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November 8, 2010

Fish: the Next Local Food

This is the last in a series of four guest posts by Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.

A sanitized version of an old Yiddish proverb advises: “don’t excrete where you eat.” An incredibly obvious and comprehensible point. And yet, we Americans have been doing pretty much exactly the opposite for much of our history. 

Millions of tons of human sewage, not to mention excretion, from various shore-based factories and power plants and now the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, have fouled our local waterways and made much of the seafood that is at our coastal doorsteps either rare or inedible.

Combine that with agricultural runoff and the habitat destruction caused by the dredging of harbors and you have an obvious result: Americans now get around 80% of their seafood from abroad and the seafood that is caught within our borders is often brought to us from distant offshore fishing grounds or from still relatively untainted places like Alaska.  

Which is why I feel strongly that the next “local food” movement should be one of reclaiming local seafood and bringing regional fish back onto the menus of our coastal cities. 

It was this thought that led me and CUNY’s John Waldman to organize an event that’s coming up in Manhattan on November 18th from 6:00-9:00 PM at the Seaport Museum New York, 12 Fulton Street (2/3 subway to Fulton Street) called “Can New York City Seafood Be Local Again?” It will, I hope, be a hopeful event. 

Mark Kurlansky (The Big Oyster) and Dennis Suszkowski of the Hudson River Foundation will be talking about oyster restoration in New York Harbor. Bruce Franklin (The Most Important Fish in the Sea) and Steve Gephard of Connecticut’s DEP will discuss rebuilding local herring and the overfishing of that most important forage fish, menhaden. 

Finally Carl Safina (Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross), local shad fisherman and former Clearwater chairman John Mylod, and Sea2Table’s Sean Dimin will discuss larger finfish, the losses New York has suffered and the ways we can rebuild small scale artisan fishing fleets that function in conjunction with sustainable fishing practices. Blue Moon Fish will be providing some excellent local smoked bluefish.

Some would say that turning New York City into a fishing town again is wildly optimistic. But we who fish on the party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and City Island or surf cast down by the Battery or jig for herring off the Canarsie Pier know that there are fish out there. Some of the biggest striped bass I’ve ever caught were swimming at the end one of JFK’s runways. 

Moreover, things have actually gotten better in many parts of the City. Ever since the Clean Water Act, dissolved oxygen levels in New York Harbor have been steadily rising to the point where oxygen content is no longer a barrier to restoring oysters. Oyster reefs mean better bottom habitat and better habitat means more blackfish, black sea bass, eels and many other good tasting creatures. Herring runs can be restored by creating passage around old dams like the one on the Bronx River and more herring in the water will mean more big fish locally like striped bass and bluefin tuna.

And I would hope that New York City is just the beginning. San Francisco should have more halibut and sturgeon. Los Angeles should have more yellowtail and albacore.  Chicago should have more lake trout and whitefish. Miami should be brimming with snapper, mahi mahi and grouper.

Our coasts — even the coasts next to our big cities — should be, first and foremost, food systems, not waste disposal systems. And if this realization were to hit home with coastal Americans I think the oceans would be all the more present in our lives to the point where all of us might have the chance to experience the sentiment Herman Melville described in New York less than two centuries ago: “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”