Monday, April 12, 2021

Rant: We Don't Know How To Talk About Seafood

Unfortunately, though understandably, the Seafood Expo North America (SENA) was canceled again this year due to the pandemic. This has always been one of my favorite food events each year, and I've written extensively about seafood issues I've learned at this event. With SENA's recent decision to cancel their 2021 event, I've been thinking about their previous events, and one panel discussion I attended in 2017 has remained deep in my heart. 

At this panel discussion, one speaker stood out, Barton Seaver, a resident of Maine, a seafood sustainability expert and educator, and the Director of the Sustainable Seafood & Health Initiative at the Center for Health & the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also the author of several excellent seafood cookbooks. I've met Barton and seen him speak several times about seafood issues, and he's a compelling speaker who makes you think, who stirs your intellect and heart. 

Barton Seaver began his talk stating: "We don't know how to talk about seafood." Provocative and thought provoking. 

He continued, noting that we don't have a great definition of "sustainable seafood," especially as there are so many different elements of sustainability. Seafood often isn't included in discussion about "good food" despite it being maybe the only food with the term "food" actually in it. We need to look at seafood more from a cultural viewpoint.

Seafood suffers from "otherness," being seen as different from other foods. Over time, seafood lost its identity, partially from the advent of refrigeration and a decrease in home cooking. When people commonly think of proteins, they usually don't include seafood in their thoughts. It's also the only food that is considered guilty before being innocent. It's something people think must be analyzed, to determine whether it passes a person's standards or not. These same individuals don't conduct that same analysis with their beef, chicken, or pork.

The culinary aspect of seafood scares people, who feel intimidated when trying to cook seafood. Currently, Americans eat almost only 10 species of fish, 8 if you group the different types of catfish together. Other fish and seafood is not seen as having the same value as these 10 types. Our fishermen catch so many other species and this is an unsustainable economic situation. We demand the market supply for fish rather than take what is caught. We must all start eating other species of fish and seafood, going beyond the common 10. We need to put less pressure on those common 10 and also help fishermen who catch all the other species. 

Barton then raised an issue I hadn't considered before, but which makes much sense. He stated that one of the biggest obstacles to seafood sustainability is the recipe. The recipe? The problem is that recipes usually are written to use a specific type of fish. For example, you will commonly find recipes for Cod and Mussels, Salmon and Crab. Some seafood cookbooks break down into chapters for these specific seafood types. However, Barton feels that recipes shouldn't specify the fish type but be more generic, such as a "light, flaky whitefish."

The idea is to encourage home cooks to seek outside the common 10 and use other seafood species, which are similar to the common ones they already enjoy. That is excellent advice, though such a cookbook would probably need to have a list somewhere, grouping seafood species by the generic definitions within the cookbook. For example, the average consumer doesn't know what dogfish is like, so they would need to have some guidance as to what type of recipes it would fit within. Barton also had advice for Chefs, that they should not ask for specific species but should ask for what is fresh. In addition, they should "sell the dish, not the seafood."

Barton then moved on, stating that we need to "end the conversation of wild vs farmed." He feels it is an artificial distinction, that we should treat them both the same and stop arguing about aquaculture. In a recent online article, Barton expanded upon this issue and it is worth a read. He makes numerous valid points and I have long been a proponent of aquaculture as well. You'll find numerous articles on my blog discussing aquaculture.

As Barton says, "Seafood is such an amazing opportunity" and "Seafood sustains us." He also noted how valuable it is for our health, how numerous studies show that eating sufficient seafood can reduce your risk of heart disease by about 36%. A doctor from Tufts once told him of the 3 Ss of good health: Wear Seatbelts, No Smoking, and Eat Seafood.

"Fish lacks story." Barton is not the first sustainable seafood proponent that I have heard make this point, and its validity is without dispute. Barton feels we need to use other methods to connect people to seafood, and shouldn't start with the seafood. We need to connect it more to cultural issues. For example, we can talk about social issues such as the fact that 52% of the people involved in aquaculture are women. Aquaculture provides plenty of jobs and that is a great story. In addition, we should consider the story of how we keep fishermen in business, the civic values of helping members of our community. We all should "Talk about sustainability in any measure that is meaningful to you."

Barton Seaver provided much to ponder and I hope it sparks something within my readers as well. People need to eat more seafood, for an abundance of reasons, from improving your own health to helping local fishermen make a living. Stop treating seafood as an enemy and treat it as you would hamburger or fried chicken.

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