FISH FASHION AND SUSTAINABILITY

HOW CULTURAL CHANGE CAN HELP SAVE OUR SEAS

 

  I am a catch and release saltwater fly fishing guide. In the spring and summer I fish out of Sag Harbor in the bays between two Glacial moraines, left behind as the last pulse of Wisconsian glaciation receded 20,000 years ago, forming the North and South forks of Long Island N.Y.

 

  In September I move my boat east to Montauk, the self proclaimed ‘sports fishing capital of the world’ to guide sportsmen drawn by great fall run of fish as the striped bass and bluefish chase the bait south as part of their great annual migration. The front line of one of the struggles for several species of fish, as they fight for survival.

This part of the world has a rich maritime and fishing history. The original Native American tribes and early settlers relied on the local fishery as a primary food source and as a way to fertilize their land.

 

  In the early part of the 19C, the area saw a boom, as Sag Harbor became one of the hubs of the Whaling industry. Ships would set out on great voyages sometimes lasting five years, as the Whale population depleted and the captains had to sail further to find their quarry. 

The ships owners, the first oil barons, banked on their ships returning to port fully laden with barrels of product.

 

  For years the abundant fish stocks were a given, one reason to live out here on the sandy isthmus of the south fork and bare the brunt of the brutal winters, the scathing nor-Easters and the chance that one big hurricane may one day blast the whole lot back into the Atlantic.

Then, in the late seventies the striped bass, all but disappeared. Indiscriminate fishing together with polluted spawning grounds mainly in the Chesapeake Bay had turned this mainstay of the local fishery into a rarity.

At the time, this was a wake up call, the taking of the species was banned and the moratorium only ended with the introduction of strict limits on the size and amount of fish that could be taken. 

 

  This early effort in conservation was wildly successful and the striper population bounced back. The trouble was, that not enough was done with a view to long-term sustainability and the striped bass population is once again, in danger.

To add to the old problems of indiscriminate fishing, poaching and pollution the harvesting of Menhaden (a type of small herring known locally as bunker) has become a profitable business once again. Two companies, the largest based in Texas, have found loopholes in a couple of states, enabling them to capture vast amounts of this vital link in the food chain, using purse seine nets.

 

  The popularity for omega-3 fatty acids as a dietary supplement and the reduction of Menhaden yields for feed to encourage growth rates in, ironically, farmed fish, has once again made the harvesting of this fish a highly profitable business.

 

Fish like the striped bass and bluefish, do not make there own omega-3 fatty acids for themselves, for this they rely on oily fish like the menhaden and anchovy who form a vital link in the food chain to plankton.

   The predatory striped bass has been badly impacted, contributing to the alarming decline in the stocks, and encouraging the epidemic of Mycrobacteriosis resulting in horrible red lesions and ulceration on the fish’s flanks. This disease is largely caused by the overfishing of the Menhaden resulting in the reduction of protein in the Stripers Diet. 

 

  Imagine this for a scenario-The wild population of the majestic anadromous striped bass, an iconic fish whose natural habitat is the coastline of the north-eastern U.S.A. It’s migration ranging from the Carolinas in the south to Maine in the north and an important part of the culture of the north eastern seaboard, disappears- a very real possibility, unless we see immediate and important changes regarding the species sustainability.

  All we have left is the populations that have been artificially introduced to a few lakes the world over. As a food source however, the sickly looking, farmed, Striped bass is available, artificially reared on feed pellets made from…. the Menhaden. The very same fish that the now extinct wild population relied on, and died out as the Menhaden stocks were decimated to line the pockets of the suits in corporate America.

 

  Last fall, as usual, the Striped bass and Bluefish were herding and crashing the balls of baitfish, frothing the surface into white water and filling the air with the smell of fish oil and the sound of a waterfall, in the phenomenon known as the ‘Montauk Blitz”. Bulking up on protein to fuel their run south.

To an observer walking the cliff edge at camp Hero or standing near the lighthouse looking down at the many fishing boats jostling for position before racing off to pursue the next ‘Blitz’, it would seem that they were looking at a healthy population of fish.

   Unfortunately, in the case of the highly prized striped bass, they would have been looking down at a large percentage of the entire population of the species all gathered at the same location. Last fall there were few reports of fish still to the north, they had yet to arrived in any numbers to the south even around N.Y.C only ninety miles to the south west. 

The striped bass are normally seen in Maine, at the northern end of their migration for a short six-week season before they turn back to the south. No stripers have been seen in Maine for four years, the migration has been so limited that they simply never made it.

  

 

  The blue fin tuna is another species that visits the waters around Montauk. This fish has been so impacted by overfishing worldwide, to satisfy the demand for its meat for sushi, mainly by the Japanese, that the species may well beyond the point of no return, on the way to extinction. 

The Blue Fin population that populated the eastern Atlantic migrated between the Baltic and the Mediterranean where they were fished for thousands of years.

