Friday, October 28, 2011

Fishy Friday

There is an old adage that fish is good food for the brain. Whether or not that is true, I have had fish on the brain all week. Here are four of the reasons why.

At New Haven Green Drinks on the 19th, Theresa Labriola, senior associate from the Northeast Fisheries Program of the Pew Environmental Group, spoke on the topic of Missing Menhaden in the hopes of rallying support for the Plan to Save the Menhaden. The menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a small fish, less than a foot long. A critical food source for wildlife, birds, dolphins, whales, and fish including striped bass and bluefish, the menhaden plays a vital role in the ecosystem of the Eastern Seaboard and has been called the “most important fish in the sea.”

In the late 1970s I came to know this fish as the “bunker,” something you bought by the pail as bait for snapper blues during their late summer/early fall run just off the shore in Connecticut. An odoriferous and oily fish, a bunker creates a slick when dropped into the water, and if you touch one with your hand, the fragrance lingers. 

Dr. David Starr Jordan, author of American Food And Game Fishes (1905) stated, “The menhaden is the most abundant fish on the eastern coast of the United States. Several hundred thousand have been taken in a single draft of a purse-seine. A firm at Milford, Connecticut, captured in 1870, 8,800,000… In 1877… the town of Booth Bay alone took 50,000,000.”  He also wrote of the menhaden’s fecundity, stating that more than 140,000 eggs had been taken from one fish. What were the commercial uses for the menhaden in the 1880s? They will sound very familiar if you read on: oil, fertilizer, and fish meal to feed domestic animals. In fact, the menhaden has been used as fertilizer since the Native Americans buried the fish with their seeds when planting mounds of corn, squash, and beans. But there was one huge difference between then and now. This turn-of-the-last-century volume estimated “the total number of menhaden destroyed on our coast by predaceous animals at a million million of millions, compared with which the number destroyed by man is scarcely more than infinitesimal.” Still, even back then, some fishermen began to object that the number of fish was in decline. In answer, Jordan wrote, “This, however, has not been proved, and many intelligent observers deny that any appreciable decrease has really occurred.”

In 2011, menhaden decline can no longer be denied. According to statistics provided on a Pew handout, menhaden historically made up 70% of the striped bass diet in the Chesapeake Bay. Now they account for just 7% and the bass are showing signs of malnutrition and decline. According to Pew, the number of menhaden is at a record low — just 10% of their historic levels. Billions (not millions) of Atlantic menhaden are being hauled in and ground up — destined to become fertilizer, pet food, dietary supplements [menhaden are rich in Omega-3], and feed for farm-raised animals and fish. One company, Omega Protein, is responsible for taking in 3/4 of the entire East Coast catch — more than 410 million pounds.

On November 9, at the meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board will vote on an addendum to the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan, which proposes new fish population targets and fishing limits for the menhaden fishery. This is the plan to rebuild the menhaden population that Pew was promoting at Green Drinks. You have until this coming Sunday, October 30, to lend your support. Check out this link to the Pew site to learn more and to sign their petition. But please do it soon!

More fish news…
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken emergency action to increase the amount of skate that fishermen can land this year — from 31 million to 48 million pounds, based on new scientific information showing an increase in the overall skate population. The 56-percent quota increase will be effective on November 28 and remain in effect through the end of the current fishing season which ends on April 30, 2012. Eric Shwaab, assistant NOAA administrator of NOAA’s Fisheries Service stated, “We recognize that these are difficult economic times for many fishermen and are working hard to increase fishing opportunity wherever possible…The quota increase will boost revenues for many fishermen and related fishing businesses, while maintaining our responsibility to important conservation objectives.” In the past a “trash fish,” skate wing is now featured on a wide range of restaurant menus.

Paul Greenberg Discusses Four Fish
Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear this best-selling author talk about and read excerpts from Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Greenberg, a very entertaining and polished speaker, recounted a number of anecdotes from his quest to study the four fish in his book: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. He began by explaining why he chose to write about these particular four fish and then moved on to the particulars of each of these fish “archetypes” [not to be confused with species]. As a Connecticut resident, I found the salmon section particularly relevant. Wild salmon, we were told, once played a major part in Connecticut local culture. But over time, myriads of dams were built along New England’s rivers (5000 in Connecticut alone), each one blocking a salmon run. According to Greenberg, the construction of the dam in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts in 1798 is what brought an end to the days of wild salmon in the state. Greenberg also outlined the history of the selective breeding of salmon and pointed out that Atlantic salmon is commercially extinct. All fish sold as Atlantic salmon is farmed. 

I also related to the comments on cod. As a native of Massachusetts I know this fish, as a delicious food to purchase and prepare, and as a catch to watch being unloaded at the Chatham fish pier each summer. I had watched the cod catch numbers fall and the price rise over the years. It was interesting to hear that the discovery of sonar and polymers in WWII were main driving forces behind the change in the way fish such as cod are caught. 

Greenberg also shared a story which has particular relevance since today is Friday. He recounted that the Filet o’ Fish sandwich was invented by the owner of a fast food chain who couldn’t sell any burgers on Fridays. The fried cod fillet placed inside his hamburger buns were just the ticket for his Roman Catholic customers! Of course, the fish is now Alaskan pollock, except at Denny’s where it is tilapia. But that is another story.

Greenberg was emphatic that with the amount of farmed fish now equal to the amount of wild-caught fish brought to market each year, there is no going back. He spoke hopefully of some new and better practices evolving in aquaculture, and of species of fish that might be better candidates for farming, such as the arctic char. He also proposed that the bluefin tuna be preserved as the last wild fish. 

I have been reading Four Fish in my “spare time.”  Snow is predicted for tomorrow, so I might just have the time as well as the inspiration to finish this thought-provoking volume. 

New Haven Has its Own Chef to the Stars
New Haven chef Bun Lai, owner of Miya’s Sushi has had quite a week. Known for his experimental Invasive Species Menu, Chef Bun had the opportunity to prepare a meal for RenĂ© Redzepi (Owner of Noma, voted the best restaurant in the world) on Monday and for Paul Greenberg on Thursday. Wow! 

That’s a wrap! TGIF.

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