Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bottomfeeder Book Review

JessTrev with a book review of a fabulous guide to eating sustainably-sourced fish (skip the cheap farmed shrimp; it's no bargain).

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe is right up my alley. Author Grescoe is game for eating just about anything that lives in water, and he clearly relishes the salty little critters I scarf alone in this house: anchovies. So, from the title, I was pretty sure the book was going to be one ringing endorsement of my side of the pizza. I was also hopeful heading in that Grescoe might help me figure out how to order sushi and keep the omega-3s flowing into my family without driving fish to extinction or sucking down boatloads of mercury.

The last time we went out to our favorite Japanese restaurant, my husband just handed over the menu and let me puzzle over the printed sushi guides I'd brought along. Dude! I shoulda texted FishPhone. It was nearly impossible for me to decipher the menu even with lists in hand. But I'm no Jeremy Piven; I really don't eat that much of the raw stuff. Mostly, I just wanted Grescoe to rescue my family from the boring, revolving fate of the three fishes I can remember off the top of my head that I thought were sustainably fished and low in mercury all in one (trout, sole, and catfish).

How did Grescoe's tome rate? Well, he's done his homework and is an entertaining fellow fish-lover. I 100% recommend reserving his book at your nearest library pronto (or, if you're lazy like me, just slap the title on your Amazon wishlist to keep track of what you want to read and then use interlibrary loan online every couple of weeks).

Grescoe's book (and his website) offer up a shortlist of his personal choices, made based upon his firsthand observations of fishing practices around the world. The number in parentheses is the fish's trophic scale (how high up on the food chain the fish is, 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest).

No, Never
Bluefin tuna. Overfished. Mercury. (4.43)
Cod, Atlantic. Fished by pirate vessels. Bottom-trawled. (4.42)
Halibut, Atlantic. Mercury. Bottom-trawled. (4.53)
Chilean sea bass. Longlines, bottom-trawls. Mercury. Pirate vessels. (3.96)
Grouper. Longlined. Mercury. (3.60)

Depends, Sometimes
Abalone. Illegally fished. (2.00)
Anchovy.* Overfished. (3.11)
Catfish. Antibiotics. (3.87)
Clams. Dredged. (2.00)
Cod, Pacific. Trawled. (4.01)
Crab. (Blue crab, 2.60)
Haddock. (4.09)

Absolutely, Always
Arctic char; barramundi. (4.26; 4.35)
Halibut, Pacific. (4.13)
Herring. (3.23)
Jellyfish. (2.00)
Mackerel. (3.65)
Mullet. (2.13)
Oysters, mussels... and many more.

*Aaaaaaaigh! I must sorrowfully report that anchovies are now off my sustainably-fished list for the moment (huge sigh here - no tastier salt-bearing omega-3 devices, in my book). My family is high-fiving right now and chanting "mushroom 'za! mushroom 'za!" by the by.

There's much more detailed info in the appendix of Bottomfeeder giving Grescoe's guidelines for eating fish sustainably (I personally copied it and am keeping it in my purse for reference). But, I'd argue that you need to do some homework even off of his recs (reinforcing that buying sustainably and avoiding mercury are separate issues - it's common for fish guides to emphasize one over the other). For instance, the "absolutely-always" rec for Pacific halibut? Might need to be tempered by the fact that if I fed my 30-lb toddler even 2 oz of halibut this week? He'd get 150% of the EPA's limit for mercury exposure. Test your fish out for yourself (Grescoe's rec - he's sensitive to the issue) at Got Mercury?

Some common favorite choices that are verboten after reading the Bottomfeeder lowdown? Shrimp, all farmed salmon (no surprise there), swordfish (mega mercury, for starters), Atlantic sole (trawled). Soooo...bottom line for my personal short list that I need to embed into my brain = T-H-O-M-M-P-S.

Trout=good (whew! farmed but minimal impact).

Herring=good. Bring on the jars 'o pickled goodness.

Oysters=good. Although, since they literally clean out our waterways? And, just between you and me? I don't always want to imbibe what's in our waterways? I'm going to follow Grescoe's advice and eat them cooked instead of on the halfshell. Big sigh. I do love me some oyster stuffing, though.

Mackerel=good. Hmmm. Holy m- this one might be tough to find fresh.

Mussels= good. Ooh, yes! garlicky mussels on linguini much?

Pollock=good. Believe it or not, most fish sticks and Mickey D's fish sammies are a-ok in that they're not from an overfished species.

Sole=good if it's not Atlantic. Pacific sole=ok, including Dover and English sole.

THOMMPS! Good to have a few more choices! As Bottomfeeder's Intro notes:
"The good news is that there is a way to reconcile conservation, flavor, and health -- even when it comes to the complex, multispecies cuisine that is seafood. And it can be done without leaving the oceans, or our plates, empty."
Obviously, you're going to have to do your own homework to figure out which of the fish you find tasty are also low in mercury and sustainable to eat.

Since I also very much appreciated the specificity of Grescoe's call to action to protect the oceans, here's the Bottomfeeder to-do list for all of us hoping against hope that our grandkids will be able to eat some of our favorite seaborne delights:

Immediate action:
  • Ban bottom-trawling
  • Require cargo ships to change ballast at sea to limit the spread of invasive species
  • Stop boats from tossing bycatch (extra fish - usually chucked overboard, dead)
  • Stop Europe/Asia from overfishing the African coast
  • Protect bluefin tuna/sharks/the fish at the top of the food chain
  • Provide better enforcement tools for those trying to stop "pirate fishing" (people who ignore international limits and bans)
  • Initiate independent setting of fishing quotas (no more self-regulation by fishing industry)
  • Begin better food safety monitoring of seafood
  • Limit or cease industrial aquaculture (especially when it threatens native species and/or requires massive influx of animal protein as feed)
  • Protect the ocean with more marine preserves
  • Require those selling fish to provide more information about how and where the fish was caught
Long-term issues that need to be addressed:
  • Sewage
  • Agricultural runoff
  • Acidification
  • Rising temperatures
  • Dead zones (caused by above)
Seriously, read Grescoe's book and educate yourself about a critical issue: keeping the oceans alive with more than jellyfish. Read a Salon interview with Grescoe to hear his thoughts on "food porn" -- his "'Fuck you' to the food-writing world" that idealizes chefs who ignore that they're popularizing ingredients that are already decimated. Check out Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council's work on protecting ocean life, and consult the Marine Stewardship Council or MSC for the best independent certification of seafood. Me? I'm going to keep a copy of Grescoe's buying guide (from the book's appendix) in my purse to help me the next time I order.


kale for sale said...

I would hug you for this fabulous review if we were in the same place! I loved this book. One of the greatest frustrations with having this information is that it's not always welcome. I had dinner with a friend last week who ordered farmed salmon. It was so painful and she did not want to hear about 1) that it's not even healthy or 2) the destructive nature of the facilities on the environment and the wild runs of salmon that are for the second year in a row at record lows. I love your accronym for the fish to eat. Brilliant. Thanks for the review.

JessTrev said...

Awww, Kale! How did you *know* that I'm a hugger? And yes, wasn't Grescoe's book amazing? So thorough, well-researched, and logical. I ended up in the same place as you - feeling like there was no ignoring the info once you have it in hand.

Green Bean said...

Fantastic review, Jess! I love how you cover the book but also give cliff notes. :)

Carmen said...

Thanks for the review. Although 'm not a big fish eater, I do LOVE Oysters, what a relief! I'll add this one to my "to-read" list.


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