Every time I rig up a fishing pole or stare into the fish counter at the supermarket, the same question weighs on my mind: Is eating seafood the right thing to do? On the one hand, I feel that fish and fishing are too much a part of my identity to give up entirely. I grew up a monomaniacal fisherman, catching and eating seafood at every opportunity, back when American fish were readily available and often abundant. On the other hand, the oceans are in trouble. Humanity now catches around 90 million tons of seafood annually—a quarter more than what we caught back when I first wet a line in the early 1970s, and more than four times as much as what we caught when my father first went fishing in the 1930s.
Also troubling is that Americans now import in excess of three quarters of our seafood from abroad, much of it caught or farmed in dubious ways. Which is why I buy American. Over the past two decades, America’s fishing policies have improved tremendously, mostly because of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act. That legislation required regulators to define overfishing, identify fish that were in trouble and set target goals for rebuilding stocks. Today, 32 previously threatened fish and shellfish populations are at much-improved levels, meaning there are a lot more guilt-free (or at least guilt-light) domestic choices at the fish counter.
Pacific Spot Prawn
Though many Americans are oblivious to its existence, there is a crustacean that is abundant, delicious and perhaps more sustainable than any on earth: the Pacific spot prawn, a species of large shrimp that lives in the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska. Far more flavorful than the farmed shrimp out of Asia, the spot prawn also has a unique ecological benefit. Most wild shrimp are caught by trawlers, which accidentally kill millions of pounds of unwanted species (a.k.a. bycatch) every year; spot prawns, however, are caught in lobster-pot-like traps that kill very little bycatch.
To see this for myself, I recently went out with Vancouver’s Organic Ocean, a commercial fishing operation. When captain Steve Johansen pulled up a pot full of dozens of spot prawns, he also found a healthy five-foot octopus. After extracting it from the trap and letting it suction onto his rubber overalls, he dropped it back into the briny water and it scooted off into the deep. Octopus gone, we began devouring the shrimp right from their shells; five minutes later, I had to take a break. These crustaceans are so rich that eating more than a dozen results in what one Alaska fisherman calls “spot prawn coma.”
Historically, fishing operations shipped most spot prawns right to Japan and other points east. But in the last few years, American chefs, like New York City’s Michael White and Los Angeles’s Michael Cimarusti, are catching on. Cimarusti’s signature presentation at Providence is a single whole prawn on a gorgeous white pillow of salt (no coma risk there). At Chicago’s North Pond, chef Bruce Sherman barely cooks them. “They’re so tender and sweet,” he says. “I sear them superfast on a plancha with a little olive oil and salt.”
Gulf of Mexico Bycatch
Like shrimp trawling, traditional long-line tuna operations in the Gulf of Mexico result in large amounts of bycatch. But where other people saw trash, PJ Stoops and Jim Gossen of the distributor Louisiana Foods saw potential. In 2011, they created a new program called Total Catch, a way of marketing and distributing bycatch around the country, and paying fishermen a decent price for it.
As an experiment, I challenged New Haven, Connecticut, sushi chef Bun Lai to order up several crates of Louisiana Foods’ bycatch for a trash-fish dinner. “I looked up the species on Google,” said Lai. “All the results said, ‘Bait, bait, bait.’ ” With his restaurant, Miya’s, full of diners, Lai started working on these unfamiliar fish. He turned the silky but firm-fleshed blue runner into ginger-scented sushi; it was as rich as any hamachi. Not wanting to waste anything, he sliced off the skin and rolled it with eggplant for an offbeat maki. The tomtate, a slightly flakier fish, he quickly broiled, which crisped up the delicate brown skin. In Lai’s hands, these so-called trash fish became balanced, elegant and delicious plates of seafood.
As a kid fishing off the shores of Connecticut in the ’70s, I would pull up lilac-colored porgies with a bit of clam bait. But by the ’90s, the porgy had been fished so hard that fishermen often couldn’t put together a decent catch. Supplies became so low that American restaurants began using a farmed porgy-like fish called the dorade royale, flown in from Greece or Turkey. The price on menus: more than $20 a fish.
Now, however, the porgy is back, thanks to the implementation of what are called Gear Restricted Areas (GRAs). Since baby porgies often school with squid, the fine-mesh nets of squid-trawling vessels accidentally scoop them up on a massive scale. GRAs allow regulators to keep squid trawlers out of sensitive baby porgy habitats. “That stock just exploded once restrictions reduced porgy mortality in the squid fishery,” says government fisheries biologist Mark Terceiro. “This year, we’ll probably have the biggest landings since the ’50s.”
Atlantic Sea Scallop
Some fishery managers are turning to a traditional farming technique—letting ground go fallow—to help stressed seafood stocks recover. This practice is helping to bring the great Atlantic sea scallop back from a period of serious depletion. Until the early ’90s, it was relatively easy to get a scalloping permit, and over-dredging left many beds in ruins. In 1994, fishery managers made a drastic decision: They closed large portions of the Georges Bank, a patch of fertile ground east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to scallop dredging. As the scallop grounds of the Georges Bank bounced back, regulators took notice. In the mid-Atlantic beds, they put strict limits on the number of scallop vessels and mandated the use of a larger four-inch webbing, to allow baby scallops to slip through. Now, harvests are consistently good, helping to make scallop-heavy New Bedford, Massachusetts, America’s highest-grossing fishing port in 2012. “Scallopers are working one-third as many days as they used to,” says government fisheries biologist Dvora Hart. “And they’re making five times as much money, because bigger scallops are so much more valuable than smaller ones.”
Is there something Pollyanna-ish about all these hopeful stories? In truth, yes. Discerning seafood eaters, with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app on their smartphones, know that for every happy story about the sea, there are a dozen bleak ones. But good fisheries exist: responsible ones with ideas that can improve the business, quality and ethics of our seafood. If you care even a little bit about the future of the sea, it’s worth spending some time cheering for them.
Sustainable-Fish Buying Guide
How to get these all-American, eco-friendly fish from the dock to your table.
Pacific Spot Prawn
The family-run company Sea to Table (sea2table.com) helps connect fishermen who work sustainably with chefs and home cooks. For now, the spot prawns are only available in 24-pound cases; order by calling 718-360-4930. The company is in the process of launching a site for home cooks.
Porgies are in season year-round. While they are occasionally carried in supermarkets, they are easier to find at seafood markets and Asian groceries. Look for fish with clear eyes and bright gills.
Atlantic Sea Scallop
American sea scallops are available at most upscale supermarkets. Look for scallops that are slightly translucent and sweet-smelling or odorless. Don’t confuse big, meaty sea scallops with bay scallops, which are smaller with slightly fluted shells.
Seafood distributor Louisiana Foods sells bycatch through its Total Catch program. To find out what’s currently available, call 800-799-3134; cooking tips for these often-obscure fish are available online at louisianafoods.com.
Paul Greenberg wrote the James Beard Award-winning book Four Fish and is a fellow at the Blue Ocean Institute.