Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Importance of Local Seafood

While some of my TNACI colleagues do research in rivers and streams of the southeastern U.S., much of my research is done in restaurants and grocery stores.  As a seafood scientist, I am always interested in what fish and shellfish food service providers offer, where the fish is from, and how it was harvested.  And there is nothing that I enjoy more than sampling the local seafood wherever I go.  This past week I went to Pensacola, Florida.  Not only was I looking forward to eating some local seafood in restaurants, I was also determined to visit a fish market and bring some home with me.

While there, I was reminded how far we have strayed from the concept of eating locally.  Many seafood restaurants’ specials were fish that were not from the Gulf of Mexico, or even from the U.S.  Atlantic Salmon, which is usually farmed in Chile, Norway or Scotland, was the species that I saw on menus most commonly that I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.  If I had visited northern California or Alaska, I would have been excited at the prospect of eating Pacific Salmon: not in Florida.  Depending on the restaurant, however, there was a plethora of local fish available for me to enjoy, including Triggerfish, Flounder, Yellowtail Snapper, Oysters, and Blue Crab.

Crab stuffed Flounder

Steamed Blue Crab claws
Baked Yellowtail Snapper

At the end of my trip, I was looking forward to bringing some local flavor home with me.  There was one large seafood market that many people recommended I visit.  Upon arrival the sign advertised a “wide selection of fish from the Gulf.”  When I entered, I was quickly disappointed.  Over half of the selection of fish was not even from the U.S.  Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was limited to Blue Crab, Grouper, Shrimp, Amberjack, and Mahi Mahi.  The rest of the counter was graced with Atlantic Salmon, Pacific Swordfish, Asian Tilapia, Basa (an Asian catfish also known as Swai), among many others.  I left, disheartened.  I drove around until I saw another, much smaller, seafood market, and decided to stop in for a comparison.

I walked in to Maria’s Seafood and was immediately excited about the selection of fish.  Ninety percent of it was from the Gulf of Mexico.  The place smelled clean and fresh and I was excited to get started selecting fish to fill the cooler I had brought with me.  The fishmonger spent 20 minutes with me, helping me select the best fish and the best fillets for me to take home.  This store took great pride in their local fresh seafood and it showed in the care they gave their customers and fish.

Fresh seafood collection: Mullet, Bream, Flounder, and Speckled Sea Trout.

Cutting a Yellowfin Tuna steak from a fish that was caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida seafood species
Me and Rita, my fishmonger.


Why, you may ask, am I so picky about where my seafood is from?  There are several reasons.  The first is the rigorousness of U.S. fisheries management; we are one of the best countries in the world.  Globally, 30% of fisheries are overexploited, whereas in the U.S. only 20% are overexploited.  In addition, being a locavore is much more preferable when it comes to seafood.  Carbon dioxide emissions from transportation are contributing to global climate change.  It’s also a great cultural experience to indulge in local cuisine.  Eating salmon in Florida is like going to China and ordering a Big Mac.  So, the next time you venture to the coast, ask your server what is caught locally, take pride in your country’s seafood, and explore the flavors that are unique to that area. 

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