Eating What’s Served Instead of What’s Desired: Mostly Good Advice

When it comes to consuming seafood, the push toward eating what it is locally abundant seems a no-brainer. In terms of sustainability, local seafood has a smaller carbon footprint than imported seafood, and abundant and underutilized species (aka “trash fish”) are ones about which we have few conservation concerns. Eating local seafood puts money directly back into working waterfronts, where fishers can earn good income landing what the ocean readily provides, rather than pursuing high value species that may require more fishing effort and have a more dubious conservation status.

Just like like farm-to-fork initiatives that have made local, seasonal food produced by local farmers trendy, bait-to-plate initiatives have gotten people excited about trying new species of fishes, and that is mostly a good thing…mostly.

An 11 August article in The East Hampton Press titled Montauk’s Dock to Dish Steers the East End Toward Locally Caught Seafood looks at the Montauk, New York-based company Dock to Dish and the role it is playing as a thought leader (along with chefs) in changing consumers’ approach to seafood.

Their motto is “eat wild, eat American, know your fishermen,” said Dock to Dish founder Sean Barrett. They do this by returning to the basic idea of supplying restaurants with what comes off the boat—the real catch of the day. All fish goes through an official Dock to Dish safety certification process. The guaranteed fresh fish is picked up directly from the dock and is guaranteed to never leave a 150-mile radius.

This is mostly a good thing…mostly. The way Dock to Dish works, according to the article, is that local restaurants “prepay and buy memberships and are willing to accept whatever is coming off the docks.” As someone who lives on the coast of Maine, this mirrors the way I shop for seafood most of the time. My decision matrix often begins with one question: What just came in from a local fisher?

Buying local fish that is seasonally abundant has led me down a path of trying a variety of species I may never had tried if I was instead seeking out the fish with which I was most familiar–the fish I know I like. If every seafood consumer thought this way, it may well take the pressure off embattled species like cod, a species that many know and expect to be on the menu. Barrett seems to agree, and he suggests that chefs should help consumers make this shift.

“We’re really pushing for chefs to stop writing species on the menus. You think, if you’re a chef and you’re printing a specific type of fish, a wild fish, on your menu, you’re actually creating a targeted demand for that specific fish.”

While I have written quite a bit about the risks of creating demand for abundant, underutilized species that often have insufficient or non-existent fishery management plans in place, I worry that Barrett’s advice goes a step too far. There are times when the consumer absolutely should know the species so that he or she can make an informed decision.

Yes, the true catch-of-the-day Dock to Dish advocates is generally going to be a more sustainable product that supports local fisherman than a piece of fish flown halfway around the globe, but sustainability isn’t the only concern. This is especially the case for at-risk populations like woman of reproductive age, small children and people like myself who may eat four or five seafood meals a week. These at-risk populations, like all Americans, should absolutely be eating more fish for its health benefits, but they should be eating more of the right kind of fish.

The fact is that there are species of seafood some people should avoid or, at the very least, limit their consumption of because of associated health risks. As long as these species might land on one’s plate, it’s critical the catch-of-the-day is identified by species. Need an example? Later in the article, the author writes:

Chefs on the East End and in New York can receive any species [from Dock to Dish],  from tuna the size of a child to dogfish, a type of locally caught shark that has an overwhelming population in Montauk.

Chef Max Miller of the Landings Restaurant in Rockland, Maine, filleting locally-sourced fish.

Chef Max Miller of the Landings Restaurant in Rockland, Maine, filleting locally-sourced fish.

Both tuna and dogfish have higher concentrations of mercury than most of the commonly consumed seafood in America. While tuna can vary greatly in terms of its mercury concentrations based on species, fishing technique and where it was landed, dogfish, as a shark, is a species pregnant women and young children are advised by the FDA, EPA and several state agencies to avoid altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, as long as we continue to put other high-mercury species like swordfish and bluefin tuna on a pedestal, I’m all for pushing dogfish as the better choice. It is, based on current data, a more sustainable choice, and if market demand can be increased, it can provide an opportunity for fishers to target an abundant species for which they will earn a good income.

According to the article, Barrett says, “a huge part of Dock to Dish is making strides to educate the consumer about the fish they are eating.” I agree. Let’s just make sure that education is comprehensive, realizing that human health, economics and sustainability must be equal parts in the important dialog about seafood, our own well-being and the well-being of the Blue Planet on which we live.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Fishery Management Plans (FMP), Human Health, Mercury, Northeast Fisheries, Overfishing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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