Archive for June, 2008

If it’s not local, is it still sustainable?

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Chef Spike Gjerde unloads salmon.This past winter I spoke with Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde about fish from far away for the article “A Good Catch: Serving Up Sustainable Seafood.” Gjerde serves wild Alaska salmon at Woodberry Kitchen, even though the restaurant’s motto is “celebrating the traditions and ingredients of the Chesapeake region.” Gjerde’s committed to serving local and sustainable cuisine. Though it’s hardly local, he offers Alaska salmon because he believes it’s from one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. It’s a balancing act, he says. For him, the sustainability of the fish makes up for it being from a waterbody 3,500 miles away.

Now — several months later, with gas prices soaring and talk of carbon footprints buzzing — I’m wondering, does it really?

What happens when that fish takes flight? That’s a lot of jet fuel between Bristol Bay and Baltimore.

Should Alaska salmon — or any other “sustainable” fish from distant waters for that matter — really be considered sustainable seafood in Maryland? Sure the fishery may be well managed and abundant, but does the trans-continental journey the fish takes to become our dinner jive with what it means to be sustainable?

This question has plagued the organic movement as well. Organic tomatoes from Chile and apples from New Zealand may be grown in an environmentally friendly way, but some argue that once they’re shipped to far-flung locales, greenhouse gas emissions offset their environmental benefit.

The oft-heard mantra to “eat local” is a response to this quandary. With the increasing number of neighborhood farmer’s markets and co-ops, although you may have to search, you can usually substitute local organic produce for distant fare without sacrificing look or taste.

Seafood poses more of a challenge. No matter how hard you look, you won’t find a local version of wild–caught Alaska salmon at a Maryland fish counter.

If you’re shopping at a big-name supermarket you might not find any local fish at all. As Jack Greer reported in Bringing It All Back Home, large-scale retailers deal in huge volumes of fish from across the globe rather than small volumes caught close by. I’m more likely to see seafood from China than from the Chesapeake at my grocery store.

But we may be entering a new era — one where customers care about the carbon footprint of their food and where even those who don’t care are forced to make changes as retailers raise prices to offset the cost of transporting these worldly fish. Seeking local regional specialties like croaker, striped bass, spot, bluefish, and weakfish could provide an alternative to cutting seafood out of the budget.

This is where eco-conscious consumers ask: But are these local fish sustainable?

Seafood guides distributed by organizations like Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute may help with the answer. These organizations list fish to avoid and those to enjoy based on analyses of things like abundance and management structure. Though the guides are met with skepticism from some fisheries experts who see them as incomplete, these icons of the sustainable seafood movement provide a useful primer for the average citizen trying to do the right thing at a restaurant or seafood counter.

In addition to a national guide, the Seafood Watch Program distributes regional guides — Maryland is considered part of the southeast. The regional guide lists striped bass and Atlantic croaker as a best choice, green on its stoplight scale. Bluefish isn’t listed on the southeast guide, though it places in the yellow column (good alternative) on the northeast guide. Seafood Watch doesn’t critique spot or weakfish. Blue Ocean Institute concurs regarding striped bass and bluefish. It doesn’t rate spot or croaker, but it does list weakfish as green.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s website bridges some of the gaps of the seafood guides. While the Commission doesn’t publish accessible pocket guides with color-coded ratings, they do provide background information on the status of 22 managed fisheries on the Atlantic seaboard. Those looking for in-depth details will find management plans, stock assessment reports, press releases, and meeting minutes. The site could prove a useful resource to concerned consumers, though it may take some effort to sift through the information.

A little extra effort seems to be the price for finding that sweet spot where local and sustainable seafood overlap. It’s right here in our blue backyard. We just have to look a bit harder.


Thursday, June 19th, 2008

When I called Charlene Pinkney back to double check some facts for A Tree Grows on Bruce Street in the latest issue of Chesapeake QuarterlyRenewing an Urban Watershed, I asked about her garden. It was early spring when I’d first visited — trees had just started to blossom. With all of May’s rain behind us, everything must have really taken off by now.

It has. And her lawn mower is still broken, which has made caring for the lush grass a challenging proposition. Her grass had gotten so tall recently that fearing a citation from the city, she got out there with a pair of hedge clippers and started whacking it by hand. But her real struggle has been with the rats, she told me. They’ve become bold, brazen. She says they’ve built a network of tunnels through her yard. She’s considering trying to fill the tunnel openings with shards of glass, of which there’s no scarcity on littered Bruce Street.

Meanwhile, she’s going door-to-door on her troubled block to get signatures to petition the city to come out and place traps. She needs to engage the whole block in the eradication effort. What Pinkney is facing in her garden is the stuff bad dreams are made of.

West Baltimore has serious problems. Drugs, crime, homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. I deliberately waited until I finished writing this story to get Season 1 of The Wire, the gritty HBO police drama set on these streets, from Netflix. I’d learned that most of the series had been filmed on street corners and alleys I would now recognize. But I didn’t want the dramatized streets to cloud my impressions of the efforts in the 72-block radius defined as Watershed 263.

What struck me is that this pilot project in Watershed 263 is the real deal. The pipes beneath these city streets carry some of dirtiest water in the Chesapeake watershed and life aboveground faces some of the toughest odds. Improving water quality through community greening practices seems a nearly Sisyphean charge. Against this backdrop of big problems in Baltimore, each hard-won vacant lot turned rain garden requires tremendous effort, community input, and funding. And, according to plan, it will take 107 such projects to see a measurable impact on stormwater from only 25 percent of the watershed.

Watershed 263 evokes a parallel for me to the BALTIMORE BELIEVE campaign. The campaign was an attempt by then mayor Martin O’Malley to “light a fuse of popular will” to change the mindset of the city with regard to the drugs. The idea is that if everyone does at least one thing to fight drugs, acting alone or together, then the community can prevail.

I lived in Baltimore in 2002 when the BELIEVE campaign was beginning to gain traction. I remember puzzling at the stark black signs with the white letters that read simply, “BELIEVE.” No context. No explanation. I didn’t know what I was supposed to believe in. At first I was vaguely annoyed. I didn’t get it.

That feeling didn’t last long. Those signs got under my skin. I’m not sure that I ever embraced the message specific to the drug problem in Baltimore. But I would drive down the streets and register a prickle of hope, like what you’d experience walking out of a feel-good movie.

The same goes for Watershed 263. The odds still seem stacked against success. Juxtaposed with personal safety, unemployment, and drugs, the effect of urban stormwater on the Chesapeake Bay ranks low on the list of concerns of most watershed residents. But for some, growing green space in neighborhoods and improving the quality of outdoor life is rising to the top. The people I met value their gardens and embrace the idea that turning empty lots into safe green havens can benefit their health and improve the quality of their daily lives.

BELIEVE in green. The people of Watershed 263 do. And just maybe, if everyone does at least one thing to green his/her local community, healthier waters downstream will prevail.