Q: I know that eating fresh fish is good for me, and I'm trying to do a better job of it. But I'm so confused about what I should and should not be eating. And when I get it, I wonder whether I am eating what they say I am. Any advice on sorting this out? — "A Fish out of Water" in California
A: Boy, have I got a fish story for you!
First, I understand your frustration. I love fresh fish, and I go through the frustration and confusion you speak of, as well. I especially like sushi, and in my home state of Texas, I'm in close proximity to fresh fixings from the great Gulf of Mexico. But last year, Katharine Shilcutt at the Houston Press, following the finding of a new Oceana study, revealed that what was widely being served and being labeled locally as snapper was most likely tilapia and what was being said to be tuna was often in fact escolar. Mislabeling seafood is not news, but I was surprised to find that it was so rampant in Texas, where we have such a vibrant fishing industry.
The thing is that I shouldn't have been. Today tracing seafood from boat to plate is virtually impossible. The Food Poisoning Bulletin has been warning consumers about mislabeling for several years now, as it relates to some people suffering from illness and allergic reactions from consuming fraudulently marked fish. It is just one of the many reasons we should try, whenever possible, to have a closer relationship with our local fishermen, fishing communities and fisheries.
If you're looking for more reasons to eat more local seafood, Paul Greenberg's latest book, "American Catch," is sure to reel you in. It exposes the dodgy edge of practices that have resulted in a complex chain of outsourcing and importing seafood; that chain has rendered the seafood we eat nontransparent and, similar to what has been done regarding other food we eat, disconnected us from our seafood supply. Among some of the troubling findings revealed in his book:
—According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, even though the United States controls more ocean than any other country, 86 percent of the seafood we eat is imported.
—While the majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what American fishermen catch is sold to foreigners.
One of the prime examples of what Greenberg calls America's "seafood swap," revealed in an opinion piece in the June 22 New York Times, has been our abandonment of American oysters in favor of Asian shrimp. Up until the 1920s, the United States had produced 2 billion pounds of oysters a year. Because of years of industrial pollution and urban sewage outfalls, the oyster harvest had fallen to just 1 percent of capacity by 1970. Goodbye, oysters on the half shell. Hello, shrimp cocktail. Today shrimp, mostly farmed in Asia, is the most common seafood in the United States, followed by canned tuna and salmon.
Next to fall was the Atlantic cod because of pollution and overexploitation. It was replaced by two new whitefish imported from Asia, tilapia and Pangasius, both of which grow incredibly fast. They are now the fourth- and sixth-most consumed seafood in this country, respectively, according to the National Fisheries Institute. Another fish introduced to the market is pollock, indigenous to the American Pacific. It is what you are eating when you bite into a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, says Greenberg. He also points out that though we now import the majority of the lox (salmon) that makes its way onto our bagels, it does not come from the wild Atlantic but is farmed in Chile, which is our largest supplier. The odd part of this development is that Alaska produces all the wild salmon we could possibly need, several million pounds a year. Where does it all go? Increasingly to Asia, says Greenberg. Alaska, our biggest fish-producing state, exports about three-quarters of its salmon.
This is the point where our fish story gets what Greenberg calls "triply strange." A portion of that salmon shipped overseas is destined to return to us. Once caught, the salmon is frozen, defrosted in Asia, cleaned and prepared and then frozen again, and much of it is shipped back. Pollock is so abundant that every year, more than 600 million pounds of it is frozen into giant blocks and sent to processing plants in Asia, Germany and the Netherlands. Much of it will make a round trip, as well, as do squid and other unknown, unnamed varieties of American-harvested seafood.
To add another disturbing note, an independent study found that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood coming into the country comes from illegal, unregulated and unreported pirate fishing.
What is driving such an insane process?
Globalization, says Greenberg in his opinion piece. "That unseen force that supposedly eliminates inefficiencies through the magic of trade has radically disconnected us from our seafood supply."
He adds: "We can have no more intimate relationship with our environment than to eat from it. During the last century that intimacy has been lost."
As consumers, we can only use our purchasing power and diligence to see that it is found.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.