Thursday, September 24, 2015

What's for Dinner? Eat Local Seafood! by Don Orth

I'm out of town and don't know where or what to eat.   Do I stick with a chain restaurant and get the predictable fare or should I try something uniquely local?     Thanks to the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Aquarium I have seafood recommendations available.    These recommendations are based on a number of sustainability criteria, so I may eat guilt-free.   I'm in Baltimore at the inner harbor and right across the street is Phillips Seafood.    The history is interesting and starts over a century ago when A.E. Phillips & Son processing plant sourced wild crabs, fish and oysters in season from Hoopers Island on the Eastern Shore.  At that time fresh seafood traveled by steamship. The business grew and the restaurant now has a rich tradition and a superb location.    I ordered the Rockfish blackened,  with pineapple and mango salsa, fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes ($27).
After. I used to eat the skin of fish, but a variety of contaminants concentrate in the skin.
No complaints about this entree.   The Rockfish is known to scientists as the Striped Bass Morone saxatilis.  It is the state fish of Maryland and Virginia's state saltwater fish.  Striped Bass support one of the most important commercial and recreational fisheries along the east coast.  Each year the harvest by recreational fishers far exceeds the harvest by commercial fisheries.   They are also farm raised as striped bass x white bass hybrids.   Due to over-harvest and habitat degradation, striped bass populations suffered severe declines in the 1970's and a moratorium was established.  After millions of dollars and many years of study, they concluded that overfishing was responsible for population declines.  Well duh?!  Current harvest management involves individual transferable quotas for commercial fisheries and size and bag limits for recreational fisheries. 

The next night I visited Alewife Baltimore, where the proprietor focuses on locally sourced foods.    On arrival I see on the menu that they "support Maryland's best fishermen, farmers, hunters, and gatherers whenever possible.  Our menu includes invasive species as well as sustainably sourced seafood in order to aid in the preservation and protection of our ecosystems."   The menu includes local crabs, as well as a few species labeled "invasive" including feral hogs, Blue Catfish, and Northern Snakehead.     In other words "snakeheads are evil, eat them!"  This unique solution was popularized in Jackson Lander's Eating Aliens book and the idea has begun to catch on.   See the PBS special A New Wild.  

I order the Blue Catfish tacos, which the menu describes as Potomac River Blue Catfish, with  chimichurri, blistered corn salsa, chipotle cabbage slaw, and sweet potato strings for $13. I also ordered the Southwest style potato fish cakes, warm corn and bacon salad with dill avocado puree.    The combination of flavors on the Blue Catfish taco were very good together, as good or better than other fish tacos I've eaten.  The Snakehead Cakes were also very good, but I had to wonder "if snakeheads are really such a terror, shouldn't they be making an entree with more snakehead meat instead of mixing it with potatoes?"
Blue Catfish Tacos
Snakehead Cakes
So where did these two non-native fish come from?   The Blue Catfish Ictalurus furcatus is native to large rivers of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio drainages and some rivers draining into the Gulf.   At a time when Striped Bass populations were at historical lows on the east coast,  North Carolina and Virginia stocked the Blue Catfish in several tidal rivers.   The populations of Blue Catfish exploded in the 1990's and today have spread to the Potomac and other Chesapeake Bay waters.    Recently the Monterey Bay Aquarium awarded the Blue Catfish the Green Seafood rating.   The green rating means the fish are abundant and there is minimal environmental impact associated with the fisheries.  Annual harvest of Blue Catfish in Virginia easily exceeds 2 million pounds per year, second only to Louisiana.  That's a lot of Blue Catfish Tacos!

Headlines that state that the "Blue Catfish are destroying the Bay" move lightning fast on the internet,  though we know most of the Bay's problems stem from agricultural or stormwater runoff and other discharges.   "Save the Bay" has been a rallying cry for over 50 years and attempts to place blame on the Blue Catfish now misses the big picture.   Decisions made 40 years ago are irreversible and we need to learn to live with and wisely manage the Blue Catfish and to minimize our effect on the Bay. 
Blue Catfish (top) with one of its many prey items, the Alewife (bottom)  Photo by Jason Emmel
The other fish on the menu, the Northern Snakehead Channa argus, is native to northern China.    Yet in 2002 the Northern Snakehead made national news after an angler at a pond in Crofton, Maryland, caught an 18-inch specimen.  Where did it come from?  What should we do?  These questions plagued the staff of the Maryland DNR until any action was mute.  The Northern Snakehead was now in North American waters.  In 2004, Snakehead Terror horror movie was released and today at least 14 states prohibit possession of all live snakehead species.   The fear was they would decimate all native fish with their voracious appetite.   They are established in the Potomac River and, according to one study, eat mostly Banded Killifish (66%).  A Snakehead Tournament is held regularly.   We have a National Management Plan, yet the only uncertainty today is just how far the Northern Snakehead will spread in North America.   So eat more Snakeheads!   But is that our only option?
Northern Snakehead. Photo by Donald Orth
The Snakehead is likely to develop a specialized following of anglers and bowfishers.   It has a mystique.  Just watch this video with Jeremy Wade of River Monsters, if you doubt me.

So we humans will continue to purposefully move fish around, whether it is prohibited or not.   We will continue to debate how to manage our new collection of plants and animals in our modified aquatic ecosystems.    It won't be easy.  We never approach the nirvana of an equilibrium.  The answer will not be found in name calling or blaming the fish.   It's the people who make the decisions.   Call them "invasives" if you wish, but that doesn't change the fact that they are now part of the ecosystem.   Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes are perhaps the center of non-native biodiversity in North America.  Whether the non-natives become beneficial to communities and local economies is ultimately up to us.

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