Back On the Salmon Again…

IMG_4984So it’s taken a while, but I am finally giving in to the gentle—well, some of it not so gentle—prodding from my substantial fan base (thanks, Wilf…Lucas…Jenn) and jumping back on the blogging wagon. And really, I shouldn’t have any excuses. I finished my thesis in May, and defended it (successfully) at the end of July. So I am now a MSc.-degree-holding fisheries scientist. Without a job. But that’s cool. It means I have a ridiculous amount of time to blog again. I did spend a few months over the summer working as a naturalist with one of Vancouver’s local whale watching companies. It was pretty epic; the perfect antithesis to working at a desk all day if ever there was one. And, while the natural highlight of the trips was the whales, I have to admit, the intelligence of the human race was a close second. Some of the questions the boat staff fielded this year included: “Do you sell fish so we can feed the whales?”, “Do they ever swim under the islands?”, “How do you know they’ll come back to the surface?”, “Are they extincted?”, “Where will we see the whales? Like, could they be anywhere or do you guys keep them in certain places?”. Those were all from people over the age of 30. Amazing. I try not to judge too hard though and just put it down to the excitement of the moment. And, fortunately, I did meet some wonderful people (from all over the world) while working on the boat. And, when I wasn’t talking about whales, this job also gave me a good chance to incorporate a little of my own work and chat with our guests about fisheries and sustainable seafood initiatives. I found a lot of people were really eager to learn more, and were curious about what I had to say and how they could make smarter seafood choices. So that was pretty cool.

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IMG_0922Lots of other stuff happened over the summer, but the most exciting event by far was when, at the start of June, our family grew by one. Yes, Wilf and I are now the proud humans of a beautiful, loving, and (usually) intelligent collie pup named Cousteau. And, as can be imagined, he has kept us more than busy. But I will write of our adventures next time (which, I promise, won’t be four months from now…). Today’s post is going to get back to the topic of sustainable seafood because, fresh on my mind, is a lecture that took place at the Vancouver Aquarium last night.

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As members of the Aquarium, Wilf and I regularly attend their events and evening lectures. In April, we went to a talk called ‘The Future of Seafood’, which featured three chefs (two local, and one from Las Vegas) who, in their own way, are trying to promote the importance of sustainable seafood. We were really impressed by their knowledge of the science surrounding fisheries and also by their efforts to incorporate lower trophic level species and seasonality into their menus. We were even more impressed when one of the chefs, Ned Bell of Yew at the Four Seasons*, explained that he was going to embark on a cycling journey across Canada to raise awareness for seafood sustainability issues. He called this initiative Chefs for Oceans.

IMG_1915I did my best to follow Ned’s trip on Twitter, and two weeks ago, Wilf and I attended the finale of Chefs for Oceans. Not only was it a wonderful night of local, sustainable seafood and wine, but hearing Ned speak about his trip and his belief in this cause was incredibly inspiring. Here is a guy who is actually physically doing something to support something he cares deeply about. And, while I have been to numerous talks on the subject, I can safely say that it’s probably the first time I have actually welled up listening to someone talk about seafood. He is that passionate about the cause and I hope he continues to get the attention and support that he deserves.

OK, so on that happy note, let’s get back to the talk last night. Wilf’s boss asked him to attend. And with a title of, ‘Securing Food for the Future’, we were both more than happy to check it out. (I will say right now though, that I don’t actually believe we have a food security problem. As many others have noted, the world actually faces a food distribution problem.) Compared to the guest speaker, I’m incredibly inexperienced when it comes to aquaculture (my only foray into the subject came when I co-authored a book chapter on tuna for a book entitled, Swimming Physiology of Fish: Towards Using Exercise to Farm a Fit Fish in Sustainable Aquaculture). Still, I have done my best to stay up-to-date on the topic, as I absolutely believe we will need aquiculture and mariculture to provide protein to an ever-expanding global population. Anyway, to put it nicely, I was really disappointed with this talk. Touting salmon farming as the answer to feeding the world? That’s just ridiculous. In spending four months in a rural Malagasy village on the coast of the Mozambique Channel, I know the difficulties people with actual food security concerns face. I know their struggles with both fisheries and aquaculture. Salmon will never feed these people. Salmon will never feed people anywhere in Africa. In fact, most people in Africa have never even heard of salmon.

Aquaculture in many developing countries remains challenging due to financial and technical barriers. Local, low-impact, low trophic level species (such as shellfish and filter feeders) are good candidates, since they have very low food conversion ratios** (many are detritivores) and grow quickly. So, what I was hoping to hear last night were thoughts on what science and industry can do to make these aquaculture operations available (and environmentally safe) in developing countries—not what is being done to make already wasteful societies have even more luxury seafood. A couple of the questions from the audience did touch on the issue of waste in North America, but I felt the speaker deflected these questions simply by agreeing that it was a concern. Naturally, Wilf’s own head was spinning with the economic side of things, but that’s probably a conversation for another time. At any rate, maybe it was just the title of the talk that led me to have high hopes for its content, but I really did feel let down.

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Anyway, to avoid ending like this, I’ll mention one positive thing anyone can do to get more connected with their seafood. Hopefully I have mentioned these guys before (because they are seriously great), but there is a local community supported fishery (CSF) in Vancouver called Skipper Otto’s. Anyone who is familiar with the more prevalent community support agriculture (CSA) co-ops will understand the idea, but basically you can buy a membership with them and then have first access to local and ethically-caught, sustainable fish when it comes into season. The idea of actually knowing who caught your fish (and where) is such a foreign concept to most people in big North American cities that having this kind of organization is such a breath of fresh air. If you want more info, check out their website (linked to their name above) and watch this clip from Global TV.

Given that we didn’t really know about them until the summer, Wilf and I didn’t get a membership this year (but we will get one for 2015). Still, we tried to show our support by purchasing one of their sockeyes for a little early fall dinner last weekend. We paired our beautiful salmon with some handpicked chanterelles (I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma over the summer and have been dying to try mushroom gathering!), homemade bread, and a lovely green salad. And, despite the fact that it took much longer than expected to cook, ultimately the meal was heavenly. And eating something that was made with local, fresh ingredients somehow really did make it taste better and feel more deserved.

OK, so that’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks for coming back. Next time…life with a puppy!

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* I have been to Yew only once—a couple years ago—and I feel quite bad because I pestered the poor waitress for about ten minutes with questions on where and how the shrimp were caught. Once she answered all of my questions (trap-caught, locally), I chose my lunch without hesitation. And, without a doubt, it the most delicious shrimp sandwich I have ever eaten.

** It’s kind of complicated, but in its most basic sense, a food conversion ratio (or FCR) is essentially a unitless measure of how well an animal converts its food into a viable product. For example, when the FCR = 1, every kilo of food that the animal eats, results in 1 kilo of edible protein. The lower the FCR, the more efficient the animal is at converting food to edible tissue, and the less feed required. Beef has a very high FCR (up to 40), whereas fish typically have low FCRs (between 1-2). The FCR for shellfish is usually less than one, and for filter feeding species such as oysters it is virtually zero.

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