Fish and Shellfish and a Whole Lot More
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Chefs and home cooks all over America know and at least sometimes pay attention to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, an annually updated series of lists, national and regional, for recommendations for sustainable seafood purchases. The lists group numerous popular fish and shellfish varieties under the headings Avoid (red), Good Alternatives (yellow), and Best Choices (green) — with a recently added Super Green category for items both sustainable and particularly beneficial to health.
This annual event brings together scientists, winemakers, seafood merchants, and members of the press to discuss not just the state of the world's fisheries but other issues relating to sustainable food production and consumption.
The 2013 conference kicked off Thursday morning, May 16, with a greeting from Julie Packard, the aquarium's executive director (and one of The Daily Meal's 50 Most Powerful People in Food), who reminded Institute participants, who filled every seat in the aquarium auditorium, that "Our mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean." Kids walk in every day, she said (the facility welcomes almost 2 million people annually), who live 10 miles away and have never seen the Pacific. "Oceans are essential to everything about our lives," she continues. "Oceans are our life support system, and oceans are changing, at least partly because of things that take place inland, in our factories and farms." Stressing that the key to Seafood Watch is "a grounding in rigorous science," Packard listed some successes the aquarium has had: "Today, most major American retailers depend on Seafood Watch, more than 17,500 seafood sellers and food service operations across the nation. We have a new partnership with the Mars company, which besides candy bars, makes pet foods, and will be introducing the first line of sustainable pet food products. And the last legal shark fins in California will be sold about a month from today, and we're working on banning them in other states."
The first of two keynote addresses was given by David Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College and creator of the Oberlin Project, which seeks to transform this Ohio Rust Belt college town into a model of sustainable living. "I'm here under false pretenses," he began. "I don't cook. I represent the 7.2 billion people on the planet who eat." Ohio is behind the curve in culinary terms, he continued. "California invented the salad bar in, what, 1947? The first one opened in Ohio last week."(Right photo: Keynote speaker David Orr, Photo Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Orr went on to talk eloquently about the whole concept of sustainability. "The assumption is that the word implies a systems approach, but that's not how we've approached it. We can't look at it as a siloed business, we need full-spectrum sustainability, with the parts reinforcing the resilience of the whole. What this means is you're going to have to have lunch with a lot of different people — farmers, bankers, the poor — and learn a lot of different languages, the languages of policy and law, economic revitalization, community mobilization, renewable energy, education, agriculture…." He is particularly proud of his campus's Lewis building — officially the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies — a solar-powered, waste-neutral edifice that has been called one of the most important 20th-century buildings in America. His big project now is a 13-acre downtown Green Arts District, to include a hotel and conference center, a food depot, affordable housing, and a public school, among other things. This will be the centerpiece of a 20,000-acre green belt, and ultimately of a Lake Erie Regional Innovation Center corridor, which will extend from Detroit and Flint, Mich., through Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown. He concluded, "We need to secede from big oil, agribusiness, urban sprawl, banks…."
The day's first panel "Stories of Sustainability — From Global to Local," kicked off with Patricia Majluf, founder and director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability of the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. Her main concern is the anchoveta fishery. The anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) is a sardine-like relative of the anchovy, incredibly prolific in the waters off Peru, but caught and processed almost entirely for conversion into fish meal and fish oil for agricultural feed. Since 2006, Majluf has been leading a movement to encourage human consumption of the fish, "to feed our people and the world." There is now an annual Anchoveta Week in Lima, and chefs are encouraged to sample and cook with the fish. Majluf would like to help create an international demand for the fish, which will help local fishermen because they can demand higher prices for food fish than for one destined to be converted to meal and oil. Ironically, she noted, there is a connection between Monterey and the anchoveta business in Peru: When local sardine stocks were depleted in the 1950s and the celebrated Cannery Row canneries shut down, Peruvians bought the industry's boats and canning equipment and shipped it down. "Your undoing undid us," said Majluf.
