Montreal-based food writer Taras Grescoe thinks something fishy is up with the global seafood economy. From pollutants to piracy, preservatives to Patagonian toothfish, Grescoe surveys the state of our collective waterways in his new book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, which combines some literal seabed muckraking with a fascinating travelogue. Each chapter follows a specific fish down the food chain from net to dinner plate; the book is a sort of aquatic The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Grescoe emerges with a clear breakdown of the issues, and a guide for sourcing seafood with an emphasis on sustainability.
You’ve done a lot of writing about what and how people eat. What led you to write this book? This is my fourth book. I was a travel writer for a long time—my previous book was about forbidden substances around the world—Absinthe in Switzerland, for example, and delving into food origins and food politics. So gradually, my research coincided with the cod collapse off the coast of Newfoundland in the early 90s. I began to realize that the oceans weren't this endless source of clean protein, and they were finite. And of course we started to hear about the problems with swordfish, which had been 200 pounds at Fulton Market and were now are little as 40 pounds. Then there was the Chilean sea bass boycott and the issue with tuna and dolphin in the late 80s. It seemed we were running out of fish. And actually, worldwide ocean fish catch peaked in 1987 and started going down by half a million tons ever since then. We're spending more and more effort on getting the fish, and that's why fish is getting more expensive—we’re chasing them and we're catching them in far out corners. Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean Sea Bass, used to be readily available off the coast of Chile, are now caught in Antarctic waters.
I love to eat well and I love extreme flavors, so I set up an itinerary for myself across the world that would take me through Nova Scotia, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Billingsgate in London, Sardine boats in Portugal, eating smaller fish, or eating down the food scale, instead of the larger predators we favor in North America.
You come out swinging for canned sardines, and sardines in general because they’re high in Omega 3 fatty acids. You propose eating fish down the food chain as choice that people could make to impact the repopulation of the ocean. Can you talk about that? For sure, it's a great idea for people in general to look for smaller fish like sardines, herring, and mackerel. Those fish are often caught and right away turned into pellet food for farmed shrimp and salmon, which is a pretty wasteful process and ends up concentrating toxins in farmed fish. Three quarters of the world's fish oil goes to the salmon industry, which is a waste. I guess I do end up swinging for the little guys.
So no tuna— I'm not totally against tuna. But things like sablefish [aka black cod] are more sustainable. There’s a big fishery off the West Coast producing them right now. Fish have seasons that consumers ignore. When I was in Japan, I'd see fish that people don't eat here but are highly valued in Tokyo, like roe-in Mackerel from the Atlantic, which we normally chop up for lobster bait. The Japanese value seasonality and flavor. The tradition of eating down the food chain, which exists in almost all cultures, would really enrich our experience. A lot of these traditions like Portuguese sardine barbecues on Fridays exist in city neighborhoods, and one can explore them pretty easily. The movement is starting all across North America. In Toronto, [the chef] Jamie Kennedy is starting to feature, like line-caught tuna from the Philippines and farmed halibut sashimi. Barton Seaver in Washington D.C. is also sourcing sustainably.
I wanted to ask you about the monkfish chapter in Bottomfeeder. You meet with chefs David Pasternack and Eric Ripert to talk about the seafood on their menus, and monkfish is the chapter’s theme. What's the matter with monkfish? Monkfish is an ugly son of a bitch, a bottom dweller with razor sharp teeth. In 1979, Julia Child introduced and popularized it by wrestling a 25-pound monkfish on her show. The tail is a lot like lobster, and it’s even called poor man's lobster. Gradually it appeared on white tablecloths in New York City; then all over North America. The problem is simply that it's overfished right now, and has been for a while. The NMFS [National Marine Fishery Service] has declared it overfished. Trawls drag along the bottom of the ocean and destroy fragile coral, but the real issue is that trawling for monkfish has legitimized trawling on the high seas. Simply, they’re overfished and there aren't that many of them left in American waters.
