January 19, 2010
The world is my oyster, or so a Shakespearean character once said. That old saying, still alive in modern English, makes oysters a metaphor for ”something from which a person may extract or derive advantage.”
And oh, how true that turns out to be in a literal sense.
Humans have been extracting advantages from the humble oyster for centuries, as writer Rowan Jacobsen’s insightful new book, “The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World,” points out.
Oysters are vitally important “ecosystem engineers” in several ways. They act as water filters that keep estuaries from becoming algae-choked dead zones, their reefs act as breakwaters that help reduce shoreline erosion, and their shells form the infrastructure for seagrass and many other species to thrive.
Jacobsen puts it this way:
More than 300 species have been counted on oyster reefs. You couldn’t design better habitat….Oysters create the condos, streets, schools, restaurants, parks, and even the water treatment plants of thriving undersea communities, and the great conversation of life begins.
And yet humans seem bent on destroying them—about 85 percent of the world’s oyster reef populations have vanished since the late 1800s, according to a Nature Conservancy study published last year. After crunching these and other disheartening numbers, the study’s authors concluded that “oysters reefs are one of, and likely the most, imperiled marine habitat on earth.”
Part of the problem, as you might have deduced, is that oysters are tasty. Darn tasty. Native populations in America’s Pacific Northwest have known that for millennia, says Jacobsen, who calls oysters “the ham sandwich of 1000 B.C.” (Salmon were a more prized entree, but clams and oysters were plentiful and easy to get.) He points to the evidence of huge mounds of discarded shells—called middens—that date back at least four thousand years. The size of the shells tends to diminish as the height of the pile rises, suggesting that even native populations weren’t exactly sustainable eaters.
They still followed the usual trend of eating their way through a shellfish community faster than the community could replenish itself. But for thousands of years, human populations on the coast were small enough to simply move on to the next, unexploited beds, allowing the exhausted beds to recover.
And then came the Gold Rush, and a rush of settlers with mighty appetites, and you can guess what happened next. The native Olympia oyster population in San Francisco Bay was utterly exhausted by 1910, according to Jacobsen.
When he turns to the East Coast, the news gets even worse. In a bleakly terse chapter titled “How to Kill A Bay,” he explains how pollution, over-development and over-harvesting combined to destroy both the Chesapeake Bay and its oyster population.
But for all the depressing news, it’s actually a gorgeous little book, anchored to the narrative of Jacobsen’s journey with a group of marine scientists searching for the remnants of what was once a thriving population of Olympia oysters off the coast of British Columbia. He includes an appendix listing several groups that are working to restore and conserve oyster reefs; a hopeful ending.
As a consumer, this doesn’t mean you must avoid oysters—even Jacobsen still eats plenty of them. In fact, farmed oysters (95 percent of what’s available these days) are considered a “best choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood guide. Turns out the farms are good for coastal ecology (unlike many salmon farms). But if you’re concerned, you could go the extra mile by buying only from fisheries which have been certified as sustainable.
November 16, 2009
“Sustainable seafood” is a buzzword these days, but as I’ve said before, it can be confusing for consumers. Even if you carry around a list of which species to avoid buying—like the handy pocket guides published by Monterey Bay Aquarium—it’s difficult to keep track of all the details, caveats and alternate species names. There seems to be nothing clear-cut; take salmon, for example, which I ate last night.
As I approached the seafood counter at Whole Foods, I tried to remember what I knew about salmon. I remembered that farm-raised Atlantic salmon should be avoided, because the coastal pens where they are raised in concentrated populations can spread pollution and disease to wild fish. But there are some exceptions to that rule; the company CleanFish sells “sustainably farmed salmon” from a few producers in Scotland and Ireland.
So, wild-caught Pacific salmon seems best, but again, it depends where it comes from: wild Alaskan salmon is a “best choice” in the Seafood Watch guide, while wild Washington salmon is rated one level down, considered a “good alternative.”
One way to cut through such confusion is simply to look for the words “MSC certified” when shopping for fish; the Marine Stewardship Council’s standards are strict. I noticed this label on the wild Alaskan salmon on sale this week, and I asked the man behind the counter if they had anything else with this certification.
