By Cheryl Dahle
The best fish story I ever heard was from Dune Lankard, a native Athabaskan fisher, who shared the tale of the salmon that those of us gathered in his home that evening were about to eat. His people, the Eyaks, have lived in the Copper River Delta region of Alaska for 3,500 years. For much of that history (before industry exploitation and disease decimated the population) their culture, diet and spirituality all centered on salmon.
Lankard narrated the journey of the salmon -- starting with its birth in the rich, silty river, following its trek out to sea and then, years later, its heroic return upstream, fighting currents to fulfill its destiny. He said we were privileged to eat this fish, which had been taken at the peak of its energy -- immersed in the struggle to reproduce and give its life to the future survival of its species. Instead, its energy would feed us. For that, we owed our thanks.
I’ve never eaten a meal with as much reverence as I did that night. That fish story connected me to riverbanks, pristine waters, and something bigger than my appetite or myself. I’ve not eaten a fish since without thinking about its journey.
The truth is that we rarely know the journey of a fish that has landed on our plate. And that missing story is more than a lost opportunity for reflection: It is the root of why we are overfishing our oceans with rapacious abandon.
Here are a few reasons why story matters if we want to ensure the survival of our own species, which depends on oceans for every other breath we take.
Mislabeling (wrong species, wrong origin, or wrong harvest method) is rife in the seafood industry. About a third of our fish is mislabeled in North America. A whopping 74 percent of sushi venues are wrapping their fish in sweet lies.
While you might chafe at the deception of paying more for a cheaper fish, the bigger deal is how mislabeling disguises scarcity. Price and abundance are potential market signals that track back to the stock status of a fish in the water. If overfished stocks (like Red Snapper, which is only truly Red Snapper 13 percent of the time) appear abundant because we’re eating substitutions, our collective misperception that there are plenty of fish in the sea continues.
It’s your health we’re talking about. The U.S. imports almost 90 percent of the seafood we consume. But the FDA inspects just 2.7 percent of it. If you don’t know where that fish came from, it most likely was imported.
According to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fish were the biggest culprit of food-borne illness among all types of imported food. Why? Well, even cursory research into international fish farming and processing practices uncovers unsavory stories of chilling fish with ice made from unpotable water or feeding farmed shrimp a diet of pig feces. How do you like your Mystery Fish now?
And then there’s the carbon footprint. Much of our frozen fish circumnavigates the globe twice before landing on our plates because it’s processed in China.
But before you give up and order lasagna, remember that jobs depend on fish: 200 million of them globally, directly or indirectly.
Right now on a floating processor vessel or commercial dragger, people are working as indentured servants because the supply chain can’t figure out a way to ensure that fish doesn’t come with a side of slavery.
In the developing world, fishers using responsible circle hooks that don’t snare and kill sea turtles are getting the same price for their fish as the longliners that kill tens of thousands of turtles in a year because grocery stores can’t find a way to distinguish these products on the shelf — and you don’t ask them to. Hence, the link between better margin and better behavior (the fundamental way markets drive change) remains broken.
In New England, fishers are losing their homes and livelihoods because we’re not interested in creating markets where local fish get preference over (and better price than) imported commodity fish. I sat with a fisher in Boston this week as he broke down in tears sharing his story:
“I’m the first generation of my family, but I loved the fishing life and that’s what led me to it. I was a little kid holding my dad’s hand; we’d go down to the dock and see the guys fishing, and I just loved it. I was able to do it for 50 years. And I thought my son could. But he can’t.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can make a difference. By asking for a story. By being willing to pay for it. Look for Community Supported Fishery programs or direct markets in your region. Patronize restaurants with responsible harvesting policies. Buy the right brands in retail locations or online.
We all know how to demand story with our food. (Or we can learn from episodes of Portlandia). It’s time to demand that every fish has a tale.
Image credit: Flickr/coda
Cheryl Dahle is a journalist and entrepreneur who has worked at the intersection of business and social transformation for more than a decade, Cheryl conceived and co-led the effort to found Future of Fish.