Community-Supported Fisheries: Simplifying Sustainable Seafood

Thirty-five years ago, a small girl sporting pony tails looked up and saw the most menacing monster her little mind could imagine. She let rip a shrill scream, and the sunny Saturday that otherwise promised to be full of fun was suddenly shrouded by a shadow of doom.

The girl's mother frowned at the father with a look that said, 'See? This is what comes from joking with your children that there might be sharks in the bathtub.' The sight that caused the girl's terror was a fin bobbing along the surface of an above-ground pool at the local hardware store. The inflatable protrusion belonged to a toy dolphin, but from the girl's perspective it could only have been a shark waiting to eat her.

I've come a long way since, but at heart, I'm still an ocean-phobe. Events or factors that have contributed:
  • Meeting someone who was bitten by a shark while snorkeling on vacation
  • An unguided ocean adventure in Mexico with an (ex)boyfriend that ended in an embarrassing panic attack
  • The first five minutes of Open Water
Gastronomically, my oceanic history is just as spotty. My childhood seafood experiences were limited to Lenten fish Fridays, the occasional tuna casserole, and an over-dose of tartar sauce and frozen fish sticks at Grandma's that left me with a strong aversion until adulthood.

Photo taken by the great crew on the Mystique
My recent trip to the British Virgin Islands finally inspired me to commit to two things: 1) conquer my fear of the deep blue and 2) learn how to cook great seafood. Both were a result of a fantastic day sail and snorkeling adventure with Mystique Day Sails. Yes, that's me on the right practicing my under-water beauty-pageant wave.

What I found below the surface was not a scary depth of frightening creatures, but a gorgeous landscape filled with beautiful things... wavy fan corals, spiny black sea urchins, bright fish, and a barracuda (that did not try to eat us). It was a fascinating!

After our first snorkel, we stopped at an infamous floating party bar called Willy T's. When my mahi-mahi sandwich arrived I felt a bit like I had just gone to a petting zoo and ordered a lamb burger. Well, sure, fish aren't cute and fuzzy, but how brilliant and interesting they are!

I sighed, took a bite, and hoped that mahi-mahi was a sustainable choice. After returning home, I ran a search to see if I could easily find out whether my sandwich was indeed a good choice "for the environment." And the answer? Ummm... maybe. It seems one has to know where and how the fish was caught to determine whether one's lunch has contributed to the potential demise of the oceanic ecosystem. And good luck easily finding a seafood guide that is specific to the Virgin Islands or the Caribbean.

It's easier to find information on eating sustainable seafood in the US. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a program called Seafood Watch. You can download or search online guides that correspond to your region. And yet, it's still complicated...

If I was reviewing the same mahi-mahi sandwich on a stateside menu, it would be a "best choice" if it was caught in the US Atlantic or a "good alternative" if it was from the US Pacific, Hawaii or elsewhere, BUT only if it was caught by troll or pole-and-line. It's also a "good alternative" if caught in the US by longline, but it is to be avoided if it's caught by longline somewhere else and imported.

By now, I'm sure I've just ordered a grilled cheese which seems less fraught with potential diaster, (though one could argue that, in order to be better for the planet, the cheese would need to be made from milk provided by pasture-fed cows not treated with hormones or antibiotics... and of course ideally, chickens would follow the cows on the pasture).

Anyway. So, there I was... I wanted to eat more fish, but I also wanted to be a responsible consumer, and this seemed exhausting.

Luckily, the gastronomic powers-that-be threw me a fish bone a few days later. HA asked me if I'd like to join the Mermaid's Garden, a community-supported fishery based in Brooklyn. This is what I found on their home page:

"We know that trying to make responsible decisions about the fish we eat can be confusing. Fear not! Mermaid’s Garden is here to help you find seafood choices that are right for you and smart for the planet."

Acadian redfish before cooking
I like being smart for the planet, particularly when there is a culinary benefit. Every Tuesday, I receive an email about the week's fish that includes the name of the fisherman and his/her vessel, interesting facts about the species, tips for preparation or storage, and suggestions for recipes or cooking techniques.

It's pretty much impossible not to eat delicious and sustainable seafood in this way. In fact, it turns out that it's really easy to cook fish! I was in a rush last week and had a few filets of Acadian redfish that needed cooking. I brushed a bit of olive oil on each filet, sprinkled them with salt, lemon pepper and paprika and placed them in a parchment paper pouch. Then I threw them in the oven for a few minutes and voila! I had an outstanding "fast food"dinner.

If you live in or near Brooklyn, I highly recommend checking out Mermaid's Garden. If you live elsewhere, ask around. Maybe there is a CSF in your waters. In the meantime, check out a few of the sustainable seafood resources below.

And finally, note that the Cause of the Month has returned to UG. This month, I've contributed to the Blue Ocean Institute in Stony Brook, NY because they do good things for the sea, and they are working with Chefs Collaborative on a project called Green Chefs/Blue Ocean.

Until next time, my friends!

Interesting fish resources:
Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Fish Watch from the National Marine Fisheries Service
Fish Choice (a site that connects buyers and sellers)
WWF's Sustainable Seafood Guides (for multiple countries)