“Just that and the Chilean sea bass,” he answered, which baffled me.
Chilean sea bass (a.k.a. Patagonian toothfish)?!? I thought that was one of the only species that’s an obvious no-no because of severely overfishing; it’s on the “avoid” and “eco-worst” seafood lists and there was even a national “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign a few years ago. Yet here it was, not only on sale at a store that emphasizes sustainability in its core values; but certified by the MSC.
Clearly, I’d missed something. And now I see what it was: the news, a few years old now, that a lone little fishery in the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands (near Antarctica) has found a way to harvest Chilean sea bass without wiping it out or harming seabirds in the process.
Now that I know this, maybe I’ll try the sea bass next time. But I can’t help but wonder how many consumers miss the fine print, and simply conclude that since a chain with a reputation for sustainability sells Chilean sea bass, the species must not be in trouble any more—even though it is. And with growing demand for the South Georgia fishery’s product (Wal-Mart now buys from them, too), how long can they maintain sustainable catch levels? The MSC just renewed their certification, so apparently this isn’t something they’re worried about yet.
As an aside, there is one fish species I’m aware of that truly is a clear-cut case from a sustainability perspective. Atlantic bluefin tuna is so overfished in the wild that scientists have advocated a zero-catch policy, warning that the species is on the edge of extinction. (The agency in charge has just reduced the catch quota by one-third, but many fear that is not enough.) Keep that in mind next time you’re ordering sushi.
May 13, 2009
I was pleased to open my Washington Post this morning and see DC chef Barton Seaver on the front of the Food section. (And not just because he’s such a cutie.) Seaver was one of the moderators at the Smithsonian Associates sustainable seafood event, and the Post article repeats several of the good points he made there, including this, “I’m not trying to save the fish. I’m trying to save dinner.”
In other words, this isn’t about saving endangered species for purely altruistic reasons (though biodiversity is a good thing), this is about sustaining a resource that, in turn, sustains us. And speaking of dinner, check out the great seafood recipes on Seaver’s site!
On another note, today’s Post also briefly mentions a recent study titled “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?” It was published by the American Association of Wine Economists in April—I noticed it a while ago but wasn’t quite sure if it was a late April Fool’s joke.
The shocking results are in: “Human beings do not enjoy eating dog food.” (Not even Newman’s Own Organics Canned Turkey and Chicken Formula, which supposedly is made from “human grade” products. Apparently, even pureed Spam tastes better.)
They’re also bad at recognizing it in a blind taste test: “Although 72 percent of subjects ranked the dog food as the worst of the five samples…subjects were not better than random at correctly identifying the dog food.” (Almost like they’re not used to eating it, huh?)
I suspect those wine economists of enjoying their jobs a little too much. See Stephen Colbert’s take above.
May 11, 2009
I don’t know about you, but I tend to eat more seafood in the summer, perhaps because it’s so easy to grill. But it’s tricky to know which seafood to eat. A Smithsonian Associates panel discussion I attended this spring, on “sustainable” seafood, had some good advice, although it also demonstrated that this is a very complex issue.
I came away from that event feeling troubled and still a bit confused, to be honest. One thing was clear, a point I’ve heard and echoed before: Our food choices don’t just affect our own tastebuds and stomachs; they have serious implications for the rest of the planet as well. In the case of seafood, there are certain species that we’ve fished and eaten far too greedily, such as Chilean sea bass (toothfish) and bluefin tuna.
That doesn’t mean we should give up all seafood, of course. Health and nutrition experts are constantly touting the benefits of consuming fish and fish oil (it’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals) and besides that, it’s delicious. The key is to avoid consuming overfished or endangered species, or ones that are harvested in an environmentally damaging way.
Which isn’t as easy as I’d hoped, it seems. Sure, there is a handy pocket-sized list available from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch group, which breaks things down into “best choices,” “good alternatives,” and a red list of species to “avoid” buying or eating.
But I thought DC restaurateur Jeff Black, one of several panelists at the Associates event, made an excellent point: Anything that too many people eat will become endangered.
