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.)
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.
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.
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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.