Dig In, It's Endangered Species!

I confess I didn't know I had done something immoral until my editor informed me. "You ate shark's fin soup?" he cried over the phone. "Don't you know what they do to those poor sharks?"

"They," as it turned out, meant fishermen, and what they "do" is relieve the sharks of their fins by slicing them off and throwing the still-living bodies back into the water. Without its fin a shark can't swim, and it slowly, miserably dies. And by ordering and critiquing shark's fin soup in a Chinese restaurant those many years ago, I committed what some consider a very great sin: I'd endorsed dorsal abuse.

But I guess I still do. Because I can't not. My professional ethics, which I guess override my personal objections, insist that I sample the specialties of the house, which in an authentic Chinese eatery usually means shark's fin soup, along with even less-appetizing dishes like jellyfish and sea slugs. (Little did my then-editor, a more honorable man than me to be sure, suspect that I also ate albacore tuna, which isn't caught with dolphin-safe techniques, for lunch. Phew.)

Jeremy Eaton

But even I was perturbed in mid-1997, when I read an announcement in Bon Appétit claiming North American chefs were banning swordfish from their menus. The sport fish had been drastically reduced in numbers, and celebrity chefs were showing sympathy to the suddenly endangered species. How noble. I doubt anyone would notice a restaurant didn't serve swordfish. Now, if filet mignon were to become scarce or, say, celebrity chefs....

Anyhow, I was disturbed because I'd just received a press release from the Florida Fish and Game Association promoting the use of swordfish, both at home and in restaurants. The mailing even provided recipes! And while there didn't seem to be a direct connection to the marketing ploy, I had noted an increase in swordfish dishes in the restaurants I was reviewing. In fact I'd just sampled some the night before.

So what does this tell us, besides the fact that South Florida is clearly not a part of North America? (We didn't need a big ol' fish to tell us that, Alex Penelas.) Mainly restaurateurs and chefs buy whatever is fresh from their purveyors. If a surplus of swordfish is on area menus, that means a bunch of the poor fellas have been snagged out at sea and handed over to the vendors. Then the fish makes it way to the chefs and on to the plates. Yet I find it hard to believe that now, in 2000, when there's been much publicity on the subject, local chefs and restaurant owners willfully ignore that this fish is, metaphorically speaking, on its last fins.

It appears, however, to be the case. Or does it? Grillfish owner Ken Pittman says as well publicized as the decline in swordfish a couple of years ago was, it's been "equally well publicized that swordfish has been making a comeback, particularly in the Gulf." Much of South Florida's stock of swordfish, he points out, comes from this area. "I know prominent chefs on both sides of the issue," he continues, "some who have kept swordfish on their menus and some who haven't. You just have to look carefully and not buy undersized fish" -- those that were illegally caught before they reached the size and age to reproduce.

"I've looked at both sides and read all the studies. The U.S. government says it's okay now to buy swordfish; the environmental groups say it's not. It's pretty hard to get at the truth," he admits. That it is, and Pittman is amenable to pulling swordfish from his menus if new studies should come out proving it is once again on the decline.

Two years isn't enough time for the fish to have made much of a recovery anyway, but at least Pittman is aware of the issue and is informed about it. Other restaurants I've called, including the Capital Grille, which offers swordfish nightly, can't even make a comment. The manager at the Grille in Miami referred me to national headquarters, where a spokesperson told me he didn't "believe" swordfish was on the menu at all. (Guess what? It is.)

On the other side of what Capital Grille wants to treat as a nonissue, chef-proprietor Allen Susser of Chef Allen's notes that "we need to watch our environment, and treat fishing the same way as sustainable agriculture. We should carefully tend not only what's domestic but what's wild, too." Susser pulled swordfish from his menus a couple of years ago. And David Bracha, executive chef of Fishbone Grille, also banned it from the pair of restaurants, for precisely the same reasons.

Other restaurateurs and chefs are just ignorant. In the end, though, many of us have the same attitude as the chefs: If it's already dead, why not just cook it and eat it? The answer is because we, the consumers, are then supplying the demand for a species we are slowly killing off. You don't see manatee on a menu, do you?

Of course not. But I'll tell you what you do see: Chilean sea bass, almost always displayed with its country of origin proudly intact. Well, sea bass actually is a misnomer. It's really the Patagonian toothfish, and the numbers of fish around Chile and the rest of South America are commercially extinct. The deep-water fish is now being pirated in Antarctica. Yes, pirated: Unregulated fishing for the toothfish has been so extreme that Greenpeace estimates annual hauls at 100,000 tons, with a market value of $500 million. And thanks to our hearty appetite for it, we are the big recipients of the illegal catch, making Patagonian toothfish -- sorry, Chilean sea bass -- a critically endangered species. Still it's rife on Miami (and national) menus.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help