Monday, April 23, 2007

There You Go Again...

Well, I've done it again. For the second time in a about a week, I raised the hackles of a fellow food blogger over what kind of fish we should or should not be serving.

I feel a bit like a skunk at the party, telling another blogger that the fish he's chosen for a featured recipe has issues. These little incursions spark all kinds of defensive behavior, flurries of testy e-mails, hasty disclaimers.

Perhaps I should explain where I'm coming from.

I recently "took the pledge" with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program. This makes me a kind of vigilante where fish and shellfish are concerned, meaning I am on the lookout for endangered or environmentally unsound seafood being sold at stores or served in restaurants.

By swearing on the life of my first-born to uphold the "Seafood Watch" credo, I received a package in the mail from the aquarium. Inside are postcards and business cards that I am to leave at establishments here in the District of Columbia either praising or reprimanding proprietors for the seafood they are selling.

For instance, the "Become Aware" cards state: Dear Management, I noticed that some of the seafood you sell comes from sources that are harmful to our oceans. As a customer, it is important to me that you offer environmentally responsible seafood. This decision is good for oceans and for business as it meets the growing demand for ocean friendly seafood.

The "Thank You" card reads: Dear Management, Thank you for offering environmentally responsible seafood. When purchasing seafood, I also try to make ocean friendly choices. I look forward to recommending your business to my friends.

Also in the kit is a stack of identification cards with pictures and explanatory text describing the various fish species on the aquarium's "avoid" list. To wit:

Atlantic cod, Bluefin tuna, Chilean seabass, farmed salmon, flounders and soles, groupers, king crab, orange roughy, red snapper, rockfish, sea scallops, shark, foreign shrimp and swordfish.

One quickly discovers that the seafood watchdog business is a minefield. There are so many different varieties of fish, and so many different reasons why we as consumers either should or should not be buying them. There are many different ways to fish destructively. There are very few fisheries that are operated on a sustainable basis. There is also so much corruption and skulduggery in the seafood business it's often hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

There are also fish that may be thriving, but are not healthy choices because they contain mercury or other toxins.

Long story short, I don't claim to be an expert at this. But I do believe that we as food bloggers have a responsibility in this rapidly shrinking world of ours to inform readers as best we can about good and bad seafood choices. At a minimum, we should not be touting fish species that have been targeted by health and environmental groups.

We should be linking readers as often as possible to groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium "Seafood Watch" and the Environmental Defense Network's Ocean's Alive. Both organizations provide search features and lists of dozens of sea creatures with reasons to use or not.

For health issues, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes specific recommendations about seafood species that cause concern. The FDA recommends, for instance, that women and children not consume several fish varieties because of elevated levels of mercury, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Men are advised to limit their consumption to once a month.

The blogger whose use of swordfish I took some issue with gave a host of reasons for not writing about these matters. There is not enough of a consensus on the hazards, he said. He did not want to "insult my readers' intelligence." He did not feel qualified. He did not have enough time.

We sympathize. We feel your pain. Still, I say this kind of thinking is no longer adequate for the times we live in. I say we can do more to inform ourselves and our readers.

We can, can't we?

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