Cape Anne Fresh Catch: The Pescavore’s Dilemma
by Roz Cummins
In my family, we have a saying: "Nothing is uncomplicated." As you might imagine, this is a truism that can be easily applied to topics like religion, love, politics and family dynamics. But if you had told me when I was growing up that the simple act of eating would become one of the most complicated areas of my life, I would have been very, very surprised.
And yet, there are currently so many choices to be made regarding every stage of shopping, cooking and eating that it requires an entire forest of decision trees: Is the food inherently unsafe? Has it been processed in a way that could lead to contamination and illness? Is it healthy? Is it nutritious? And, of course, is it affordable? Whether it tastes good almost seems to be an unimportant afterthought.
As if these questions weren't enough to make consumers go swoon on the fainting couch with a cold compress across their foreheads, here are some more: Is it sustainable? What impact does the growing or gathering of this food have on the earth and on the people who produce it? And here's the kicker: Is buying this food-and therefore creating a demand for it-in line with one's social values?
These issues are difficult enough to contend with when it comes to terrestrial food production-produce and barnyard animal products. But when it comes to fish and seafood, the information we need to make informed decisions is even harder to attain and decipher.
As consumers, we can see for ourselves what happens to cattle in industrial-scale "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs), chickens confined to cages and hogs on overcrowded farms. We can decide to circumvent some of these agribusiness systems by buying our eggs, meat, cheese, milk and produce directly from local farmers. But what can we discern about the fate of fish and shellfish and the fishing community? If we want to try to consume seafood outside of the traditional delivery systems and support fishermen and their families, what options do we have?
Ever since I first became aware of problems with overfishing, I have curtailed my seafood intake dramatically. Some fish and shellfish are perfectly fine to eat: There are many wallet guides and iPhone apps that will help consumers figure out which fish they can eat without depleting the stocks or harming the environment. (Certain forms of harvesting or aquaculture can-among other things-damage the sea floor, sully the waters or result in excessive by-catch.)
But many species are on the "avoid" list, and I have tried very hard not to eat any of these. For example, while I very much miss eating bluefin tuna-especially when prepared as sushi-I am happy to forgo it, because I know that I'd miss having tuna exist in the world a whole lot more. So, when a friend asked me if I wanted to split a share in the inaugural season of the Cape Ann Fresh Catch's (CAFC) Community-Supported Fishery (CSF), I had some hesitations.
On the one hand, there were many good reasons to join the CSF: Supporting the Gloucester fishing community is important to me. I have many friends who live in the Gloucester area and, over the years, I've met some of the fishermen and their families. Also, CAFC was implementing a new business model that would support the fishing community by selling the fish directly to the consumer, thus ensuring that the fishermen would be able to keep a greater portion of the proceeds from the sale of their catch.
In addition, because the fishermen would be paid the same price for their catch regardless of what they brought in, this system even had the potential to encourage the fishermen not to focus on overfished species.
I noticed that cod was on the list of species that we might expect to get, and since cod has been regarded as severely overfished for a long time, I was quite concerned. In fact, to my knowledge, I'd never even tasted cod. Still, the list named many other species as well, so I thought that perhaps we would get cod only once or twice over the 12-week period.
Furthermore, a friend who is very familiar with the size of the catch taken in by the Gloucester fleet said that in terms of scale, the amount that the entire fleet brings in is small when compared with fishing on an industrial scale. After taking all of these factors into consideration, I signed up.
I arranged to pick up our share on Tuesday afternoons at the Harvard University Farmers Market. On the day of the first delivery, it was very exciting to see all the members of the CSF milling around the fish truck, holding their coolers.
When I got to the head of the line to receive my share, I met Steve Parkes, the CSF manager, who gave members lessons in how to fillet the fish. (The fish come cleaned and gutted, but not filleted.) He is left handed, as am I, and it was refreshing to hear someone say, "Now, all you right-handed people are just going to have to imagine doing this with the opposite hand"-words I never thought that I would live to hear.
Steve made filleting the cod look easy. Just a few quick slices, here and there, and perfect fillets appeared to slide right off the backbone of the fish. I picked up our share-a huge cod-and tried to stuff it into my too-small container. "We're going to need a bigger cooler," I thought to myself, as I looked around and saw that several other people were having the same issue. It struck me as both sad and funny that all of us should be so utterly unprepared to take on the simple task of preparing our own fish, something that I am sure most of our ancestors accomplished with skill and ease on a regular basis.
Once home, I took the fish out of the cooler and set to work. I tried to remember what Steve had done, but couldn't reconstruct it in my head. So, I just used my knife and my common sense, and I got two nice fillets off of the fish. I liked the feel of the heft of the fish in my hands, the nap of the scales, and being able to look in its clear and steady eye. The fish smelled clean and fresh, not a bit fishy. It smelled, if I closed my eyes, like nothing other than the sea. I baked the fillets in a little bit of melted butter, and squeezed lemon juice on them when they came out of the oven.
