A day or two earlier, I would have looked right past the Spanish mackerel. The clams, too, most likely.
Usually, when I stop by the fish counter to pick up something for dinner, I go for halibut, or maybe some sort of cod or bass. If we’re grilling, I might grab a few whole branzino or splurge on tuna steaks or wild salmon. But on my last trip to the store, I had just finished reading The Perfect Protein, a slim little manifesto written by Andy Sharpless, the CEO of the Washington, D.C.–based conservation organization Oceana. In the book, Sharpless and his co-writer, Suzannah Evans, make a compelling argument for eating some of the smaller, less sexy offerings from the seafood case—not just to maintain the health of our oceans, but to help feed our ever-growing ranks.
In the past few decades, greatly expanding middle-class populations all over the world have been transitioning to diets heavier in protein. In 1978, annual consumption of meat in China was 8 million tons, according to the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank. Today that number is 71 million, and showing no signs of slowing down. As this transition has taken place, we’ve become aware of the many environmental ills that cascade from so much meat-eating, namely the deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water depletion, fertilizer run-off, and greenhouse gases that come with growing all the grain required to fatten all those billions of beasts. (Fully half of the grain grown in the world today ends up in the stomachs of animals.)
Compare that scenario with the manner in which wild seafood reaches our plates: without “draining the life from the soil, without drying up our rivers, without polluting the air and the water, without causing our planet to warm even more, without plaguing communities with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” as Sharpless writes. All of which sounds great—until we stop to consider the fact that we’ve already radically overfished our seas, and collapsed several of the world’s fisheries in the process.
Which is why Sharpless’s exhortation to eat more fish comes as something of a surprise. The glimmering sardine on the book’s cover hints at the crux of his argument: by eating lower on the marine food chain—think sardines, herrings, mackerel, and anchovies, sometimes grouped collectively under the name “forage fish”—we can sustain this supply of healthy protein not just for the relatively well-off Whole Foods shoppers of the world, but for everyone. The trick, as paradoxical as it may sound at first, is to raise the culinary profile of these fish.
Because we seem to have reached a point in this culture where no conversation about food is complete without a mention of Michael Pollan, Sharpless offers his own variation on that writer’s now-famous dictum. “Eat wild seafood,” begins Sharpless’s version. “Not too much of the big fish. Mostly local.” Though they’re not wild, farmed oysters, clams, and mussels also figure into this equation, since these shellfish actually behave like ecosystem cleaners, improving their habitats by “scrubbing” the water as they feed. Both forage fish and shellfish have the added benefit of being relatively easy to recognize; a report released in February found that one-third of fish sold in this country today are labeled as something other than what they actually are.
Forage fish are key. They feed on algae and plankton—which derive their energy from the sun—and are then consumed by larger fish, birds, and marine mammals. In other words, these little dynamos undergird the entire marine ecosystem, converting the boundless resource that is solar energy into edible protein. Alas, because Western populations have traditionally had little appetite for these oily outcasts, the market has had to find other uses for them: namely as fodder for the stuff we do like to eat, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and farmed salmon and other large fish. Today, no less than 90 percent of the worldwide catch of forage fish gets processed into fishmeal and oil used for growing fish, pigs, and chickens. (The oil—which is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has been proven to benefit heart health and brain development and function—also goes, increasingly, into nutritional supplements and infant formula.)
Over the past several years, and unbeknownst to many of us, aquaculture has gone on a tear. Global production of farmed fish recently overtook the production of beef, according to a report from the Earth Policy Institute. That same expansion has meant that we’re now in danger of removing from our seas too many of the forage fish that drive the industry. Ellen Pikitch, the executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, chaired a task force that issued a report last year on the state of forage fisheries.
Over a lunch of local summer flounder at a restaurant near her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (that day’s menu was devoid of forage fish, in case you’re wondering), Pikitch explained that these fisheries have suffered from a chronic lack of management. “They’re kind of small and ugly,” she said, fondly, of forage fish, “and they tend to be abundant. And because they occur in large schools, people have this attitude of, ‘Ah, we don’t really need to worry about those fish.’” If we continue to extract so many of them, however, “we’re basically pulling the rug out from under the ocean ecosystem.”
Here’s where you’re probably asking yourself why Sharpless and others (including a group of California-based pro-forage-fish chefs and environmentalists who call themselves the “Sardinistas”) are then advising us to choose forage fish more often when grocery shopping or dining out. It comes down to simple math. “Let’s say you’re faced with a dead anchovy,” Pikitch offered. “What’s the best use of this dead anchovy? I would say that it’s better for people to eat it than to feed it to pigs or chickens or farm-raised salmon.” By feeding it to salmon, she explained, you’re essentially converting more fish into fewer fish, because even the most efficient aquaculture operations require four or five pounds of wild fish in order to create a single pound of salmon.
“In my mind,” said Pikitch, “an anchovy is perfectly delicious to eat. It’s an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s got all the things that make fish a good thing.” If more people were to develop a similar appreciation for them, demand might begin shifting away from the feedlot and the net-pen, and toward the plate. (Eating more quick-reproducing forage fish in place of the bigger ones would also give marine apex predators a chance to recover—and would even benefit our own health in at least one significant way, since smaller fish accumulate fewer toxins, such as mercury.)
