How to feed the community, support local fishermen, lower our carbon footprint, and connect with our local ecosystems -- all in one meal

the author with his freshly caught squid. Photo credit: Steve swain

the author with his freshly caught squid. Photo credit: Steve swain

By Russell Kingman, commercial fisherman, Chatham, MA

Bluefin tuna stocks are in trouble, but because it is so delicious, even chefs who understand that it is being overfished still serve it. The demand is so high that chefs feel that if they don't have it on the menu (especially a sushi menu), then they'll lose their clientele.

They are right. Honestly, how many of you would go out for sushi knowing there was no tuna? 

Cod is another example. Stocks are really low around the Cape and not much is being landed here. However, the demand is really high for cod!

This causes two things to happen. First, the already-depleted cod stocks are still being fished, when maybe they need a rest. Secondly, we get hoards of cod imported from Iceland and other markets, to use in restaurants for fish and chips and whatever other dishes (broiled cod, etc.). We have no idea the methods used to catch these fish, how far they travel, labor conditions, or really anything. The fish just arrives through brokerage houses.

At the same time, we are landing lots of dogfish, which is shipped to Europe for fish and chips. So there is this crazy global trade with fish! Imagine the carbon footprint...

So! The solution???? YOU eat local. YOU eat "new", or different wild caught species. YOU stop eating tuna. YOU try whatever is locally abundant and find tasty things to promote, and cook.  YOU have to do it. A lot! Not just once a summer, but as a way of life. 

Don't turn to imports; we've got lots of other species right here

The fisherman can bring you all kinds of species, but if you won't buy them... he can't. He has to bring you tuna. I can bring at least three, totally abundant, tasty fishes to the dock...and they are unbelievably affordable!  Only $2 to $4 a pound! That's a fair price to me, and a bargain for you! But no – people demand tuna. I want people to try some of these delicious, affordable fish that are abundant!!!!!

I have good fish, super fresh, tasty... but because of the mindset we are currently in, this fish has no market value. Rather than use abundant local species, we instead scour the globe looking for cheap cod to import, without any knowledge of the environmental impact we are participating in.

The only way I can see these trends changing is on a small scale, locally, with you and me. Over time, it will grow. It is a slow change, but a change nonetheless and this change will not come about by shaming chefs who serve tuna. Japan will still be chowing tuna. They still hunt whales and dolphins! Don't hold your breath waiting for the Japanese to change century old habits. The local people in the U.S.A. have to buy local fish and stop buying imported "name" fish like tuna... that's all. We have to do this locally, on a small scale, and grow from there. It will take time.

Win-win-win for ecosystem, fishermen, consumers

Think of it in terms of a whole circle: you have depleted fish stocks, abundant fish stocks, local fishermen, local economies, and the basic need for affordable, healthy protein. The basic idea is to utilize what you have, rather than import fish from who knows where.

My idea, which certainly I did not invent, is that to enact this model of a localized food chain, people like us have to be the ones to begin. We have to walk the walk, so to speak. Big restaurants on the Cape need cod on the menu... so... that's out of my realm of influence at the moment. But locals, who learn how to cook and prepare other kinds of species, almost always are pleasantly surprised! Skate wing has gained some popularity, and that is a local abundant fish! Monkfish as well! These fish have made it to the menu!

This helps the fisherman as well. He cannot make a living chasing cod if there's not much around... but he can fish for skate and monk and stay "afloat." If these fishermen stay "afloat", so do the surrounding businesses that are involved in the shore-side part of the fisheries. These two fish are examples of good fish that in the past ten years have been recognized by the public, therefore creating a demand. This takes some of the pressure off of cod, and utilizes a local abundant species instead. Everyone wins. It was a slow change, but it happened. 

Maybe more importantly is the future of food, not as a luxury but as a necessity. We have become so focused on food as a luxury... cooking shows... famous chefs.... expensive dishes decorated and adorned with exotic greens and titillating doo dah. In order to perpetuate this model, more and more importing of food occurs and drives the price up. We have totally forgotten the fundamental aspect of food. Survival. 

Locally, we can supply a VERY affordable, nutritious protein...that is tasty as well. In the long run, on this planet, we are going to have to face that only the wealthy will be eating bluefin tuna... the price goes up yearly and demand goes up.... as stocks dwindle. The rest of us, should become well versed in our local food supply so we know exactly how to live by it, from it, with it, and through it. Then we don't need to worry about food. We're self sufficient!

If we diversify our menu, people like me can stay afloat in the present, so that there will be people bringing in the fish in the future.  In my mind, it's a version of getting off the grid a little bit. We can stop feeding the monster of global consumerism, and just take a look around and see what we've got to work with.

It's a push towards getting back to basics. To stop eating blindly. To receive food from the person who grew it, or caught it. To bring the personal nourishment, as well as organic nourishment, back to the table. To me it is so satisfying to bake whole mackerel that we caught that day... with some squash we grew in our small garden... and just feel good about the food. I think it makes for a much more grateful approach to food. I feel connected to life... and I know I'm not furthering the cause of corporate greed and chemical food additives.

If people bought other species, and learned how to enjoy them, we could feed the community at an 85% discount, basically. If the abundant species became more popular, it would give the over targeted species a break. Plus, I wouldn't have to ship all my fish off to brokers, who ship it God-knows-where.

Oh it's a challenge all right! We know how hard it is to effect change. I guess I'm a dreamer in a way. But I find, if I achieve my dream just on a small scale, I feel empowered. If I grow some of my own food in the back yard, some squash, cukes etc. I feel great about it. If I try a Robinfish and find out it's really tasty...I feel great. I know I'll never starve. Small steps are realistic, and unexpectedly satisfying. We don't have to revolutionize the world today... just start somewhere and make a little progress.