themselves) until the government caves and gives them financial subsidies to keep over-fishing instead of buying their boats on condition that they get out of the fishing business.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:56 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


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