It's not too late to rescue the oceans--and keep seafood on our plates
The conversion from living animal to antipasto takes only seconds. A thumb pries off the head like a bottle cap. A finger splits the abdomen and with two practiced tugs removes first viscera, then exoskeleton. The proffered meat glistens in the predawn lights of New York City's Fulton Fish Market--translucent, almost glowing with the faintest coral hue. A day ago, this was a spot prawn, swimming and scrabbling off the coast of British Columbia. Tomorrow, its companions will be served, still twitching, as a $13 appetizer in one of Manhattan's finest restaurants. But right now, at 4:30 in the morning, it is simply delicious, as different from the chewy curls of cocktail shrimp as a vine-fresh heirloom tomato is from a foil packet of off-brand ketchup.
The prawn muscle gave a final jerk as I lifted it to my mouth, but I barely hesitated. Dave Pasternack, chef at the tony southern Italian seafood restaurant Esca, knows his seafood, and I knew the morsel would taste exquisite. Most Americans don't get their seafood this fresh, but they did eat a whopping 4.2 billion pounds of it in 2001. Prized by chefs for its variety and boosted by nutritionists for its heart-healthy oils, seafood is now a $55 billion industry in the United States. But just as we're learning to really love the stuff, we may be cutting off the supply.
In a series of recent reports, scientists warn that fish stocks are dangerously overexploited and that many of the methods that provide the fish, crustaceans, and mollusks we so enjoy are destroying the very ocean habitats and ecosystems needed to rebuild the stocks. Wild shrimp, for example, live on the seafloor and are usually caught with bottom trawls, weighted nets that drag along the bottom like submarine bulldozers. The spot prawn cost me only a moment's queasiness, but the cost to the ocean could include a swath of flattened habitat and more than 10 pounds of discarded fish and other animal life for every pound of captured crustacean. Even fish farming, which was supposed to take the pressure off wild stocks, turns out to pose so many environmental concerns that a major report this week will call for a moratorium on new farms until the problems can be resolved. Yet the bad news also holds an encouraging message: Modest changes in fishing practices and management could reverse decades of misuse, restoring the health of the oceans and ensuring their bounty for the future.
In the swim. America used to be fish stick and tuna fish salad country. The 188,675 tons of canned tuna--over a billion 6-ounce cans--imported in 2002 are still nothing to sneeze at, but times have changed. In 2001, shrimp overtook tuna as America's favorite seafood. And with high-end seafood eateries like Esca thriving despite the poor economy, swordfish with papaya salsa and miso-glazed mahi-mahi steaks are becoming as common as the once exotic sushi, which can now be found at 50 Washington, D.C.-area Starbucks stores and in just about every food court in the country.