Monday, December 17, 2012

Meatless Monday: Two Fish Stories Worth Telling

The First Tale: An Historic Vote to Save the Menhaden 

On Friday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)  voted to limit the total annual menhaden catch (TAC) to 170,800 metric tons beginning in 2013, a reduction of 20% from the average of landings from 2009-2011, and the first-ever catch limit for the fish. States will be required to close their fisheries when the state-specific portion of the TAC has been reached. 

The menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a species of herring, less than a foot long, also known by the names “bunker,” “pogy,” and “fatback.” Considered by many to be the “most important fish in the sea,” the menhaden has been overfished to just 10% of its historic levels. 

The Atlantic menhaden feeds by opening its mouth and allowing water to pass through its gill openings, which filter microscopic plants and small crustaceans from the water. 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. 

A very oily fish, the Atlantic menhaden is considered excellent bait. Although not generally harvested for food, it is highly prized. Menhaden is processed commercially as chicken and pet feed, fertilizer, oil for paints, soap, ink, cosmetics, and for omega-3 fish oil, a dietary supplement. 

Virginia is the only state of the 15 members of ASMFC to allow a corporate fishing fleet to harvest menhaden; the fleet belongs to Omega Protein. According to an article in the Washington Post, eighty percent of menhaden harvested on the Atlantic coast are caught in Virginia. Thus, the new state-specific TACs are a game-changer. The 20% reduction passed 13-3 despite the protests from Virginia fishermen.

Tale 2: The fish you buy may not be the fish you think you are buying.

The Boston Globe recently hired the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph to test the DNA of 183 samples of fish to determine their species. A 26-nation consortium at the University compared snippets of the specimens' DNA against a DNA library for identification. The samples were collected from markets and restaurants across the eastern portion of Massachusetts, from Worcester to Cape Cod; 48% were found to be mislabeled

In several instances, escolar, which can cause severe gastrointestinal problems, was substituted for white tuna. Check out this fact sheet on escolar provided by Health Canada for an explanation of why this fish can inflict such distress in some people. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program suggests you AVOID many types of fresh tuna for sustainability reasons. Health concerns are another reason you might want to refrain from tuna at the sushi bar.

On that note, Happy (and Healthy) Monday! Thanks for reading.

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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