By Helene York
For years, commodity-hog and feed corn growing was by far the dominant economic activity in this rural area. Now, many family farmers have switched to growing shrimp spawned at this hatchery in self-contained ponds. No one mourns the lakes of pig poop and nitrogen fertilizer runoff they replaced. The mature shrimp are now a prized late-summer feature in Ohio food, flavored by the minerals in freshwater ponds and the labors of local folk, much like the pumpkins and edamame harvested from the soil at the same time. The taste of never-frozen freshwater shrimp simply can’t be beat. Here’s the catch. Bob’s brood stock is from Asia: does that mean his shrimp aren’t local? What about an albacore tuna — famously far and fast swimmers — that is caught several hundred miles off the shore of Washington. Is that local if you live in Portland?
These aren’t simple questions, and they vexed me for years. But part of my job for Bon Appétit Management Company is to figure out purchasing policies for our chefs that can help them navigate these murky waters. Several committed chefs and I worked with a fisheries scientist to develop a program we called Fish to Fork, in honor of the Farm to Fork program Bon Appétit began in 1999. The issues we wrestled with, and the national guidelines we released in response last year, might be useful for local- loving home cooks.
FISHING CLOSER TO HOME
Few Americans think much about fish, period, let alone local fish. As a nation, we consume little seafood — an average of 17 pounds of prepared seafood per person per year (less than 4 ounces per week), compared to 184 pounds of chicken, turkey, beef and pork. Of that, 80% is shrimp (mostly farmed in Asia), canned tuna, salmon, and mild whitefish varieties such as wild pollock and farmed tilapia. With a strange exception for tuna, we don’t like our fish to taste “fishy.” Put another way, flavorlessness — as in fish “sticks” — is considered a virtue.
Bon Appétit has come up with some specific Fish to Fork guidelines for our chefs (see box), but the general principles are perhaps more important. The first is that “deliciousness matters.” Lots of fish look the same once filleted, but the subtle flavors of lesser-known species can be profound. Take striped mullet off the Virginia coast. Green-listed by Seafood Watch, it used to be a familiar white fish until easy-to-grow tilapia conquered supermarkets. Croaker is another regional Southeast fish enjoyed by relatively few people today. Both are competitively priced and knock the flavor socks off tilapia (which we affectionately think of as “tofu-fish” — and that’s an insult to good tofu’s subtle flavor nuances). Ask longtimers in your community what fish they used to enjoy and you may learn what might still be available.
Recently I asked our chefs about the seafood they ate as children. They shared memories about wild Gulf shrimp on the tip of Texas (“sweeter than ice cream”), Dungeness crab in San Francisco (“it’s not Christmas Eve without it”), and porgies off North Carolina shores (“the taste of real fish”) — all of which are still available. Like strawberries in summer, the notion of peak-season fish is powerful for those lucky enough to have tasted it.
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of sustainability. Edible readers probably know that if you were to check the seafood choices available at most mainstream supermarkets against marine science sustainability lists, many would come up “avoid,” due to serious environmental problems with the way the fish is farmed or fished.
The reason, simply, is that most supermarkets — and distributors who sell to restaurants — sell commodity seafood: popular species from very large-scale fisheries or fish farms. Sustainability, though possible, gets compromised by other priorities, like consistently bringing large quantities to market. A tuna boat can haul in 800 metric tons or more in a single purse seine net. “Tuna is too cheap,” says one tuna company executive. Conservationists couldn’t agree more.
So scale matters, too. Marine biologist Daniel Pauly and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia have shown that smaller fishing vessels are more likely to keep fisheries viable. With proper regulatory monitoring and support, small boats tend to haul in fish at sustainable rates, employ more people in meaningful work, and use less energy in total to catch equal quantities overall as larger boats. Small-boat fishermen on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts also tend to use much less destructive gear to haul in their catch than do larger ships trawling the open oceans, vacuuming everything in their wake. Small-scale fish farms need our support, too. They aren’t the monsters we associate with industrial operations. Some of them (like Passmore Ranch, the sturgeon and black-bass farm beloved by Bon Appétit’s Northern California chefs) have introduced responsibly raised new species into the marketplace and are helping revitalize rural communities.