The most famous roundup was the Mattanza in Sicily, the huge financial rewards reaped by the old families and clans who traditionally held the rights to hunt the schools of giant’s fish that came once a year. However, greed and refusal to manage the fishery with a view to long term sustainability over short term gain, led to the wiping out of that population of giant blue fin.

The great tradition has gone and the villages lie empty.

 

The Japanese tuna buyers once to be seen lurking around New England docks with fistfuls of cash are getting to be as rare a species as the Blue Fin Themselves. Now if a decent fish is caught the captain will need to make a call while still offshore to attract a buyer.

Locally one summer four years ago, a large school of juvenile blue fin tuna took up residence for almost six weeks in the waters between Block Island and Newport R.I. 

These small 15-30 lb fish could be seen busting on the surface for hundreds of yards as they crashed the schools of bait that they had followed in, causing serious cases of fish fever amongst the local sports, eager to catch one on a fly rod.

 Resulting in the mistaken impression to the casual observer once again, that this species was generally abundant, the stocks healthy. 

The argument for proper worldwide management of fish stocks, leading to long-term sustainability, is not a new one.

 Several good books have been written on the subject, describing for instance how the western taste for white flaky fish meat led to the decimation of the once huge populations of Cod and the search for a replacement. How the Patagonian tooth fish was discovered, rebranded as the Chilean sea bass and virtually wiped out within seven years.

All more evidence that the consumer leads the market and choices made by the individual are affected by trend. What the ubiquitous celebrity chef is currently punting on the T.V. in his restaurant and suggestions in his or her latest cookbook. Food fashions, Cost and availability also play a part but traditional and cultural preferences, particularly, define consumer choices in the East.

The Japanese cultural obsession with fish does not end with Tuna. They eat Dolphin (the mammal) and whale, as well as a wealth of fish that they import and catch locally to be used in the ritual preparation of sushi. Ignoring the fact that those fish and mammals, because of their positions in the food chain, are repositories for poisons such as mercury.

 

For the Chinese, Mouth-feel is considered to be an important component in the enjoyment of fish, most famously in shark fin soup. Last year 70,000,000 million sharks were captured, the fins removed, before the fish is thrown back to drown. The shark relies on forward motion to ram the oxygen rich seawater over its gills.

 Upsetting the food chain by selective removal of a top predator, not to mention the cruelty and impact on the sustainability of this species is an unacceptably high price to pay to provide the correct texture to a traditional soup, to bestow wealth and power and show proper respect and honor to your guests.

The way that different cultures use fish has to change if we are to save our seas. We as humans, the top predator and the one able to reason, have a moral responsibility to save our oceans and in fact all the other species that we are crowding out and needlessly sacrificing.

This will take re-education and cultural change, the rethinking of what we hold as our ‘rights’ and our ‘Heritage’. It is time to change our priorities.

That does not mean that we have to stop eating fish or fishing but it requires is some serious thought as to the choices we make and why we make them.

 

One June a few years ago, I was helping to tape a T.V show with john Wilson a well-known English fishing personality and journalist, for the European Discovery channel.

 We were Filming in Peconic bay west of Sag Harbor, fly fishing for striped bass, when John hooked a fish locally known as a ‘sea robin’, so called because of it’s red coloring and huge wing like pectoral fins.

I explained to John that this fish was considered to be a pest and a “trash fish” used for bait for lobster traps etc; He was intrigued, as in Europe this species is known as a Gurnard and highly prized as a delicacy in it’s own right, as well as when used in the preparation of the famous French Bouillabaisse soup as an alternative to the scorpion fish.

We discussed how other species of fish, popular across the Atlantic, such as the skate, dogfish, the Atlantic mackerel and a few other species were common in local waters but for cultural reasons were considered trash, only useful as bait.

Although In a top fish restaurant with a French heritage like ‘Le Bernadin’in New York City, celebrity chef Eric Ripert will present skate wings in black butter as, “raie de beurre noir” a classic French dish.

 

  In England, Dogfish going under the name of ‘rock salmon’ or ‘Huss’ have been a traditional item on the menu’s of ‘fish and chip’ shops, always available and well priced.

In other waters the abundant and fast growing bluefish suffers none of the cultural prejudice to be found here. In the Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean or in Australia where it is called the ‘tailor’, it is highly prized both as a sport fish and as food. Either grilled, baked, as ceviche, made into pate or smoked it is delicious and full of the omega-3 fatty acids, the very stuff that they Harvest Menhaden for.

  The Porgy just about makes it to the market in the north–east, along with the blue fish, as the cheapest fish on display, considered one step above trash, in Montauk they are used as live bait for big Striped Bass. 

  The problem is their branding; they always suffered from unfortunate local names like ‘scup’ in New England, named in the old days when the much preserved cod dominated the fishery, appearing to be in inexhaustible supply. In Europe they are called a sea bream or dourade again with a totally different reputation and cultural profile, always seen as a delicacy and a change from the abundant Herring. 

  In one of my favorite fish restaurants in London ‘le poissonerie de l’avenue’ in Chelsea, the porgy or sea bream will be served as ‘ Dourade au four farcis aux herb aromatiques’ at sixteen and a half English pounds or approximately $27, that of course is not including a nice flinty 2008 Chablis and a dozen No 1 Whitstable oysters with a pint of black velvet.

