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.