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A well told fish story

My wife and I agreed that the salmon we bought from Zabar’s in Manhattan and had for dinner Wednesday night was tastier than the salmon we buy locally. There’s not a huge difference between one piece of farm-raised salmon and another – part of that flaky fish’s allure is that it’s predictable, rarely rising far above or falling far below your expectations. But the Zabar’s fish tasted fresher, subtly more flavorful.

Cover of "The Blue Revolution" by Nicholas P. Sullivan
Photo by Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Nicholas P. Sullivan’s knowledgeable new book, The Blue Revolution, doesn’t provide an answer to the varying flavor profiles between one piece of store bought salmon and another. But it does to many if not most of the other questions I had about fish, and in a consistently engaging way.

That’s saying something because this is a serious book on an arguably esoteric subject. Published by the non-profit Island Press, the nation’s leading publisher on environmental issues, the book’s subtitle is “Hunting, Harvesting, and Farming Seafood in the Information Age.”

What I, and I suspect you, don’t know about fish could fill an ocean, not to mention a book and Nick, a friend, has written it. Frankly, I didn’t expect to find it as engaging as it is. That’s saying something because it takes of writer of substantial skill to make intriguing the fine print in an act of Congress such as the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act. Named after senators Warren Magnuson of Washington State and Ted Stevens of Alaska, it was the first major piece of legislation to regulate federal fisheries.

Despite what you may have heard or any justifiable suspicions you might have about the federal government’s ability to accomplish anything, Nick argues that the fisheries off the Northeastern United States – that means the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, the Nantucket Shoals and the Mid-Atlantic Bight are some of the best managed in the world.

One of the many things I learned from the book and in a phone call with Nick at his home in South Dartmouth, MA. – he’s not far from New Bedford, the top-value fishing port in the United States – is that when it comes to fishing most of the action occurs on the world’s continental shelves, not in the deep ocean. Migrating sharks, blue fin tuna and squid can be found on the high seas. But the fish you’re getting at Red Lobster or in a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish – according to Nick it’s Pollack, an abundant white fish – is found much closer to shore. That is, if it lived in the ocean in the first place.

Most of the salmon consumed in the world today is farmed. Endangered Atlantic salmon hasn’t been fished commercially in the United States since 1948. Climate change, not overfishing, poses the latest existential threat. The increasingly warm ocean waters stress the phytoplankton on which critters further up the food chain feast, requiring fish to expend more energy hunting for food. A 2015 paper showed that Atlantic salmon feeding off Greenland received approximately thirty percent less nutrition from their diets than they did pre-1990.

It’s probably unnecessary to get too far into the aquatic weeds – though The Blue Revolution does so in the most palatable way possible -- but farmed may refer to pens on land or in the ocean. The Norwegians seem to be to fish cultivation what Silicon Valley is to technology, and lately they’ve been moving their huge farms further offshore to take advantage of faster ocean currents and to ameliorate the pollution associated with fish poop.

“The Chinese,” Nick said, “have built a ship twice as long as the Titanic for farmed salmon. It’s floating around in the ocean pulling in ocean water and circulating it.”

However, he added, “All the new salmon farms are on land. Three of them are going in in Maine alone.”

One of the nation’s more innovative fish farming operations, Hudson Valley Fish Farm, is located right here in Hudson, NY. They supply restaurants and grocers with up to 20,000 pounds of hormone and antibiotic-free steelhead trout a week; have created a humane killing process, according to Nick; and are in the hydroponics business, using nutrient-rich fish water to produce plants.

The author, a Senior Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Council on Emerging Market Enterprises and Senior Research Fellow at its Maritime Studies Program (I realize that’s a mouthful) wrote a previous book on how micro loans and cell phones were connecting the world’s poor to the global economy. “All the agencies I was working with were also doing food security,” he explained. “I started to wonder where all the food was going to come from.”

When the global perspective became too complex and unwieldy he decided to focus closer to home. But he was able to field my questions about an aspect of international commercial fishing that has always, or at least occasionally, intrigued me. “What about pirates?” I’m referring to those giant trawlers with their drift nets that raid other nation’s waters and cruelly sweep up dolphins, octopus and dolphins in the process. The United States, by the way, has the world’s second most ocean territory. Any guess who’s #1? The answer may surprise you: France.

Nick devotes the third and final part of his book to global challenges facing the world’s fish stocks: criminals, climate and conservation. In that regard, and when it comes to pirate fleets on the big seas the perps may have met their match or will shortly in the form of Big Data, making them easier to police. Technology can now analyze signals emitted from ocean vessels to create a map of the world’s trackable commercial fishing activity. And even when the crooks turn off their electronic tracking systems light can be detected from ships that don’t share their locations.

What I’ve described constitutes but the tip of the iceberg, pun fully intended, in terms of the reconnaissance Nick Sullivan shares in The Blue Revolution. It turns out to be an excellent fish story and one that will leave you far more enlightened when you dig into your next seafood dinner.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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