Go Fish!

By Kit Hayden | Dec 20, 2012
Photo by: /i-cdn.apartmenttherapy.com

You may not be familiar with the charity Oceana whose mission is the protection of the world’s oceans.  I wasn’t, until it was brought to my attention by my daughter Alison, a marine biologist who has had jobs as diverse as going to sea in small fishing vessels to inspect the catch and enforce regulation, or serving as marine mammal watchdog on petroleum exploration seismic ships, or sampling the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. She cares. Apparently Oceana is one of the few 501(C)3’s that doesn’t know my P.O. Box number.

Charity Navigator gives Oceana top marks across the board.  The organization uses most of its revenues to pursue goals, doesn’t waste money on excessive fund raising or bloated bureaucracy or over-compensated directors.  The annual revenue of $23 m is fairly large but manageable.  In short it is my sort of charity.  I only wish the mission were not the world’s oceans; a smaller area would be more to my liking (for example: I switched allegiance from Ocean Conservancy to Chesapeake Bay Trust). I am further not keen on the location of headquarters in the District of Catastrophe.  But some things can be overlooked.

Oceana has received media attention recently for pointing out how frequently the fish we eat is not what we think it is.  The New York Times quoted an Oceana report stating that genetic analyses showed that 39 percent of nearly 150 samples of fresh seafood collected from 81 establishments in Gotham were mislabeled.  Surprise, surprise, the substitute was invariably of lower quality.  Most frequently victimized is the sushi consumer.  Encouragingly, National Supermarket chains where you are more likely to purchase fish have a much better than average record.

Consider escolar (not to be confused with the Colombian drug lord), or snake mackerel, a species of fish that hasn’t been hunted to extinction.  Some would call this a trash fish, but others say that while it may not be tuna or swordfish, it’s still tasty.  And it should be, given the cost shown in the accompanying picture.  94 percent of fish labeled as “white tuna” in New York City restaurants were tested as escolar.  Apart from the fraud, an unfortunate side effect is that escolar is rather difficult to digest, and some diners may find themselves racing to the rest room to evacuate what thekitchn.com describes as “explosive, oily, orange diarrhea.”   “Never,” the site cautions, “consume more than six ounces.”  Wouldn’t dream of it.

According to Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, one should give up hope of eating red snapper.  The fish is unobtainable except in the guise of some thirteen different fish including tilapia, white bass, goldbanded jobfish, seabream, ocean perch and other less valuable snappers.  Worse is that the toxic tilefish is occasionally substituted.  You might want to cross red snapper off your menu of piscatorial delicacies.

The larceny is illegal, of course, and our federal government is aware of it, but as is the case in most regulatory efforts, the FDA and NOAA’s marine fisheries are undermanned.  I was amused that when I tried to go to the FDA site my attempted connection timed out, twice.  Talk about overwhelmed!

Unfortunately, Oceana is lobbying congress to pass the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act, H.R. 6200.  This legislation would require full traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S.  Ridiculous, that’s impossible.  I would hope that congress might act on a more tractable problem, say, the budget deficit.

Accepting that compliance to fair labeling is unenforceable, we must put up with the subterfuge.  The question then is: do we have a real problem?  Probably not.  What you are given is in most cases edible, and our bodies have astonishing resilience.  Just recall all the things you put in your greedy little mouth when you were a toddler and your parents weren’t watching.  You’re still here!  One thing though, you might want to pass on the sushi.

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