Dish

Dig In, It's Endangered Species!

As is hake, which accounts for half of Argentina's catch, and which is shipped directly to the United States, where it is popular in our Argentine and Spanish restaurants (and others as well, since it often is passed off as cod). Hake has become so overfished, Reuters news service recently reported, that conservationists are imploring the Argentine government to pay fisherman not to catch it.

That's one solution to a growing problem. Although we'd like to pin it on unsympathetic fishermen, the sad truth is that many boats are equipped to catch only a certain kind of fish. Fishermen have certain specialties: They're stone crabbers, or tuna netters, or line fishers. They can't change jobs any easier than I could be an accountant. Meanwhile they're fishing themselves out of, well, fish. To fish or not to fish -- either way these folk are out of a job.

Another solution is to farm raise the endangered species. This deal works with conch, which has been illegal to fish from the wild for some time. Am I, a voracious conch fritter addict, comfortable with eating it? You betcha, especially in places like Tantra, where executive chef Willis Loughhead notes right on the menu that the conch he uses is farm raised.

Unfortunately swordfish are ocean-going fish, which need too much water and space to be raised in engineered tidal pools, as are hake and the Patagonian toothfish. In any event I'm sure folks would argue they would taste differently, and they probably would, given regulated water conditions and feed patterns. So we have to rely on fish bred in captivity and then released into the wild, an iffy and expensive project some governments aren't willing to take on. Or we have to try other measures, like enforcing "seasons" for certain species and throwback laws for fish that are too small (i.e., not of reproductive length).

Finally, not to sound like a presidential candidate or anything, but education also is the key. Few of the chefs I spoke with, including those who had pulled swordfish off the menus, knew sea bass was on the verge of extinction. So here's a little lesson on behalf of the ecosystem: Thanks to mammoth factory trawlers, huge fishing boats that can catch, preserve, and discard enormous amounts of fish, we are now looking at endangered populations of pollock, herring, yellowfin sole, flounder, cod, haddock, and mackerel. It's enough to make you not want to eat fish ever again.

Knowing what we do, can we as consumers continue to order endangered species? Yes, it seems, because we South Floridians are nonpolitical animals. For instance, Pittman says, he's had very few complaints about swordfish remaining on the menu of his trio of Grillfish restaurants. "In the past couple of years, I've only had five complaints, and four of those stemmed from the restaurant in the Washington, D.C., area." Boy are we pathetic.

But I'm not telling you to give up swordfish, or sea bass, or hake altogether. I don't want you to boycott restaurants that serve it, or rally at shops that sell it. And I don't want to blame the fishermen who have no choice but to catch it (though you can feel free to curse the pirates). But I do know this: If we don't cut down on our intake of endangered fish now and wait for the released babies to grow up and reproduce, we won't be eating it at all in the future, and it will no longer be our choice.

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