You identify the trickle down effect, where the best known chefs serve this fish and then the lesser-known, kind of satellite chefs follow suit. You write “The prestige of the world’s leading chefs legitimizes the ongoing pillage. It is not necessarily the fault of New York’s star seafood chefs. It is, however, their doing.” Guys like Eric Ripert and David Pasternack try to serve sustainable seafood and they can afford to have Copper River salmon flown in by FedEx from Alaska. Eric Ripert particularly has done a great job, but chefs pride themselves on sourcing from day boats. Monkfish was an exception to the menu, a surprise. There is a trickle down effect—people see salmon on menus, and because seafood is a relatively complex category, people assume salmon is fine in their sashimi or in a roll. Certain species have been legitimized by their inclusion on white tablecloth menus. All of a sudden, steakhouses in Milwalkee are putting it on their menus too. I think a lot of chefs do a good job taking care sourcing their fish, but not nearly enough. If you go to fish markets in Europe and Japan, they can tell you which boat it was caught by, and on which day. That information isn’t available to consumers in North America.
You report that some kinds of canned fish that say when and where it was caught, and the name of the boat. Yeah, I have a can of sardines with that information stamped on it. It wouldn't be that difficult to enforce it. But if you go to the fish market here you buy fish “fillets,” for god's sake, and it's convenient. Fish fingers and fish “fillets,” are made from several different pollock ground up and mashed together.
I was wondering about Eric Ripert. His menu lists the monkfish with red wine sauce you write about in your book. Do you think someone should just ask him to stop serving monkfish? You write about restaurants that have menus with red listed items, and fish of unclear origin, but monkfish in particular seems to be a clear example of something that shouldn’t be on a restaurant menu, given the circumstances. Well, it's still available in fish markets. And I don't think anyone should be forced to take things off their menu necessarily. But what happens is as it gets scarcer and scarcer, the prices go up. With toro, for example, even after the New York Times article about its mercury content a couple of months ago, you’ll still find it just about everywhere. At the same time, they’re close to commercial extinction. The Japanese are raising them through from the larval stage in labs, which was never possible with tuna before. So there is a way out of this—the way out is through aquaculture, fish farming.
What’s the best advice for eating seafood ethically? It’s avoiding eating the top of the food chain, the predators. Eat Trout, Herring, Barramundi instead. Fish farms, where 45% of our seafood comes from, and are the way world is going, have many problems. Salmon have to be fed about 4 pounds of fish feed to make 1 pound of flesh, so we’re actually diminishing the amount of protein in the world. But big fish like tuna, salmon, and swordfish are like the lions of the sea, and we should really be eating the cow of the ocean, the sardine. There are tons of alternatives. Catfish, for example, don't require protein to grow. Going around the world’s fish markets and on the decks of the boats getting my feet wet, I came back eating more kinds of fish than ever and I find things like grouper and swordfish, which are traditionally the center of the plate in North America, a little boring. The more I know, the less I want to eat them. A fish’s flavor is something where health, flavor and ecology coincide. Bluefin tuna is an exception; it’s a rich, buttery fish, but so full of mercury it's dangerous even in small portions.
I wanted to ask about the intersection of ethics and morals. That bluefin tuna press in New York a few months back was ostensibly about mercury levels in the fish, but none of that press mentioned that bluefin tuna is massively overfished, which seems to be the root issue. Here in North America, the only way to get some attention to an issue is when it’s a health risk, because people are thinking about the health of their children. The health of the oceans is way down on their list of their concerns, which is completely human and natural: we're concerned mostly when the meal we're eating is going to poison us. Not everyone has gone scuba diving and seen proliferations of jellyfish and bleached coral reefs, so not everyone knows. I approached this book thinking about the intersection of the environment and the self-interest of our taste buds. I wanted to get people interested in the oceans through their concerns of health and the future of flavor. I think I managed to merge my concerns with the environment with my love of good food and travel. What I discovered will interest a lot of people, and be helpful. It's not hopeless. We can make a big change through consumer choices by avoiding a couple of common species – farmed shrimp and farmed salmon – and end up having a huge impact.