The cod's texture was tender and luxurious, softer and more giving than some of the other white-fleshed fish that I had eaten. The flavor was delicate. Dressed with only butter and lemon juice, the taste was direct and clean. Uncomplicated is a good description, I suppose, but while it couldn't have been simpler, it was also incredibly satisfying.
The next week that I went to get the fish at the farmers market, there was none to be had because of rough seas. Although we were all a little bit disappointed not to get our fish, it was also sort of thrilling to think that we were working so closely with the source that a recent act of nature could prevent us from having our dinner. It gave us a sense of, if not street cred, exactly, then sea cred.
The following week I returned and was given a choice of cod, hake or flounder. I was so pleased with my first experience filleting a cod that I wanted to do it again, just to be sure that I really had it down, before moving on to the next challenge. Little did I realize that we would be offered cod as our only choice almost every week during the summer. I suppose it depended in part on what time one arrived to pick up the fish, but I was offered pollock, whiting, hake and flounder once each. The rest of the time we got cod.
I prepared the cod several ways: One was a riff on a dish that my cousin made for me. It called for crème fraiche, mustard, capers and shallots. I made a tomato-based cod stew of my own devising, and one day I created a farmers market challenge for myself by making a sauce based mostly on what I could find there: I used mint-infused honey from Gilson's Herb Lyceum, pepper jelly, fresh basil and peaches. Another time, I baked a whole cod with leeks stuffed into its stomach cavity, and I served it with a tamari-sesame oil sauce seasoned with ginger, Mirin and white pepper.
Although every dish was delicious, by the end of the summer I had eaten enough cod to last a lifetime.
I joined the CSF so that I could support the Gloucester fishing community and encourage better fishing practices, but if I had to sum up my experience as a member based on last summer alone, I would say that while I appreciated having access to such fresh fish and knowing that I was supporting the fishing community, I was very upset about the amount of cod that had been taken out of the ocean. For years I've been very careful about what fish I eat, and I really don't want to have any part in hastening the demise-or delaying the resurgence-of the cod stocks in our local waters.
I wondered what the staff of CAFC thought about the amount of cod that was included in last summer's shares. I contacted Niaz Dorry, coordinating director for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) and CAFC, to talk to her about my concerns and inquire about their plans to vary the mix of fish that will be offered this year. She replied:
"The cod [population] from the Gulf of Maine, where the fishermen we have been working with fish, is recovering and, in fact, fisheries managers believe it will be fully recovered within the next two years. One of the signs of this recovery was the amount of cod [that] fishermen were running into when they went out fishing this year. But still, none of them expected the cod to stay around as long as they did. [I'm] not sure what to attribute that to-one of the mysteries of the ocean. It could be a combination of things including ocean temperatures, availability of prey since the industrial scale vessels that had been fishing for herring (cod's food) were kept out of the inshore areas, and their recovery. Thus, the amount of cod.
"Having said that, we would prefer to not repeat the mistakes of the past...To date, the traditional markets have dictated the value of the fish fishermen catch. And, cod has always been called "king" because of a relatively stable market. It is our goal that with Community Supported Fishery programs and other alternative marketing approaches, anything the fishermen will catch will bring an equal value. This will motivate them-as it already has this past year-to think about how they fish differently, fish on different fishing grounds where they may get more of a mix of species, and other measures.We are planning on having these conversations during the break between this current season and when the CSF starts again in May.
"It's also likely that other boats will participate in the CSF, but that doesn't automatically translate into less cod or less of any one species. It's the whole practice that needs to shift. To date, the fishermen haven't had the incentive to make those shifts. The CSF has given them that incentive."
When comparing the role that fishing plays in the larger food system to that of farming, Niaz said:
"From NAMA's standpoint, to really meet some sustainability goals, we need to look at things totally differently. What we have learned from land-based food systems is [that operating on] that industrial scale is destructive on multiple levels. In the fishing world, we are about to make the mistake that was made at the point of the farm crisis. Fisheries are in danger of being pushed toward industrialization, consolidation and privatization, much like farms [were] about 30-some-odd years ago. It's important that the fishing boats that will fish for Gulf of Maine cod mirror the qualities we see in the family, small scale and local farms and food producers."
I was impressed by Niaz's understanding of the interconnectedness of each of the elements of the larger food system-and that it included the ecosystem as well as the social systems that both protect and exploit it-and her answers demonstrated that NAMA is looking for innovative ways to support both.
And yet...I still felt a great deal of unease about eating a species that I knew was red-listed. I called the Monterey Bay Aquarium to check with the staff of their Seafood Watch program. They confirmed that, with regard to "both Georges Bank Cod and Gulf of Maine Cod ... our Avoid ranking still holds."
Seeking clarification, I consulted Lydia Bergen, director of conservation at the New England Aquarium. She replied "Niaz's comments about the rebound of Gulf of Maine cod are accurate. Currently, Gulf of Maine cod is no longer overfished-however, overfishing is still occurring. Thus, it's important to keep in mind that, as Niaz stated, cod populations in the Gulf of Maine are in the process of recovering and are not yet recovered. Cod populations on Georges Bank are still overfished."
