Small Fry: Donohue of The New Yorker writes: “Encouraging consumers to eat fish
such as herring, mackerel, and butterfish might, ironically enough, be the best way to
save those species.”
Photo Credit: Ben Brain; Getty
Source: New Yorker
In “The Case For Eating Small Fish,” Donohue writes:
From the perspective of small fish, the potential collapse of predatory species such as cod, tuna, and swordfish, which are popular with diners, would seem to be good news. However, as the larger, high-value fish became increasingly scarce, the fishing industry turned to farming, and those penned fish needed something to eat. Commercial fishermen have thus begun fishing down the food chain, and smaller fish behave in ways that make them very vulnerable, swimming in large, dense schools that are easy to spot from the air and require little fuel to pursue. “Fishing for these animals may be likened to shooting fish in a barrel,” a National Coalition for Marine Conservation report noted in 2006. Three years ago, a far-reaching analysis of forage fish, put out by the Lenfest Foundation and financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, reported that thirty-seven per cent of global seafood landings recorded annually consist of forage fish, up from less than ten per cent fifty years ago. Of that thirty-seven percent, only a small fraction goes to the consumer market—mostly in the form of fish oils and supplements—while the bulk is processed into pellets and fishmeal, then fed to animals like salmon, pigs, and chicken.
“We are grinding up a third of the ocean each year,” Greenberg told the diners at the Grand Banks, before the food was served. Greenberg was on hand to discuss the virtues of catches such as herring, mackerel, and butterfish, which, he said, are very high in omega-3 fatty acids (hence their value to the supplement industry), albeit bony and strongly flavored. “They are healthy to eat, but tricky to cook,” he said.
The meal had been organized in part to address one of the Lenfest report’s more radical conclusions: that forage fish, because they support swordfish, tuna, and other in-demand predators, are worth twice as much to us in the water than when transformed into animal feed. The authors suggested cutting the haul of forage fish in half each year. But of course this would also halve the income of the fishermen who depend on that catch, so other ideas began to circulate. “What if we cut the forage fish take in half and instead paid fisherman twice as much for that catch, since it would be sold as valuable human food rather than cheap animal feed?” Greenberg later mused to me. “By the reasoning of the Lenfest report we’d also have more wild big fish.” He added, “Of course this is all very sort of economics-in-a-bottle type thinking. What would happen to the market for forage fish if their price doubled? It could possibly incentivize more people to catch them. But I think it’s possible to engineer a management regime where they wouldn’t.”
This scenario would require creating a consumer market for forage fish—in other words, making fish like herring, mackerel, and anchovies seem tasty and desirable. A larger effort is also underway; recently, the conservation organization Oceana got twenty of the world’s top chefs, including Ferran Adrià, Massimo Bottura, Grant Achatz, and René Redzepi, to pledge to serve such fare.If well-known chefs start using such small fish in creative ways for their recipes, it will likely encourage others, including lesser-known professional chefs, amateur cooks, food lovers and “foodies” to follow suit. The success of this program, however, would translate to a corresponding increase in the price consumers pay for such small fish. Such is a small cost to pay for protecting the world’s oceans for future generations, which have, for decades, been undergoing critical threats from over-fishing and an increase in acidity, the latter a result of climate change; the former of unsustainable fishing practices.
Besides the human necessity to conserve what remains of the ocean’s fish-stocks—and thus maintaining a minimum of biodiversity of species—there is always the additional benefit of discovering some new tastes, some new dishes to arouse and awaken the taste buds. One is never too old to discover something new. This is not minimizing the threat cited above, but explaining it a language that we can apprehend. In other words, it is better to enjoy such fish while they exist, because we as humans cannot be certain what happens tomorrow. Computer models are limited in their predictive powers.
Personally, I have not eaten any of these forage fishes as cooked dish in the same way that I cook (or bake) salmon, sole or trout. (e.g., I enjoyed a baked Atlantic salmon last night for dinner; we eat fish at least once a week.) I have eaten herring since I was a young boy, having it introduced to me by my parents. I have eaten it and like it both pickled and schmaltz, but it comes in jars. My wife and I once bought fresh herring, but it was at a fish store, and it was many years ago in the first years of our marriage. I would agree that freshly caught fish is better for many reasons, but not all of us are fishermen, so we rely on those who are, and are thankful for their skills.
One one occasion, when I was about seven or eight, I remember a carp swimming in our bathtub; it became part of a festive meal the next day. I think I tried a small bite, but I did not have an appetite for the carp, mainly because it had a lot of small bones and it was too much work to eat. I also enjoy anchovies, although it is slightly more salty than I typically like.
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