Anxiety at the Fish Counter: Wild or Farm-Raised Salmon?

Salmon photo by Ian Britton, courtesy of FreeFoto.com

I’ve developed a severe case of “fish anxiety.”  First, it was hearing about PCBs and mercury in farmed-raised salmon. Then it was the stories about overfishing cod. Now it’s worrying about whether Gulf Coast shrimp are still safe to eat.

Should I only buy wild fish?  Should I avoid certain species? Should I just buy fish when it’s caught locally?

Even though I belong to a community-supported fishery, it doesn’t offer  enough quantity or variety to meet all of my household’s fish-eating needs. As a conscientious consumer, who’s trying to support food that is healthy, is environmentally sound, pays producers a fair wage, supports local economies, and is sustainable over the long run, it’s really hard to figure out what fish and seafood I should buy.  While there is a variety of consumer seafood buying guides I plan to explore, my goal is to educate myself—and you—about what to buy.

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg

Take salmon, for example.  I’ve been reading Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food. According to Greenberg, salmon grow best in free-flowing, oxygen-rich, fresh-water rivers that are protected by timber cover. Thanks to industrialization—dams, agriculture runoff, industrial waste—and overfishing, there are very few good salmon-fishing rivers left in the US. Today, the only Atlantic salmon available in supermarkets is farmed; most of the Pacific salmon you see at the supermarket is wild, but the supplies are dwindling.

I was fascinated to learn that the first effort to farm salmon began around 1400, although the vast development of farm-raised salmon didn’t happen until the ’70s. Thirty years ago, there was no salmon in Chile, and now Chile is the second largest salmon-producing country in the world. As producers became very efficient at farming salmon, the prices dropped, and producers started farming more and more salmon to make up for lost income.

Similar to industrial farming on the land, high-density salmon farms create pollution and waste and spread disease. Most farmed-fish are not well separated from wild populations, so diseases can spread to the wild fish, and the genetic populations get mixed. Both farmed and wild salmon feed on smaller fish, but wild salmon eat lower on the food chain, where there is less concentration of contaminants like PCBs.

Kwik'Pak Fisheries is a community fishery run by the Kupik people.

It would be wonderful if we could all eat wild salmon, but there simply isn’t enough wild salmon on the planet to satisfy the demand. Greenberg believes that we need to develop food policies that incorporate both wild and farm-raised salmon.  His book describes some promising ways that salmon can be farmed in a more environmentally sound way that protects wild salmon.

Greenberg points out that if we seek to feed people efficiently by growing the most salmon using the least amount of feed, it would be logical to support the genetically altered salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Massachusetts now seeking FDA approval.  AquaBounty says its salmon grows to maturity in half the time of other farmed salmon, and because it is reproductively sterile, it eliminates the threat of interbreeding.

While Greenberg may be right, I’m not quite ready to embrace genetically altered salmon.  Until farm-raised salmon produced by better standards is available, I’ll buy less salmon, purchase wild salmon when I can, and be prepared to pay more for it.  And I’m going to look into one of Greenberg’s other suggestions: wild Yukon River salmon from the Kwik’Pak Fisheries.  Kwik’Pak is a community business run by the Yupik people.  It was certified by the Fair Trade Federation in 2005, although I can’t find any current information about their membership on the FTF web site. Nonetheless, they seem worthy of support. Their fish is available on the Internet, but I’m going to look for it at restaurants and grocery stores. Hopefully, it’ll be coming soon to a supermarket near you and me.

And I’m going to keep trying to educate myself on what to buy at the fish counter, so I can overcome my fish anxiety.

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Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at starchefs.com.

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.