Take the issue of salmon, for example: only Alaskan wild salmon makes it into Seafood Watch’s “best choice” category, although wild salmon from Washington state is listed as a good alternative. According to Seafood Watch, all farmed salmon and Atlantic wild salmon should be avoided. (Their website explains why; basically it’s because of poor waste-management practices by some salmon farms.) But as Black said, “if we all stopped eating farmed salmon and eating Alaskan wild, guess what? It’s gone, too, just like that.”
He and other panelists agreed that Americans need to broaden their culinary horizons, and remember that there’s more to seafood than salmon, swordfish and shrimp, the classic menu options at many restaurants. I admit I’m sometimes guilty of that kind of limited thinking myself. So I was glad when someone asked the panelists about their “favorite underappreciated” types of seafood, and got these recommendations:
–Fresh sardines, or other small bait fish
–Carolina wreckfish (stone bass)
For more information about the pros and cons of consuming specific types of seafood, check out the National Marine Fisheries Service’s FishWatch, the Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood guide, the Canadian group SeaChoice, and the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that certifies seafood as sustainable (you can buy MSC-certified seafood at Whole Foods, among other places). The California-based company CleanFish is also a great resource for retailers and restaurants to find specific sources and types of sustainable seafood.
May 7, 2009
Smithsonian associate editor Bruce Hathaway guest blogs for us, chiming in about his love for solar cooking:
The first days of May here in the Washington, D.C., area are usually ideal for solar cooking. The recent spate of rain-filled days has kept us from truly enjoying the out doors, but it won’t for long. My wife, Karen, and I are coming out of hibernation (we keep the thermostat set at 60 during the winter) and into the front yard, where we have several solar ovens.
My favorite recipe to make in a solar oven is Aunt Joan’s spaghetti sauce, although we also use the cookers for all kinds of chili and other bean dishes. Aunt Joan had a beauty parlor, and uncle Harry owned a cigar store; both lived long, pleasure-filled lives. They drove Lincoln Continentals and had no interest in recycling or any other (to their minds) “eco-hippie nonsense.” When solar-cooking her sauce, I often hear Aunt Joan’s voice in my mind: “Bruce! You think too much!”
Once you start thinking about cooking, though, solar cookers make a lot of sense. They simply focus sunlight and capture its heat in a small, oven-like space; some can reach nearly 400 degrees. Using them produces zero carbon dioxide. And many of the organizations that sell solar cookers also promote solar cooking in developing countries.
“There was a time when cooking on wood fires didn’t bother our planet much because there were a lot less people,” Darwin Curtis told me in an email. He co-founded Solar Household Energy Inc. (SHE), (Ed. — link fixed) a non-profit organization that developed and sells the HotPot solar cooker. “Now,” says Curtis, “by an extremely conservative estimate, there are four hundred million cooking fires burning around the world.”
The fires produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and “soot is a big problem for the—mostly—women doing the cooking. A lot of it goes into their lungs.” Cooking on wood fires also results in deforestation.
The HotPot is my favorite solar cooker for several reasons. It’s affordable—about $125—and is just a big round glass pot with a metal interior pot, surrounded by an easily foldable array of aluminum mirrors. And it looks really cool. Our neighbors have told their kids that Karen and I are actually nice people and that all the solar devices in the yard are just our attempts to reconnect with E.T.
The Solar Oven Society Sport is another cooker we use. (A good site for comparison shopping is the Solar Cookers International Marketplace Web site.) My problem with the Sport is that you have to fiddle with clips on a big exterior lid and remove the pot lids to stir your stew. (The HotPot has an easy-to-handle single lid.) But the Sport probably holds heat better than the HotPot on a windy day.
You can bake and roast in solar cookers, but simmering is what they do best. I have to admit that solar-cooked sushi rice is—so far—an inedible, mushy disaster. Solar-cooking rice or pasta is difficult because after you put them in the water, it takes too long for the water to return to near boiling. However, you can bring the water to near boiling in the cooker, then take it inside to the stove to simmer your pasta or rice and still substantially reduce the electricity or natural gas used.
Aunt Joan would be asking how I plan to brown the beef and pork for her spaghetti sauce. Can’t be done very well in most solar cookers: they don’t get hot enough. But I just found a solar wiener roaster that I think will do the job. It costs $300, and that’s a lot of money. But food done right does taste so much better.
– Bruce Hathaway