It's not too late to rescue the oceans--and keep seafood on our plates
So why is there still so much seafood in the stores? A walk through the Fulton market helps explain the puzzle. Most of the salmon, shrimp, and shellfish come from fish farms, not wild sources. And in a single aisle of stalls, you can find yellowfin tuna from Indonesia, black cod from the Bering Sea, "Chilean" sea bass from Peru, and red snapper from the Galapagos Islands. According to one estimate, more than 80 percent of the seafood Americans now eat is imported.
"The industry is so global now that consumers haven't really noticed what many of the fishers have," says marine biologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University. "But come to Newport, Oregon, and you'll see whole fishing fleets sitting idle." Pacific cod and halibut fisheries have been closed all along the West Coast since last September, in an effort to save four species of rockfish. They're not even the target of fishers, but they are caught--and discarded--in such numbers that they're down to 4 percent of their former numbers in many areas.
A trip uptown from the fish market to the American Museum of Natural History highlights another change that's hidden from most consumers. Curator Melanie Stiassny, surveying the museum's spectacularly renovated Hall of Ocean Life, apologizes for a diminutive model of a swordfish, shrunk to fit a display of fish diversity. Her "laughably small" replica, just 4 feet long, is less than a third of the length real swordfish can reach, but it's still larger than a quarter of the 2000 Atlantic catch. Swordfish lines don't discriminate between babies and behemoths. But with most of the big fish already gone, we are catching and eating mainly juveniles, keeping them from reproducing and replenishing the stocks. "Some people," Stiassny says, "think that if you're on the Titanic, you might as well get a first-class ticket."
America's newly adventuresome approach to seafood means that diners have more ways than ever to go first class. That morning at the market, Pasternack selects a remarkable delicacy. With its swollen lips and superball eyes, the tilefish looks more like a character from the new animated fish feature, Finding Nemo, than a culinary treasure. "It's a beautiful fish," says Pasternack, patting the 46-pounder's rubbery, yellow-splotched flanks. "They thought these things were extinct." Not yet--holdouts were found in the underwater canyons off Long Island--but that's probably because most people haven't tried Pasternack's signature raw-fish dish, crudo. For tomorrow's lunch, the tilefish will join swordfish and bigeye tuna, each magnificent fish matched to one of two dozen virgin olive oils and a full arsenal of different sea salts and served side by side in 1-ounce portions for $15. The metaphor is obvious: As seafood becomes more rare, the very best transcends luxury to become almost a fetish.
Feeding frenzy. Not all seafood receives such reverent treatment. Much of the seafood eaten in America passes through fryers in fast-food and casual dining establishments. Renowned conservation advocate Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater during her four decades as a marine biologist. But she'd never spent an afternoon at a Red Lobster until she met me. Earle eats a salad as I take on the $20.99 Ultimate Feast--two kinds of shrimp, Maine lobster tail, and Alaska snow crab legs--and tells me what my meal means for the oceans. The bottom line? "I don't see anything on your plate that is sustainable," says Earle. "There's an endpoint to everything you've got there."