Farmed Fish Forever?

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Helene York writes about sustainably raised seafood today, something she's in a position to influence in her role at a company that buys food for hundreds of college campuses. She gets right to the heart of the matter for those of us who care both about flavor and the environment:

The oceans are in serious trouble, lakes aren't in great shape either, and those of us who like seafood because we enjoy the taste are losing out. The salmon I tasted is grown under positive environmental circumstances. But is growing bland seafood a good thing?

She picks the two commonest farmed fish to concentrate on, and the ones most telling: salmon and tilapia. I long ago took a proudly harsh stand against ever, ever eating farmed salmon, as I wrote about when I visited Alaska to watch really good and well-managed wild salmon be fished, cleaned, and shipped:

Farmed Atlantic salmon, which in just twenty-five years has overtaken the world market, is almost always mushy, bland, flabby--criminally dull. I gave up ordering it several years ago, when I decided that no amount of pineapple salsa could render it acceptable, let alone enjoyable.

Since I wrote the piece, I've encountered several pieces of edible farmed salmon, two from Scotland and one from Norway. That's pretty much it. And as a restaurant reviewer, I have to eat my share, ever-hopeful and ever vigilant to order salmon during permissible harvest season, roughly from the beginning to the end of summer.

But that changes every year. Last year the California and Oregon salmon fisheries collapsed. This year the long battle over four dams on the Snake River, which James Fallows wrote about in our pages, has gotten noisy again, with new calls for the Obama administration to breach at least a few of the dams to allow salmon to return to their spawning grounds--rather than trucking them around the dams, a silly solution, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out last month. But the administration's report, released last week, didn't call for measures nearly as strong as environmentalists had hoped.

So farmed salmon, for all its environmental and culinary faults, will still be the only alternative out of season. But legal season is still open! And this year the catch has been strong, and I came away from my Alaska trip convinced that the fishery is well-managed.

That doesn't help most of the world get sustainable protein with all the benefits we keep hearing omega-3s offer. Is the rest tofu of the sea, as a friend of York's memorably calls tilapia? Yup. Except, as she says, oysters and mussels, which I enjoy too, and perhaps naively trust more--not that you effectively have much choice anymore, particularly when it comes to mussels (the best farmed I've had are from Prince Edward Island).

While environmentalists call for a moratorium on much salmon fishing, I'll keep up my personal moratorium on eating farmed salmon--but rely on people like York, who make significant buying decisions, to keep tasting and keep hoping.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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