The military analyst and Internet pioneer John Robb, who was among the first to predict the importance on online search engines, and who now runs a site called resilientcommunities.com, outlined a vision of homes all over America being "foodscaped." Americans spend more than $30 billion annually on planting and caring for lawns, he said. Instead, they should be planting food crops in the yards. "I interviewed a backyard orchard expert," he said, "who talked about a new way to produce fruit, not planting one big tree but four small ones and then pruning them aggressively to keep them about as wide as your arms and as high as you can reach. That way you can put four trees where there would only have been one. You don't even need to fertilize it, just compost the soil. If you had four different kinds of fruit, you could get at least 100 pieces of fruit from each one every year."
Robb is also excited by new ways of financing entrepreneurial projects — he's a big fan of Kickstarter, and thinks there are many possibilities in starting businesses through social media. "Capitalism is to a large extent just a middleman function," he said, "and by going straight to the consumer, the entrepreneur is much more likely to succeed." He likes the idea of a "relationship economy," where everybody produces what he or she can and then networks for the rest. Robb also foresees a day when every product we buy, whether manufactured or grown, is marked with a QR code telling consumers who made or grew it and where — "and everyone who touched it along the way."
Susan Sokol Blosser, co-founder of the respected Sokol Blosser winery in Yamhill County, Ore., and founder and president of the Yamhill Enrichment Society ("Building community through innovation and collaboration"), warns that "We need to reinvent our economy, and leadership is not coming from the top — it's coming from the grass roots." She believes that most business people don't understand value-added agriculture, and that the key to economic development in rural areas like hers is in the integration of agriculture and business. Matt Howard, environmental sustainability director for the city of Milwaukee, talked about an initiative called Home Grown. There are about 1,000 homes and 3,000d vacant lots that have been foreclosed on in his city, he said, and the idea is to turn the lots into gardens and the homes into community kitchens, mini-canning facilities, and so on.
The second panel of the day, moderated by Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Weiss, was much more specifically focused — on "Climate Change Impacts on Seafood Supply." Weiss evoked a visit he'd made to Alaska, "back when the paper still had travel budgets." Sustenance salmon fishermen on the Yukon River, mostly Native American, told him that the river's water temperature had risen, producing fish with mushy flesh, fit only for their sled dogs, and that when they tried to smoke it, it gave off a rotten-fish odor. He also visited pollock fishermen who told him that the fish were swimming farther north, to colder water, sometimes right into the nets of the Russian trawl fleet on the far side of the international date line. Closer to home, he investigated the deaths of "hundreds of millions of baby oysters" in Oregon. "We've dumped 2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution," he said, "and about a quarter of that has been absorbed into the ocean. The result is that the water has become about 30 percent less alkaline, and thus more acidic. This makes it harder for the oysters to build their shells, and they literally exhaust themselves to death trying."
At the University of California at Davis, assistant professor Tessa Hill is experimentally raising oysters, mussels, and other sea creatures under circumstance she believes might exist in the world's oceans a century from now. She confirms that higher acidity makes it more difficult for bivalves to build their shells. "But there will be winners and losers," she said. "We are not looking at the wholesale destruction of shellfish. For instance, sea urchins and crustaceans experience far less negative impact from acidity than clams and mussels do."
The aquarium's senior science manager, Tom Pickerell, notes that warming ocean waters might also increase the incidence of vibrio bacteria in shellfish (though he admitted that "They say you're 100 times more likely to get a pearl from an oyster than vibrio"), and noted that European Community regulations banning the sale of oysters in the summer months, which is their spawning season, might have to change. "The spawning period is moving away from the 'r' months," he said. Pickerell also reminded us that warmer water temperatures and higher acidity aren't the only problems facing our oceans. "Sea level increases could have a huge impact," he said, "not necessarily on seafood but on the functions of seafood farming. How do you get to your access roads, what if the location of your farm itself shifts, what about altered patterns of predation?" Increased freshwater runoff from wetter winters is also an issue, he added. "There will be localized decreased salinity," he said, "and phytoplankton types might change."
