Sustainable Seafood: What it Means to the Midwest

The past two decades have proven disastrous for the relationship between man and Sea. An increased popularity and demand for big name seafood items such as Salmon, Shrimp, and Tuna have led to toxic environments, dangerous industry practices, and extinct species.
Throughout my time in the hospitality industry, my personal relationship with seafood has changed drastically. Early in my career, whilst living in naiveté, nothing used to excite me more than a blood red piece of tuna or head on U-12 shrimp. I had no concern or even idea of where these products came from and the impact they were having on the world at large. I am happy to say that since then my understanding and knowledge of the fishing and aquaculture industries has come a very long way. I cannot however say the same for the common or even more seasoned consumer.
It’s no easy task to be able to identify sustainable seafood, grocers and purveyors are often misleading if not downright dishonest in attempts to sell their wildly perishable product. I have made countless phone calls to fish purveyors after receiving an order to find what I know to be Indonesian tiger shrimp in place of my standard gulf pinks. And inevitably I call the purveyor, talk to two or three people who are unaware of the problem to begin with before finally finding the right person and hearing them fess up.
Well beyond the problems of dishonest business practices is the larger issue of a system that is, quite frankly, broken. There is undeniably a responsibility to the average consumer to make the best choice they can given the information they have. And the good news is more and more information is available by the day in large part due to the efforts of the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program (visit seafoodwatch.org for a helpful sustainable seafood finder). The larger responsibility however lies with the leaders of the industry: fish markets hell bent on receiving blue fin tuna, aquaculture operations destroying vast swaths of ocean, and fisherman employing trawl techniques to catch shrimp. At this point the evidence of irreversible environmental damage is known to these practices yet they continue due to consumer demand.
So what is the future of seafood? Unfortunately I’m not qualified to answer such a grandiose question. I am however qualified to speak as a consumer and wholesale buyer of fish who lives in Missouri. For me, the most obvious answer is one few have considered before, the water that is all around us. As consumers we always think of saltwater species of fish as being food fish and blatantly ignore myriad of species that swim in waters just a few miles from our front door. I grew up on Lake Stockton, and spent much of my childhood fishing for Walleye, Large and Small Mouth Bass, Crappie, and Sunfish that have perfectly sustainable natural systems in the lake. In my younger years these fish would typically be taken home, fileted, and deep fried in Louisiana Fish Fry Batter. As a modern culinarian exploring the available food of the Missouri River Region, I am much more adventurous in my use of such fish, and am thrilled with the results.
Freshwater aquaculture is also taking a foothold in the marketplace. Rainbow Trout and Hybrid Striped Bass are now widely available from seafood purveyors and are beginning to make appearances in the common supermarket. Basic math tells you that these fish are going to be of much higher quality and freshness coming from a few miles away instead of a few hundred miles away. Freshwater aquaculture (if practiced correctly) can produce protein at one of the most effective rates in the world, with a feed to product ratio of approximately 1 to 1. This means that it takes one pound of feed to produce one pound of edible fish. To give you some perspective feed to protein ratio for typical farm raised Atlantic salmon is about 8 to 1.
What to do with this information? Number one, when buying fish in the supermarket or for your restaurant please consult the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch website to insure you are buying product that isn’t harming the environment. Number two, consider what is around you, if you see farm raised freshwater fish in the store, BUY IT! Don’t be afraid to take some Walleye or Crappie from your friend with a fishing hobby either, or better yet get out there and catch it yourself.

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