Goodbye to bycatch

October 14, 2009


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You may not believe me, but I dislike always being the bearer of bad news; it seems like I’m constantly telling you horror stories and asking you to make tough choices about fish and seafood. Regrettably, today is no exception.

By now most people are aware that making a choice at the fish and seafood counter is much more complicated than deciding what you’d like to eat for dinner. From aquaculture controversies to concerns about certain species becoming extinct, there is a lot to consider before you make a final choice.

And, more confusingly still, while some fish are plentiful and still live up to the adage that there are plenty of fish in the sea, the way that they are caught is harmful to other species. Such is the case with monkfish, a delicious white fish that is caught using bottom trawling (a method that can damage seafloor habitat and often results in high bycatch) or gillnets (which can result in the accidental bycatch and death of sea turtles and other marine mammals).

What’s bycatch you ask? It’s the unintentional harvest of sea, lake or river life, which was not the intended harvest species that results when nets are cast into the water. In some cases, bycatch can be sold as food which is fine if the species involved aren’t endangered or vulnerable; however, often fishermen discard their bycatch which is a terrible waste whether the species involved are vulnerable or not. In fact, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one in four of all animals caught in as bycatch is discarded.

So, before you make that final purchase choice next time you’re buying fish and seafood, ask the fishmonger about the bycatch associated with your choice. And, if he doesn’t know what the heck you’re talking about, send him here so that he can click on these links to find out more:

Before today, were you aware of the bycatch issue? If so, has it influenced your shopping and restaurant choices?

Topline Trends Tuesday: Get hooked on smaller fish

July 21, 2009


According to experts like the scientists and conservationists who developed Ocean Wise, Seafood Watch and the movie The End of the Line, we would all be doing our oceans a favour by choosing small fish like mackerel and sardines more often.

Studies show that within the past century, we’ve fished about 90% of all the large fish species in the ocean, which means we’re now fishing the last 10%. These large fish take a long time to mature so if we continue to plan menus that feature large fillets of fish as our entrées, it won’t be long until there are no more fish to catch. In fact, one source confided to me that many large fish species could be extinct as soon as 2050!

The good news is that a growing number of restaurant chefs are experimenting with more resilient fish species such as sardines, mackerel and other smaller fish that mature fairly quickly and produce high numbers of offspring.  Regrettably, consumers have yet to embrace these options. In fact, most Canadian fish lovers still prefer to eat salmon, tuna and other large fish while 90% of the sardines caught in North America are sold to Australia to be used as food for farmed tuna.

Have you changed your fish-eating habits because of conservation issues? Or, is this a new idea for you to consider? Likewise, do you think that making choices one meal at a time will make a big difference or is the extinction of blue fin tuna and other big fish inevitable?

Best choices for the planet: big fish or little fish?

February 12, 2009


Recently I interviewed Mike McDermid manager of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, about why we all need to be careful to choose sustainable fish and seafood. He had many valuable things to say on the topic but our discussion about whether we should eat big fish or little fish was particularly interesting. 

Overfishing and habitat damage have led to massive species declines, even extinctions, and have caused dramatic shifts in ocean ecosystems. Within the past century, 90% of all large fish species are gone; we are now fishing the last 10%. The good news is that as consumers we can help to reverse these trends by choosing seafood that is harvested in a sustainable manner,” explained Mike.

Which led me to ask him if that meant we should be eating sardines and anchovies and foregoing salmon and tuna?

His reply:

“I’m not sure if it is important – I included that statistic to illustrate where we are currently with respect to commercial fisheries and the dire need to start considering where our fish are coming from. There are sustainable fisheries for large fish species, making them a good option, but I wanted to illustrate that the oceans are not this “endless bounty” that we once considered them to be.

Having said that, there are a lot of proponents to eating lower on the food chain (the smaller fishes that are prey for larger predatory ones). The selective removal of larger fish species has thrown many marine ecosystems out of balance.  Smaller fish species do tend to be more resilient to fishing pressure because they have shorter lifespans (commonly) and produce more offspring. But, some species of tuna, for example, also exhibit fast growth, short lifespans, and produce a lot of offspring as well. As you can see, it very much depends on the exact species and fishery that we are talking about and generalizing can be very difficult.”

Because my husband Martin Kouprie has long been a member of associations such as the Endangered Fish Alliance and now Ocean Wise, I’ve  been trained to make my fish choices carefully.  How about you? Do you choose fish based on the recipe you plan to make or choose the recipe based upon the fish that experts like the Vancouver Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium deem most suitable?