The Atlantic Mackerel are seen here, and occasionally jigged up as bait for the large, late season female striped bass if no blue-backed herring are around.

In England they can be found at the famous Wiltons restaurant in Jermyn Street as part of the ‘Turner Menu’ at one hundred and fifty pounds or $242, accompanied by smoked salmon, tomato, saffron and beetroot paired with a refreshing 2007 Meaursault “cuvee des eviques”.

In America its modest size and omega-3 rich oily flesh, marks it down as not to the local taste and little use for sport, where size is all-important. In Europe fish are generally much smaller so it is viewed as fun to catch on feathered hooks in the summer.

 Mackerel are also considered to be very tasty when smoked. An alternative to the ‘kipper’ or smoked herring a breakfast staple from the days when the North Sea were full of the oily fish that sustained a huge industry. The herring are now fished out.

Blue Fin Tuna, or any tuna for that matter do not feature heavily on the menus of these old fashioned and traditional London Fish Restaurants. Known as a sport fish and a recent fad it is not a cultural fit at Wiltons.

Alternatively Japanese fish buyers have been known to pay more than $100,000 for a single large and fatty blue fin tuna. On the docks of New England, $20,000 for a single fish was quite common.

Japanese businessmen out to impress over dinner in Tokyo will pay hundreds of dollars for some morsels of prestigious blue fin Toro to be served with great ritual. To persuade these people to eat yellow fin or something else may save the blue fin but not as long as, ritual and ego is considered to have greater priority than life itself.

Is this the future? That people with continue to exploit endangered species merely out of cultural preference and the desire to impress whilst indulging in an old tradition? Not if we educate, so people change their priorities and learn the real meaning of respect.

 

This is a new world we are arguably entering into the sixth extinction, the greatest extinction of species for millions of years. The environment is under increasing pressure from global warming.

We have to realize that the rate of change is exponential, by the time that some of those changes become apparent. It will be too late. We need to pause and mindsets need to change. Cultural dogmata preserving people’s symbolism, traditions, rituals and customs that have a negative effect on preserving what we have left, need to be relegated to the past where they belong. Globalization has to extend to proper informed ecology, to save what we have left.

A tall order? No doubt but unless this is addressed on a global level there will be a catastrophe and that is not overstating the situation. It is not hysterical lefty rhetoric if it was I would be uninterested.

Look at the complete annihilation of the Herring industry on England’s East coast or ask the Sicilian Tuna fishermen who depended on the great annual migration of Blue Fin first depicted on Roman pottery. Go diving in the Mediterranean to see the dead fishless water or look at the great coral reefs standing lifeless around once abundant tropical shores. It is happening now and getting worse.

 

Heritage is history. Using the argument that retaining elements of the past to maintain an identity in the present is in many cases perfectly valid. When the preservation of certain traditions and customs from the past, threatens natures balance today, placing species in danger of extinction it has to be wrong

 

The argument to protect cultural heritage was not considered reason enough to preserve foxhunting in England, head hunting in Borneo or cannibalism in Indonesia. It has been established that the traditional use of ground Rhino as horn in the East as an aphrodisiac is no longer a reason to kill them, although they continue to fall victim to poachers.

However the killing of sharks for soup in China, the extinction of species to preserve the right of the Japanese to eat there favorite and most prestigious sushi because it is part of their heritage or the decimation of one species of fish after another, to satisfy the western taste for white delicately flavored and flaky fish, continues.

 We need to take a hard line. I do not mean by militant direct action, that will not work we do not need a fishy Ulrike Meinhof. That makes no sense and only good sense based on the facts coupled with education will prevail. 

The Eskimo whale kill for spiritual as well as cultural reasons has to end. The traditional kill of ten-day-old baby seals in the Gulf of st Lawrence permitted by the Canadian government, whilst there is virtually no demand for seal products, makes no sense.

We need plain speaking not obfuscation for political gain.  

 

If we learn all these lessons and apply simple sense according to the facts and ignore the political rhetoric. We can stop any more needless extinction and at the same time we can ensure that a dad can take his son out for a responsible days fishing or hunting in future decades whilst looking forward to a bit of fish for dinner.

We can preserve some of our commercial fleets.

It will come at a cost. There will be claims that we are interfering with people cultural rights, playing into the hands of self-seeking politicians. There will be hell to pay in the international conferences on fishing and commercial fishermen the world over will be furious at more regulations.

Some people may have legitimate reasons to claim cultural interference or that their rights have been compromised. Jobs will be lost. There will be some collateral damage.

 On the plus side species of fish will live on, much needless slaughter will end, it may well avoid the destruction of the worldwide marine habitat and the greatest tragedy to humanity in to date will have been avoided.

Not least the human race will have demonstrated that we do have the capability to save ourselves .We can make a stand for the greater good despite the howls of opposition and we can claim to be evolving and if not yet fully civilized we are definitely making progress.

 

 

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