Imagine Sammy the salmon. Sammy’s life in Alaska goes swimmingly until, one day, he’s caught on a hook and thrown into a bin on a commercial fishing boat.
He’s taken back to land, frozen, put on a freighter, shipped across the Pacific to China, thawed, deboned and fileted, frozen again, put on another freighter, sent back to America, and shipped to market. There, he’ll get a label that says that he’s from Alaska. Seem fishy to you? You’re not alone.
Sammy’s journey through the industry is not unique—in fact, an appalling amount of seafood in America goes through a similar winding path. Sustainable Seafood Week, a week dedicated to sustainability in the seafood industry starting in New York City on June 21, attempts to alleviate some of the opacity of the sea-to-table process.
Paul Greenberg, author of two books and extensive researcher on the seafood industry and speaker at Sustainable Seafood Week, is no stranger to this phenomenon. In “American Catch,” Greenberg’s most recent book, he discusses the counterintuitive practices of the American seafood industry.
“The U.S. controls more ocean than any country on Earth,” he said, “and yet over 90 percent of our seafood is imported.”
“It’s not that we don’t have a lot of seafood, we’re actually exporting about a third of what we catch,” he qualified.
Turns out, the U.S. fishing industry is exploiting processing, in particular the cheap processing in China. Meanwhile, the American public seems to be missing out on local, sustainable seafood, since many local species are overlooked and underappreciated. There’s a disconnect, and forging a connection was the idea behind Sustainable Seafood Week.
Village Fishmonger, the founder of Sustainable Seafood Week, captures the essence of the modern day local foods movement. Its logo is simple, probably hand drawn. You’re hard-pressed to find a capitalized letter on its website, and the title of one of the co-founders is just “enough said.” They’re cool. They’re casual. But they want you to take seafood sustainability seriously.
Of course, this is no easy task. “The biggest challenge [of Sustainable Seafood Week] is explaining the concept of sustainability to folks, because you can have a lot of definitions of sustainability,” said Sean Dixon, co-founder of Village Fishmonger, but “We definitely like to dream big.”
Dreaming big was how from a number of events—a trivia night, clam bake, or celebrity night—evolved a weeklong celebration of efforts by fishermen, chefs, and the industry alike coming together to promote responsible, sustainable seafood sourcing.
The week has many events open to the public, including a gala, a tour of the Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm, a lobster cook-off, and an event called Bait To Plate, where Greenberg will be speaking. Bait To Plate will be at Grand Banks, on the F/V Sherman Zwicker, an old wooden schooner at Pier 25, and will include a tasting of local fishes that are usually used as bait.
There is also a series of restaurants participating, each with its own special dish in commemoration of the week. Every event offers a different perspective on how we can promote the sourcing of seafood in a sustainable way. Sourcing seafood is a huge focus of the week—but what, exactly, is seafood sourcing?
Sammy salmon has been baked and eaten, but his story will likely never be told; sourcing Sammy would be a twisting, confusing path involving a multitude of people and mileage that could get a free ride to China using Frequent Freighter Points.
In short, Sammy has been handled by so many people through so many channels that it’s near impossible to discern his history.
If a path is shorter, sourcing seafood boils down to a simple story. Sustainable Seafood Week promoters and other dedicated sustainable seafood lovers aim to trim stories like Sammy’s to something that’s easier to chew on.
Chef Todd Mitgang is part of this movement. Mitgang is the chef at Crave Fishbar, the only New York restaurant partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. He tells of his relationship with a lobsterman called “Little Anthony.”
During Mitgang’s time at South Edison, a seafood restaurant in Montauk, New York, Little Anthony would show up at the door of the restaurant, selling them lobster from his most recent 36-hour trip out to sea. “You start to forge a relationship with the person who’s behind harvesting the seafood,” explained Mitgang.
Little Anthony would bring boxes of lobster and crab, which contained a species of crab called Jonah crab. “They were delicious,” said Mitgang.
So delicious, in fact, that South Edison added it to their menu: Little Anthony’s Jonah Crab Claw. Their relationship was so strong that they eventually named a drink after him. This story is one of many that local seafood advocates aim to highlight and celebrate.
Fishing for Hope
In between the industry and the plate is a much wider trench than that between people like Little Anthony and the diners at South Edison. Leaders in the industry hope to change that, and Industry Lab aims to facilitate that change during Sustainable Seafood Week.
The Industry Lab is held yearly, and is the only event during the week that is not open to the public. It brings together seafood experts, chefs, and fishermen from all over the nation to discuss the future of the seafood industry.
This year, they’ll discuss transparency and traceability; they want not only to tell the stories, but for people to listen, and be involved. “If people learn one thing about their favorite fish, or two things about a fish they never heard of, then it’s a successful week,” said Dixon. “Even if one percent of [New Yorkers] think about sustainable seafood for a week, then we could make a huge, huge impact.”
The sustainability of seafood is becoming an increasingly important issue in New York and the world – in this case, it’s definitely better to be the one percent.
Tasty Seafood Buying Tips
Center your plate around farmed bivalves (mussels, oysters, or clams), which are more sustainable to grow than finfish.
Porgy are a cheap fish (less than $5 per pound) in season this summer that are caught locally and are very flavorful.
Hake and black bass are flavorful, and are caught locally and sustainably.
Look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) labels on seafood, which certify low- impact farmed and sustainably caught fish, respectively.
When in doubt, refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide at SeafoodWatch.org.
For more information about Sustainable Seafood Week or to attend an event, visit sswnational.com/nyc.