Tip: By the way, If you have an iphone, you might like to download this free Seafood Watch application that you can use at restaurants and grocery stores to make planet-friendly fish and seafood choices.


Tips for swimmingly successful fish dinners

July 17, 2008

I’ve been working on a recipe development project that features fish recipes and I’ve realized from talking to people about what I’m doing at work that many people find choosing fish difficult.

To do my bit to help others cook, eat and shop for food with confidence, I’ve decided today to excerpt the advice I wrote about buying fish for my book Dana’s Top Ten Table. (If you’d like more great tips as well as 200 recipes for entrées your family will love, then please pick up a copy of my book at a bricks and mortar or online bookstore. US and other International customers can send me a request via email and I’ll ship a book directly to your door. And, yes this is a shameless plug.)

“A century ago when first nation’s fishermen returned to their camps with the day’s catch, their preferred cooking technique was to impale cleaned, freshly caught fish such as salmon on strong, green twigs and then plant the twigs into the ground so that the fish leaned over an open fire. Because they caught, cleaned and cooked their catch immediately, the resulting meals were no doubt delicious despite the lack of fancy marinades and interesting sauces.

Today’s home cooks seldom catch their own ingredients so we all need to know how to buy and store fish to ensure that the meals we serve will be as fresh and delicious tasting as possible. There are a number of fish counter options at most stores. In fact, frozen and fresh fish are sold whole, as sides, fillets, steaks, pieces and even chunks in the case of large fish such as tuna.

I always recommend buying fish in a store with a high turnover. Also, don’t be too shy to ask which days of the week fish are delivered and to buy accordingly.

Whether you purchase whole or semi-prepared fish don’t settle for anything less than fish that has firm flesh that’s moist without being watery. If pressed lightly with your finger the fish’s flesh should bounce back without leaving an indentation.

When purchasing whole fish, the eyes should be clear, shiny and not sunken. Regardless of cut, size or origin, truly fresh fish smells clean and sweet, never ‘fishy’ or similar to ammonia in any way.

Refrigerate and use fresh fish and seafood quickly, ideally within a day or two. In fact, if the weather is warm and fish is on your shopping list, take along a chilled cooler to transport the fish home.

If nice quality fresh fish isn’t available, frozen is a good alternative; however, inspect the packaging. If the fish is wrapped in a single layer of store applied plastic wrap, there’s a high likelihood that it was frozen because it was becoming too old to sell as a fresh product.

If your store carries plant packed frozen fish, opt for individually flash frozen fillets or steaks since they are usually more uniform and visually appealing than block pressed fish. Likewise, flash frozen fish fillets and steaks thaw considerably more quickly than blocks so you can be cooking (and eating!) sooner.”

Text excerpted from Dana’s Top Ten Table: 200 Fresh Takes on Family-Favourite Meals. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright (c) 2007 by Dana McCauley. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Bluefin blues

May 26, 2008

Last night I ordered sushi and sashimi from Mi-Ne, the best of our many local Japanese restaurants. I purposely avoided ordering bluefin tuna (which is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s do not eat list) but I couldn’t resist a double order of big eye tuna sashimi. I just crossed my fingers and hoped it was not caught with a longline.

While we were eating our dinner, Martin and Oliver and I discussed how hard it is to be a conscientious sushi consumer who avoids fish that are on the Watch and Avoid lists. As both an active member of the Endangered Fish Alliance and a very concerned earthling who buys hundreds of pounds of seafood a day, Martin knows the fish on the endangered list by heart and follows the latest breaking news on the subject closely (in fact, he’s excited that we now have a Canadian program that is similar to Monterey’s).

When we finished eating, he went to the computer and pulled up this recent article, which reports encouraging news about the bluefin tuna crisis.

In précis, the article talks about Kindai, a farmed version of bluefin, developed at Kinki University’s aquaculture program in Japan. Although you can’t give the buyers of this tuna points for shopping locally, you certainly can thank them for finding an alternative to depleting the ocean stock of bluefin tuna.

Next time I see bluefin tuna on a restaurant menu, I’m going to ask if it is Kindai. I know it isn’t likely that it will be, but at least I’ll be letting restaurateurs know what I want before I order something else.

I know I told you to avoid Chinese food restaurants that serve shark fin soup two weeks ago and that I shook my finger about tetra packs last week. I might seem pushy but I feel really strongly that we all need to take responsibility for changing habits that are negatively affecting the earth and the oceans. Do you agree? If not, let me know.