Beach Books

‘Perfect Fish Consumer’ Needs Consumer Wisdom

The Beachcomber
By PERDITA BUCHAN | Aug 17, 2013

Is that white tuna sushi you ordered really tuna or is it escolar, banned in Japan and known as the ex-lax fish for its digestive effect? Would you feel guilty ordering Patagonian toothfish? What if you knew it had been renamed Chilean sea bass? These are some of the interesting (frightening?) facts that await you in The Perfect Protein (Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans, Rodale Press) – a boring title for a fascinating book.

Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana, “the world’s largest conservation organization solely dedicated to protecting the oceans” – sort of a Sierra Club of the high seas. The forward by Bill Clinton, better known for his love of fast food, is a bit of a surprise until you remember that the Sustainable Fisheries Act (1996) was passed during his watch, making the United States one of the first of the major fishing nations to make conservation a fundamental part of fisheries management.

If you read Michael Pollan, or support the locavore movement, you know that our fondness for meat and the consequent rise of factory farming is devouring the land while polluting both air and water. Global agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s freshwater and is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily thanks to the resource-intensive production of livestock.

Fewer of us are aware that we are also destroying the world’s waters and our supply of fish, in so doing perhaps betraying our very origins. Humans evolved to eat seafood. Sharpless points out that, for us, it is “the perfect protein.” In fact, some anthropologists hypothesize that omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish, “may have played a prominent role in the development of the modern, advanced human brain.” Although most anthropologists have long subscribed to the theory that early humans evolved in the forest or on the savanna, only dwellers near lakes, rivers or the ocean would have had access to omega-3s: “The early hominids making a life on the shorelines were eating foods that were among the healthiest in the world for their evolving brains.” The water, and the diet of fish and shellfish they provided, may actually have made us who we are. And this diet could also be the one that will sustain the world’s exploding population into the future.

It’s easy to see how destructive the clearing of land for grazing (think the Amazon rain forest) or the fouling of lakes and rivers polluted by agricultural runoff have been. But when we sit on the beach and gaze out across a seemingly endless and unchanging expanse of sea, it is hard to imagine that its life could ever be exhausted. You can’t see what the huge, weighted trawler nets do to the ocean bottom and, unless you’re on board a commercial fishing boat, you can’t see the “bycatch,” the fish and other sea animals accidentally caught, killed and discarded.

In 1614, when English Captain John Smith landed on Monhegan Island, Maine, he was amazed by the bounty of the new land’s Atlantic waters: mussels, clams, huge codfish. Other colonists write of catching fish with their bare hands in the shallows. These immigrants were astounded because, even back in the 17th century, Europe’s waters had been overfished. And that was before trawlers. Although a version of the trawler had been invented, ordinary fishermen managed to stave off its use. Also, before refrigeration and fast transport, trawl nets caught too much fish and the catch would spoil before it could be sold. However, the “advent of railroads and the widespread exportation of ice from Northern Europe” made trawling viable by the middle of the 19th century. By 1883, steam engines allowed “trawlers to reach the ocean floor regardless of conditions.”

Trawlers are still the mainstay of the fishing industry, but now they have access to “satellite technology, sea bed mapping software, sonar, radar, GPS devices and more.” You only have to watch boats bristling with antennae passing under any drawbridge to know this. Some, like the 14,000-ton (unloaded) Atlantic Dawn, launched in 2000, are floating factories, immediately flash-freezing their enormous catch. When these modern fleets turn their attention to the latest “vogue” fish, its population can be rapidly decimated.

We are used to hearing land conservationists emphasize biodiversity because biodiversity is threatened every time a forest is logged or grassland plowed for crops. Interestingly, in the oceans the most bio diverse areas are “hot, reefy places,” whereas “the most productive areas … tend to be cold or temperate places.” Thus, these less glamorous zones have been underserved by conservationists in the past. This is unfortunate in a world whose ever-increasing population must be fed. As Sharpless makes clear, we need to protect the ocean’s most productive areas and we need to eat lower on the ocean food chain.

How was I to know that I was the perfect fish consumer in my childhood? One of my favorite dinners was fried smelts, and I regularly grossed out my schoolmates by bringing sardine sandwiches in my lunch. But that’s apparently just what we should be eating – not the big predators like tuna and cod, but the little fish like smelts and anchovies and sardines, and also shellfish like mussels, clams and even lobster. Maybe if we no longer insist on the “big fish,” no restaurant will feel they have to make sushi with escolar and call it tuna.

But what about aquaculture, or fish farming? Couldn’t that be the answer to replenishing the supply of fish? Not really. Fish farming can create many of the same pollution problems as the feedlot raising of farm animals. And the little fish that people should be eating, the so-called “forage fish,” are caught in huge numbers and ground up to feed farmed carnivores like salmon. In the The Perfect Protein, Sharpless does not dismiss all aquaculture, especially for shellfish like clams and oysters, which actually filter and clean the water they live in.

What is the answer? By the end of the book, Sharpless has broken the problem down into three simple principles.

1) Set fishing quotas based on science, not the fishing industry’s bottom line.

2) Protect habitat.

3) Reduce bycatch.

Remember the catch phrase: “Eat wild seafood. Not too much of the big fish. Mostly local.”

To help with this, the book contains a section of recipes from chefs like Cat Cora, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. I look forward to trying them – or I might just fry up some smelts with butter and olive oil.

Perdita Buchan is a freelance writer who lives in Ocean Grove. Her book Utopia, New Jersey, about utopian communities in early 20th century, is published by Rutgers University Press.


Eric Ripert’s Clams with Spicy Sausage

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 onion, thinly sliced

1½ teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

¼ pound Andouille sausage, thinly sliced

1 cup chicken stock

4 dozen littleneck clams, well-scrubbed

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Lemon wedges for serving


Warm the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, curry powder and lemon zest. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the onion has softened and turned translucent. Add the sausage and cook for about 2 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan a few times, until the clams open.

Using a slotted spoon, place the clams in shallow serving bowls, discarding any clams that don’t open. Stir the cilantro into the broth and pour it over the clams. Serve with lemon wedges.

Prep time 10 minutes. Cook time 20 minutes. Serves 4.



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