Larry Crowder, science director at the Center for Ocean Solutions — at one point, he cracked "The problem with working for the Center for Ocean Solutions is that people expect you to have solutions" — said plainly that "Wild-capture fisheries are slipping away from us. Half the world's seafood is now farmed. It's ironic that just as everybody is telling us to eat more seafood, there's likely to be less of it to eat." He also reiterated that changing climate patterns will affect the distribution of fish. "Some fish," he said, "will shift poleward, to the Arctic and Antarctic. Fisheries will change position. U.K. cod might end up in Iceland." Tom Pickerell jumped back in to say there is an analysis going on of 15 species of fish, examples of which have been tagged. "It will probably turn out that they're in pretty different places in 50 or 100 years," he said, "and not necessarily in places with nice bays that make fishing for them easier." He added that while he thinks of the Department of Defense as being "a pretty conservative organization," they are one of the few groups taking climate change seriously. "They're war-gaming it, trying to figure out where the best ports will be in the future, where conflicts are most likely to occur over resources, all the possibilities."
A second keynote address, by Matt Elliott, a principal at California Environmental Associates, pointed out that while the fishing take worldwide has been more or less stabilized in recent decades, the labor needed to maintain the same level of harvesting has increased by 25 to 30 percent (in other words, it takes more time and effort to end up with the same quantity of fish). He credits Greenpeace with having had a major influence in encouraging supermarket chains to buy more sustainable seafood ("Face it, nobody wants a guy in a fish suit hanging around outside their store"), but noted that boycotts are tricky. "If you don't buy the bluefin tuna," he said, "somebody else will. Somebody will buy the last bluefin tuna." A current list of "best" retailers from a sustainable seafood point of view, he revealed, ranks Safeway, Whole Foods, and Wegmans as the top three, Supervalu, Publix, and Winn-Dixie on the bottom.
The day's final panel, "Seafood Watch 3.0—Meeting the Needs of Purveyors," was moderated by Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. He told the story of having been in a "locavoracious" restaurant in Brooklyn recently — "My friends take me along so I can torture the waiters," he said — and, noticing pollock on the menu, asking where it came from. "I'll have to ask the chef," the server said. He came back and said "It's farmed." "OK," said Greenberg, there are 60 billion pounds of pollock in Alaska and somebody is farming it?" "I'll have to ask the chef," said the young man. He came back and announced "It's sustainably farmed." Eventually, of course, it was revealed that, yes, this was wild-caught Alaskan pollock.
The panelists were Asheville, N.C., restaurateur William Dissen, Santa Monica Seafood vice president Logan Kock, Compass Group vice president Marc Zammit, and Seafood Watch director Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly. Dissen said he uses the Seafood Watch lists as a Bible: He simply doesn't use anything in the red column. Kock said that he has to use items in the grouping — things like farmed shrimp and salmon and wild tuna — because his customers demand them, but that his operation has its own category, blue, for seafood from suppliers they have personally vetted. "Just because a category is red overall doesn't mean there aren't green producers," he said. Santa Monica Seafood does DNA testing on some fish, too, to insure that they're properly labeled — though he thinks reports of vast amounts of mislabeled seafood are probably exaggerated, and have to do with changing terminology (especially in sushi bars) rather than intent to defraud. Compass Group is the largest food service operation in America, and buys about 8 million pounds of seafood annually. Zammit notes that he works with about 10,000 chefs, and that implementing the company's sustainability platform is an ongoing project.
When Paul Greenberg asked Kemmerly if some items on the red list might soon be moving up into the yellow column, she said yes, but added, "Our concern is that something will move into the yellow and then everybody will jump on it and it will never have the chance to get to green." Ultimately, though, she added, "This
is a market-based movement. It's an amazing power play when a Compass Group or an Aramark [another large corporate feeder, which in fact runs the aquarium's food service] says to a supplied 'We'll continue to buy from you, but you have to abide by these standards.'" That was one of the most optimistic things heard all day.
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