In addition to netting unsustainable quantities of fish, industrial-scale fishing operations reduce the long-term resiliency of our food systems, and their aquafarming counterparts focus on too narrow a variety of species. Over-fishing oceans (or lakes) sharply reduces one favored species, such as sharks, causing others like jellyfish to thrive where previously they were all kept in balance.
But just as with produce, simply knowing the faces and names of our fishermen and women doesn’t mean we know that their methods do no harm. “Small-scale” and “local” aren’t necessarily good proxies for healthy ecosystems. Small-scale fishermen typically deploy non-industrial sized boats and equipment that don’t seem damaging. Yet when a lot of damage has been done to a fishing area, sometimes the best medicine is “No more fishing now!” not “Well, just a little is probably OK.…”
Unfortunately, you often can’t just consult your handy seafood wallet card or smart phone app. The major independent marine-science organizations, including Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and the Blue Ocean Institute, don’t assess most “artisanal” (small-scale) fisheries, like North Carolina’s Red Drum population. They simply don’t have the staff power to research all 32,000 of them. State fish and game departments are chronically understaffed and unable to provide data.
We’re partnering with Seafood Watch to assess some of the fisheries we’d like to buy from in the future, but meaningful information is a few years away. In the meantime, we’re sticking with species that are favorably rated.
ENERGY MATTERS A LOT.
The concept of “food miles” can be deceptive. Some restaurant chefs think nothing of buying “sustainable fish” flown halfway around the world, even though air-freighting is the most carbon-intensive way to get a fresh fish to a consumer’s plate. If fresh regional fish starts to supplant jet-fresh varieties, we will achieve a massive environmental victory.
As we attempt to rebuild robust regional food sheds, we shouldn’t ignore seafood. The variety of flavors are endless for both wild and aquacultured species (think oysters). For many home cooks, this will mean learning to cut and use the whole fish — not just fillets — much like the whole animal movement is teaching us to do with meat. And just as the local food movement has made farming and ranching enticing to young people, a local fish movement could revitalize traditional careers like fishing and create promising new businesses like sustainable aqua-farming. There’s still a long way to go before Ohio shrimp and Florida amberjack star on local menus and dinner tables, but once you taste local fish in season, you’ll be hooked.
Launched in 2011, Bon Appétit Management Company’s Fish to Fork program asks the chefs of its corporate, university, and museum cafés in 31 states to source as much seafood as possible from suppliers and/or fishers and fish farmers who meet these guidelines.
TRACEABILITY: Seafood suppliers must present a reliable system of traceability from the farm or the boat to Bon Appétit kitchens.
SIZE: Boats must be individually owned and operated, and not process the seafood on board. Aquaculture operations will be limited to those grossing less than $5 million per year per species. Small-scale fishing and aquaculture operations that practice integrated multi-species fishing or aquaculture will be emphasized.
DISTANCE: Boats should travel no more than 100 miles out to sea per trip. Distribution distance for wild fish or aquacultured products is limited to 500 miles by truck from dock or farm to Bon Appétit kitchens.
SPECIES PREFERENCES: Low-on-the-food chain species (such as sardines, oysters); species whose edible portion could be better utilized (such as scallops, much of which gets discarded by U.S. processors); less-widely eaten larger species (Seafood Watch “green”- or “yellow”-rated) that can substitute for one of the “Top Ten” species, such as tuna, whose popularity is endangering the species.
About Helene York
Helene York is Bon Appétit Management Company’s director of strategic sourcing and research, responsible for identifying new products and managing supply chains, reporting, and supplier relations for the company’s Farm to Fork program (established in 1999), Fish to Fork program (2011), and other initiatives. She was a founding board member of the nonprofit FishChoice. com and was named a Seafood Champion by Seafood Choices Alliance in 2010.