Bergen reminded me that the health of the fish stock is only part of the equation: "One other important aspect of a sustainable fishery not mentioned by [Niaz] is the type of gear used to catch the fish. Hook caught (a.k.a. longline) cod is preferred over trawl-caught cod, as hook and line gear has substantially less impact on ocean floor habitats than trawl gear. The degree of impact from trawl gear does vary with bottom type (i.e., sand and mud bottoms are generally more resilient than rocky or structured habitat)."
I asked Niaz what kind of gear the CAFC boats use. She said that this past year, the fish were caught by day boat trawlers and gillnetters, but that, "We hope this year to have some hook and line fishermen involved." By now, I felt frustrated and confused. How could everyone agree that the status of the Gulf of Maine cod was accurate (the stock is in the process of recovering), and yet come up with completely different positions regarding whether they should be harvested?
In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the implications of the status of the Gulf of Maine cod, I consulted Tom Nies, senior analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council, whose answer helped to put things into context. He started out by defining the terms that determine how a fish is listed:
"In our system, overfished means a stock of fish is at a low level, there are not many out there. Overfishing means too many fish are being taken out of the ocean in any given year. Neither one is good; if overfishing goes on long enough, you will probably drive the stock down until it is overfished. If a stock is overfished already, fewer fish can be removed before the overfishing starts. The worst case is to be overfished and overfishing. We set levels (well, the scientists do) that define when a stock is in either situation; they also tell us when a stock is rebuilt- that is, at a target stock size we are shooting for. (I should mention that some of the fishermen object to the term overfished for reduced stock sizes, as this ignores other effects that might reduce stocks-the environment, pollution, etc.) Determining stock status is a difficult process and the assessments are subject to uncertainty. People will argue over whether they represent reality-in both directions...
"We have two cod stocks: Georges Bank cod (GB cod) and Gulf of Maine cod (GOM cod). They are in very different situations. GOM cod is no longer overfished, but is still subject to overfishing. We last estimated this in 2007, so it is possible that overfishing has ended, but we suspect not. GOM cod has rebounded dramatically from low stock sizes in the mid-'90s and now is at a stock size we have not seen since 1981. Indeed, we think it might be rebuilt in a year or two. Through strict regulations, catches have been controlled, and while overfishing was still going on in 2007, we were getting closer to stopping this and expect that it will end in 2010. I would agree with the statement that [the fishery will be recovered in two years] based on what we currently know."
It was helpful to be able to understand how to parse and interpret the overfishing vs. overfished distinctions, but I was still at a loss. I can't get the empirical information that I need to make these decisions directly, and because I lack expertise in this field I also can't interpret it on my own. I am left in a position where, because I can't use my own senses and faculties to make decisions for myself, I instead have to use my judgment to decide whom to rely on for information and advice.
I support CAFC's mission, especially as it could one day result in more sustainable fishing practices. I am hoping very much that they will be able to deliver a greater variety of species this year, and that they will use less-harmful fishing techniques. I also want to support the fishing community economically.
I am not an unreasonable person, and I understand that creating a workable, successful system-especially a complex one, like fishing, that has so many unpredictable elements and moving parts-takes time. The question is whether the GOM cod stock is currently resilient enough to withstand the growing pains that CAFC is going through as they attempt to create a sustainable way to harvest fish and support the families whose livelihood depends on fishing, and, in turn, the larger community that depends on the fishermen's success.
If CAFC doesn't succeed and loses the necessary consumer support before they have met their goal of creating a system that promotes sustainable fishing, that will make it more likely that there will be fewer boats in a community-based fleet. This will leave industrial-scale fishing to take its place, much the same way that a loss of family farms allows agribusiness to move in and take over. That's not good for anyone-not for fishing families, consumers or fish.
As awareness of the consequences of our actions-those of consumers as well as the fishing community-continues to grow, and our understanding of the ramifications of different fishing techniques deepens, progress is being made. We are moving in the right direction. A combination of informed consumer demand and innovative market responses-mixed with the ever-changing information coming out of the oceans-has the power to create a more balanced situation in which we can take what we need from our local waters while simultaneously leaving enough healthy fish behind so that the system becomes truly sustainable.
While I continue to struggle with these issues-not just the decisions that I will need to make, but also the ongoing, exhausting and frustrating project of trying to keep current with the information necessary to make these decisions-I realize that, even though it can feel burdensome at times, I am actually fortunate to be in a position where I have the opportunity to make these decisions. Joining the fish share gave me a chance to confront these choices in a way that was vivid, urgent and intensely personal.
As Michael Pollan recently remarked, quoted in Time magazine, "Look, you get to vote with your fork three times a day. That's a lot more votes you have than in any other realm of life."
Roz Cummins has a long-standing interest in sustainable farming, fishing and aquaculture. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Improper Bostonian, Martha Stewart Living, Country Journal, Grist.org and Culinate.com. She maintains two blogs: Mirepoix on OpenSalon.com and The Kitchen Almanac at www.rozcummins.blogspot.com. She teaches writing at UMass/Boston.