An essay in Sunday's New York Times made a compelling case for wild seafood and marked a path to sustainability based on consumers' selections and Alaska's proven model

by Craig Weatherby

Yesterday's edition of The New York Times really made our day.

This writer met Times quick-recipe guru Mark Bittman in the early 1990's, when we crossed paths while serving as fellow ink-stained wretches for the now-defunct magazine Natural Health.

He went on to serve as the executive editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, and Mark has since achieved national fame for “The Minimalist,” his godsend of a New York Times column custom-tailored for amateur cooks.

Mark Bittman also authored How to Cook Everything and the excellent Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, which won the 1995 Julia Child Cookbook Award in the Single Subject category.

(Mark is shown at left above, with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, in the kitchen at the restaurant Jean Georges.)

But in yesterday's Times, Mark stepped outside his usual role to pen a superior summary of the state of wild seafood, its culinary superiority to farmed fish, and the steps needed to restore wild stocks to abundance.

We urge you to read his article in yesterday's New York Times, titled “A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish.

Unsurprisingly, Mark starts by underlining the poor eating quality of the products of industrial fish farming.

As he writes, “…its products generally don't taste so good, at least compared to the wild stuff… It seems unlikely that farm-raised striped bass will ever taste remotely like its fierce, graceful progenitor, or that anyone who's had fresh Alaskan sockeye can take farmed salmon seriously… Myself, I'd rather eat wild cod once a month and sardines once a week than farm-raised salmon, ever.”

More importantly, he presents a factually solid analysis of the inefficiencies of industrial fish farming, and the ways in which regulators and consumers can cooperate to restore wild fish stocks to sustainable levels.

He sketches the damage that industrial fish farming does to wild stocks and the marine environment:

  • “Nearly one-third of the world's wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world's fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil.
Marine biologist John Volpe of the University of Victoria in British Columbia told Mark that using fish meal to feed farmed fish is “astonishingly inefficient,” requiring three kilos (6.6 pounds) of small fish to produce one kilo (2.2 pounds) of farmed salmon, with the ratios for farmed cod and tuna being far higher.

As Mark explained, this means that small “forage” species like herring, sardines, and menhaden are under increasing pressure.
  • “The industry spends an estimated $1 billion a year on veterinary products; degrades the land… pollutes local waters… and imperils wild populations that come in contact with farmed salmon.”

The solution he offers reflects common sense and is based on sound science.

In short, Mark Bittman advocates three basic steps:

  1. Worldwide adoption of the “catch shares” management method that's kept Alaskan fish abundant. This system allows fishermen to bid on the right to harvest a percentage of a given fishery's scientifically determined sustainable harvest. As he wrote yesterday, “This method has been a success in a number of places including Alaska… A study published in the journal Science recently estimated that if catch shares had been in place globally in 1970, only about 9 percent of the world's fisheries would have collapsed by 2003, rather than 27 percent.”
  2. Adoption of monitoring systems designed to reduce bycatch of fish other than those permitted for harvest.
  3. A shift among seafood consumers toward including smaller fish along with salmon, tuna, swordfish, cod, and other large species. Smaller fish like sardines and mackerel are enjoyed throughout the world, even, as Mark noted, “…by many American travelers who enjoy grilled sardines in England, fried anchovies in Spain, marinated mackerel in France and pickled or raw herring in Holland—though they mostly avoid them at home.”

Vital Choices for an optimistic outlook
We're doing our bit to make Mark Bittman's third tactic possible by offering superior Portuguese sardines and
sometime next monthsucculent canned Atlantic mackerel.

Our hats are off to Mark Bittman for a clear-eyed, practical look at a possible future for seafood.

This potential outcome will only occur if voters and consumers step up to the plate.

In addition to old favorites like tuna, salmon, halibut, and cod, that plate must come to include sardines, mackerel, herring, and other small but wonderfully flavorful fish... all of which are very high in healthful mega-3s.

We hope that the pebble Mark Bittman tossed in The New York Times' big pond makes ripples that help restore the balance needed to save wild seafood.