More importantly, this shift would direct more protein to the folks who really need it. Possibly the most scandalous part of the current state of forage-fish affairs is that all those dead anchovies are mostly coming from the waters of the world’s poor. The continued transfer of fishmeal and oil from the developing world to the plates of the rich threatens to exacerbate global food insecurity; Oceana’s scientists have found that if we were to take all of the world’s fishmeal-bound fish and feed it directly to people instead, we could provide an additional 400 million fish dinners a day.
Consumers, as we all know, can play a pivotal role. In June of 2011, some 400 Sainsbury grocery stores in the United Kingdom began offering their customers the opportunity to “try out” such humble forage-fish species as coley, pouting, megrim, and mackerel, at no cost whatsoever. No doubt promotional help from celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall contributed to the program’s success, but sales of what are known there as the big five species—cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns—dipped during the campaign, while shoppers took home an extra 50 tons of the species featured in the promotion.
In an aim toward inspiring readers to broaden their kitchen horizons and re-align our collective fish-eating culture, Sharpless has included 20 recipes showcasing mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and other sustainable fish in his book. I couldn’t find any sardines or herring on the ice at Whole Foods the day I stopped by, but The Perfect Protein also features a couple of interesting-looking recipes (from this-side-of-the-pond celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Eric Ripert, respectively) built around Spanish mackerel and littleneck clams. I had the fishmonger at the store wrap up two mackerel—caught locally in the waters off of New Jersey—and I grabbed a mesh bag of farmed littlenecks. Earlier, I had emailed a few friends and summoned them to dinner.
The clams, aromatic with curry and cilantro, were a huge hit, every drop of their golden broth sopped up with the hunks of baguette that I served on the side. And the mackerel, which had been baked under a russet cloak of tomato sauce, felt luxuriant in the mouth, and had none of the fishy flavor we often associate with it. I’ll confess to having found its accompanying salad a little over-exuberant (Emeril might take a tack from fashion icon Coco Chanel, who famously advised women to always remove one accessory before leaving the house), but the playful jumble of onions, bell peppers, chickpeas, and olives didn’t seem to bother anyone else at the table. They all went home happy, and well schooled in the intricacies—and importance—of forage fish.
President Bill Clinton, who signed the Sustainable Fisheries Act into law while in office, writes in the foreword toThe Perfect Protein that he is optimistic about our global fisheries moving toward sustainability based on efforts being made at the policy level. Just 25 nations currently control 76 percent of the world’s coastal oceans, and 10 of these nations control 51 percent of them. Like the book’s author, President Clinton believes that if these nations were to take three steps—protecting their ocean habitats; reducing bycatch (the unwanted marine life that gets swept up by the industry’s giant nets and trawlers); and setting quotas based on science, rather than on the fishing industry’s bottom line—we’d have an excellent chance of managing our ocean stocks for generations to come.
Pikitch thinks it’s a little more complicated than that. “What we have to do is really change attitudes, and certain cultures that aren’t necessarily limited to individual countries,” she says. But she acknowledges there are grounds for optimism. For starters, the state of California last November adopted a new forage fish policy—based largely on the findings of Pikitch’s task force—that will place new expansion limits on forage fisheries in an effort to slow down their activity and make them more sustainable.
While the wheels turn (however gradually) at the highest levels, the rest of us can do our part to shore up the world’s seafood supplies—and ultimately, one hopes, help nourish more people—by following a lower-on-the-marine-food-chain eating strategy. I plan to experiment with some of the smaller, homelier fish I’ve come across at the store but avoided taking home with me, and I’ll be choosing them more often from restaurant menus. (This Seafood Watch pocket guide and app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium are great resources for those wondering what’s best to eat, from a sustainability standpoint.) My dinner guests all said they’d be glad to come back whenever I feel like getting creative with the world’s less-fashionable fish. Next time I may go really radical on them and turn for inspiration to page 136: Mario Batali’s outré jellyfish salad.
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Eric Ripert’s Clams with Spicy Sausage
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ pound andouille sausage, thinly sliced
1 cup chicken stock
4 dozen littleneck clams, well-scrubbed
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Lemon wedges, for serving
Warm the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, curry powder, and lemon zest. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the onion has softened and turned translucent. Add the sausage and cook for about 2 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan a few times, until the clams open.
Using a slotted spoon, place the clams in shallow serving bowls, discarding any clams that don’t open. Stir the cilantro into the broth and pour it over the clams. Serve with lemon wedges.
Emeril Lagasse’s Spanish Mackerel with Spinach and Chickpea Salad & Tomato Vinaigrette
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
2¼ cups tomato sauce, slightly warmed and divided
¼ cup sherry vinegar
2 small garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
6 cups (6 ounces) baby spinach
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
¼ cup julienned red bell pepper
¼ cup pitted and sliced black olives
6 (4- to 6-ounce) Spanish mackerel fillets, cleaned and pin bones removed
2 cups cooked (15-ounce can) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Make the vinaigrette: place ¼ cup tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, and one pinch each of salt and pepper in a small mixing bowl. Whisk until combined. Continue to whisk vigorously while slowly adding ¾ cup olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Set aside.
Place spinach, red onion, bell pepper, black olives, and one pinch each of salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
Brush both sides of mackerel with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In a roasting pan, add 2 cups warmed tomato sauce. Place mackerel in the tomato sauce and place in the oven. Cook until mackerel is firm to the touch, opaque and just cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and place the mackerel on a plate.
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