Something along the lines of “fish and chips” or “grilled fish sandwich” on a restaurant menu, to me, is synonymous with mystery meat – and nobody would feel comfortable ordering that, right?! Is it beef, pork, horse, guinea pig? An entire list of possibilities runs through my head when I see the word “fish”. It is essentially as vague as ordering “grilled land animal”. Is it cod? tilapia? sea bass? shark? Does it come from Florida? Alaska? Japan?
Why are consumers okay with this? I don’t have an easy answer. It tastes fine, why question it. The general public wouldn’t be able to identify more than a handful of ocean or freshwater swimmers anyway. For example, calling something a “flounder” sounds specific enough, but what runs through the mind of anyone who knows even a little bit about fish would be, well, there are many species of flounder so what kind is it? The sixth most highly consumed fish in the United States is pangasius– ask ten people on the street if they’ve ever heard of it and I would suspect you would get ten no’s even though they’ve probably consumed it. Even I was only made aware of this multi-purpose pangasius when I attended a talk this fall hosted by Paul Greenberg. Paul completely won me over by being hilarious, informative, and challenging all at once and I look forward to running into him again someday.
Asking is always a good first step to identifying mystery edible sea creatures. Sadly the answer seems to be not much more than an educated guess at times. It is all too easy to disguise one species of fish for another, since realistically you or I really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference once it’s cooked, fried, and seasoned. It happens constantly, whether on purpose or not.
This makes things like those helpful “safe seafood” eating guides and smartphone apps seem, well, completely irrelevant. The New England Aquarium provides a guide on sustainable seafood choices, so that’s great, if you are actually getting what you are asking for. Institutions like NEAQ also need to practice what they preach. As someone who attended a members event held at the aquarium I was a bit taken aback when I entered and was approached by a caterer offering me a plate of shrimp. I was actually really excited about it, for about two seconds. “Oh! Where does the shrimp come from?!” I asked excitedly and was expecting a super informative answer like “I’m glad you ask, it’s actually legal wild caught shrimp from the good ole’ U S of A.” In reality the response that completely took the wind out of my sustainable seafood sails was , “I don’t know.” Okay I get it, this young woman is hired by a catering company to walk around with plates of yummy snacks and it’s not HER responsibility to know. However, it was in my opinion the responsibility of the hosting institution to know, especially when your purpose of existing is to educate the public about ocean creatures and human actions that affect them.
I love eating seafood. I do not love eating ambiguous swimming animal food. That’s why I ate more seafood than I have in the past three years combined during my two week adventure in Hawaii.
The reason for my seafood binge being the fact that when I would ask where a particular fish came from the response would begin with body language. When a waiter can literally gesture in a direction that insinuates “from the dock down the street” I want to eat as much as possible. I know what it is. I know where it came from. And I could probably walk over and shake the persons hand who caught it.
Buy Local…Eat Local…Aloha.