Sunday, October 11, 2015

Eating Local Fish



A few years ago I completed a lifelong coast to coast journey by moving to coastal California (I was born in Massachusetts and have spent many vacations on the Maine coast).  I was so excited to get back to great local seafood.  Living on Monterey Bay I would certainly be surrounded by it. The first time I went to the grocery store I was so excited to see the fish department but found myself looking at little different than in a good Midwestern grocery store.  I tried a couple mom-and-pop fish shops only to find fish from all over the world and relatively little from my own backyard.  Seems just about the only local fish to be found was seasonal salmon, squid and crab.  Occasionally I might find sanddabs.  This just didn’t seem right.  I wandered out on the local piers and found locals catching mackerel and ling cod.  I saw whales and massive flocks of birds when the anchovies and sardines were back.  I saw the proof that there were other fish to eat.  But why is it not in the stores?  Why is there not a simple, little fried fish stand by the beach selling baskets of fish from the ocean out back?

In recent weeks I have come across a few news items pushing Paul Greenberg’s American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, including an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/01/327248504/the-great-fish-swap-how-america-is-downgrading-its-seafood-supply)  He reports that the rest of the world is eating proportionally more seafood than Americans, including a huge proportion of the fish we catch in our waters.  Further, we eat a narrow selection of the fish we catch and import a great deal of some of the very same species from Asian fish farms.  90% of the fish we eat here is imported, even for those of us living close to the sea. Our fishermen are making much more money in foreign markets than they can dream of making at home because Americans simply don’t eat many species.  In particular, we don’t eat fish with strong flavors such as mackerel and sardines.  But these are abundant and inexpensive.  I happen to think they’re also interesting.  In fact, just a few weeks ago I was on the Rio del Mar pier, and people we hauling in mackerel left and right.  I saw a few men with multiple five-gallon buckets filled with mackerel.  Folks, that’s free food for their families – local, seasonal and flavorful.  Nor do we eat fish that don’t cut into neat filets – we are looking for ease of preparation.  But what are we losing?    

There are solutions if we want to change this.  We can search out restaurants that serve local, seasonal fish.  We can join a Community Supported Fishery, the aquatic equivalent of a CSA.  We can check out www.localcatch.org and see what we can find near us.  We can drop by the local mom-and-pops and the grocery stores and ask for species we want to see.  Granted, when I asked at my local grocery chain for sardines I was looked at like I was nuts and was told nobody had ever asked for them.  The local mom-and-pop needed a couple days’ leeway, but assured me they could get them.  You can look up a Trash Fish Dinner sponsored by the Chefs Collaborative.  When you find an interesting species, but enough to share, have some friends over and turn them on to something new.  If you live in the Mississippi, Ohio or Missouri Valleys, ask your local conservation agents about getting your hands on some Asian Flying Carp.  They’re invasive, destructive and make a great fish stew.  Walk into your local restaurants and ask what they serve that’s local and seasonal. 

If we are going to change this, we have to step up and ask for it.  There’s a world of new flavors and textures to try, and doing so will only be good for our local economies and our neighbors.  And our taste buds and appetites.

PS - Just this past Sunday, October 11 CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about Lionfish.  Check it out at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/lionfish-from-malicious-to-delicious/ 
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