In an urban area where the majority of people read the news, one will say I can't eat tuna because of the mercury or salmon because, say, it’s fucked up with viruses, but then someone else will say I can’t eat canned fish because it isn't locavore and my carbon footprint will increase because of the cost of transporting the cans. They're going to end up with an empty plate.
Yeah. What’s the hierarchy of what’s important, what’s the scale? Okay, first of all: don't poison yourself from day to day. Toxins in fish flesh are biocumulative, so don’t eat a lot of what’s bad for you or you might end up with neural problems from mercury or PCBs later in life. Don't eat stuff that tastes bad or harms you. Then, I’d say don’t eat things that are endangered or nearly endangered. In my last book I explored a subculture of people who enjoy wild sturgeon caviar, even though they're caught by mafia, and these are the last eggs of a giant fish, which is pretty immoral. So, after you’ve endured you’re not poisoning yourself, make sure you’re not eating endangered species. Then, think about the health of the oceans in general and keep a few simple principles in mind. Sure, eat locally when you can and know what comes from your area nearby. Whiting is available and fresh in New York. Know your local fish, lobsters and oysters are doing well and there’s a fantastic oyster industry developing with fantastic flavors. Some of the fish we get in frozen at supermarkets has been farmed in Chile then filleted in China then shipped back. The number of miles on those things is incredible. There’s a prejudice against farmed fish, farmed fish isn’t necessarily bad but stay away from carnivorous farmed fish like salmon and shrimp.
What about the carbon monoxide treatment of tuna to make it fresh looking? Gas treatment that keeps tuna cherry red shocks a lot of people. I mean, you could put it in the trunk of a car in the heat, and it will still be the same color the next day. This is strictly not allowed in Japan and parts of Europe but it’s common practice in the US. Another thing is using STTP, a phosphate which allows scallops, shrimp, and salmon to retain moisture but too much gives them a soapy look and taste. Caustic soda and borax are used on imported shrimp to burn the flesh the right color. I’ve heard so many shocking stories about adulteration of seafood, and many included in the book. There’s usually something wrong with suspiciously cheap seafood, and there’s a lot of mislabeling: over 50% of wild salmon is in fact farmed. Grouper is usually not grouper. A lot of the whitefish from the Midwest is actually zander from Eastern Europe. We have to face the fact that fish is getting rare and rarer, and we pay a premium for it. Except, of course, for sardines and herring and mackerel, which are still cheap and abundant.
Where do you eat in New York? I visit Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side for smoked fish. I always make a trip to Grand Central Oyster Bar, which has a fantastic selection of oysters, including Belons from Maine, Chesapeake Bay, kumamotos from Washington State. I should point out that the Grand Central Oyster Bar serves monkfish, too. Brad Steelman at the River Café in Brooklyn approaches seafood ethically. I'm not the kind of person who boycotts a place. Clients need to enter into a dialogue with their favorite chefs; ask them why they serve certain species, and why they aren’t serving others. Chefs are learning and you can't be too closed minded about things.
There are a lot of oyster seeding projects for filtering toxins in New York’s tidal waters. Have you heard about those? Not sure I'd eat them just yet, but they'll definitely help cleanse the water. I’ve talked to some people doing that in the Chesapeake Bay. Oyster and mussel aquaculture is really fantastic; we should really all be supporting that. The Skipjacks, or sailing boats in the Chesapeake are beautiful and picturesque, but they’re also responsible for clearing out the wild oysters.
What’s your next project?
I'm following up on Bottomfeeder, which I've been working on for 3 years. I want to write about Omega 3s, fish and human evolutionary history. And I’ve been thinking about oil and transportation a lot lately.