How to Get Americans to Eat Fish

Despite how it's marketed, most seafood doesn't taste like chicken. What's needed is some imagination.

Arizona Parrot/Flickr

The Commerce Department released its annual report to Congress last month that tracked how much fish was harvested in U.S. waters, exported, imported, and consumed by Americans. What shocked most reporters was that 91 percent of the seafood we eat is imported. But they missed the real story: Americans don't eat fish. The overall numbers were small. We consumed a paltry 15 pounds of seafood per person in 2011, compared to 195 pounds of eggs, pork, beef, and chicken -- according to various government sources.

The USDA suggests we should eat at least two servings of fish per week and make it a fifth of our protein consumption. But we clock in at less than one serving and about seven percent of our protein overall.

How do we increase the percentage of seafood Americans eat? Instead of marketing familiar "safe" products, perhaps we should move somewhat counter-intuitively in the direction of novelty. I hated fish as a kid because my only experience of seafood was breaded flounder for dinner every Friday. Familiarity, it does seem, breeds contempt. Variety is enticing.

Finding variety in seafood isn't as difficult as it may seem. And it doesn't mean we need to look further than our own shores.

An often-heard trope about why we don't eat more domestically harvested seafood is that we don't produce enough to feed ourselves. This claim is simply untrue. We harvested 10.1 billion pounds of wild and farmed seafood and shellfish in 2011. We ate 4.5 million pounds. In other words, we hardly ate anything our fishermen caught. The question isn't whether we can produce enough for our population but what less-familiar species we are willing to eat.

Another issue is whether we can get access to the great stuff from our own coastlines. U.S. fishing interests have cultivated supply lines to Asian markets that buy whole fish and also to processors of health supplements and cat food, rather than to wholesalers catering to the American consumer market. From a U.S. consumer's point of view, the supply chains are broken -- but they can be fixed.

Look at what we're eating today. Here are the ten most popular species, making up 90 percent of the fish consumed, in pounds per capita:

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*Based on raw National Marine Fisheries Services data

Supermarket fish counters and most restaurants reinforce the "chickenization" of all proteins: consumers see only fish portions that are filleted, deboned, and rendered skinless and mostly tasteless. But we rarely get to know what the species looks like. We accept commodity food, cheap and familiar, as normal, whether it's a turkey sandwich or filet o' fish.

But the variety of species that U.S. fishermen haul in is truly remarkable. Some, like Pacific halibut, lobster, or sablefish, are pricy -- but most aren't. Three different types of mackerels, herrings, anchovies, and small flatfishes like scup in the Northeast and porgy in the Southeast are cheap, plentiful and delicious. Fishermen are poorly compensated for these catches and their principal buyers use them for bait, fish oils, fish meal, or catfood. Why not human food?

Little of the fish that we do eat comes fresh from local sources. Delicious fish isn't always sustainable (bluefin tuna is a particularly sad example), and local fish isn't always the most robust catch.

One way to give people a better choice of fish that is both local and sustainable is to challenge chefs to look for more of it. Chefs have buying power -- and the power to influence all consumers. More than two-thirds of all seafood consumed in the U.S. today is eaten in restaurants. As a result, chefs have a special power of being "choice editors" to promote new flavors. And consumers can help create this change by signaling their support for new kinds of fish by ordering new varieties when they see them on a menu. By building relationships on the docks, or cajoling their seafood distributors, chefs can build support for seasonal varieties as they have for other foods.

What's interesting, too, is that many unfamiliar species tend to be less expensive than common species. (Mackerels on average fetch a mere 9 cents per pound. No wonder we're losing so many working fishermen.)

So what about sustainability? Not all local fish are abundant (though all catches are regulated). Even if the chef checks his Seafood Watch smartphone app for sustainability ratings, many species from small-scale fisheries aren't going to be rated. Not yet, anyway. We've got a long way before having independent scientific assessments of our more obscure local fish.

In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to embrace new seafood flavors so they don't disappear. Perhaps even by trying those unrated species hauled in by small boats. Once chefs meet fishermen and learn to scale unfamiliar flat fishes, consumers, we can only hope, will learn to yearn for scup in season like they do ripe tomatoes.