A fish story well told

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My wife and I agreed that the salmon we bought from Zabar’s in Manhattan and had dinner on Wednesday night was tastier than the salmon we buy locally. There’s not a huge difference between one cut of farmed salmon and another – part of the appeal of this flaky fish is that it’s predictable, rarely exceeding or falling well below your expectations. But Zabar’s fish tasted fresher, subtly tastier.

Coverage of "The blue revolution" by Nicholas P. Sullivan

Photo of Ralph Gardner Jr.

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Nicholas P. Sullivan’s knowledgeable new book, The Blue Revolution, doesn’t provide an answer to the different flavor profiles between one piece of store-bought salmon and another. But it answers many, if not most of the other questions I had about fish, and in a way that’s always engaging.

That’s saying something because it’s a serious book on a probably esoteric subject. Published by the nonprofit 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, let alone a book and Nick, a friend, wrote it. Frankly, I did not expect to find it so interesting. That’s saying something, because it takes a writer with substantial skill to make the fine print in an act of Congress such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act of 1976 intriguing. 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 legitimate suspicions you may have about the federal government’s ability to accomplish anything, Nick argues that the fisheries off the northeastern United States – that is, say the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, Nantucket Shoals and Mid-Atlantic Bight are among the best managed in the world.

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

Most of the salmon consumed in the world today is farmed. The endangered Atlantic salmon has not been commercially fished in the United States since 1948. Climate change, not overfishing, poses the latest existential threat. Warmer ocean waters stress the phytoplankton that creatures higher up the food chain feast on, causing fish to expend more energy hunting for food. A 2015 paper showed that Atlantic salmon feeding on Greenland received about thirty percent fewer nutrients from their diet than before 1990.

There’s probably no need to go overboard with aquatic weed – although The Blue Revolution does it in the most palatable way possible – but breeding can refer to enclosures on land or in water. ‘ocean. The Norwegians seem to be to fish farming 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 reduce pollution associated with fish poo.

“The Chinese,” Nick said, “built a ship twice as long as the Titanic for farmed salmon. It floats in the ocean, pulls water in from the ocean, and circulates it.

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

One of the most innovative fish farms in the country, Hudson Valley Fish Farm is located right here in Hudson, New York. They supply restaurants and grocers with up to 20,000 pounds of hormone- and antibiotic-free rainbow trout per week; created a humane killing process, according to Nick; and are in the hydroponics business, using nutrient-rich fish water to produce plants.

The author, 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 connected the world’s poor to the world economy. “All the agencies I worked with also dealt with food security,” he explained. “I started wondering 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 answer my questions on an aspect of international commercial fishing that has always, or at least occasionally, intrigued me. “And the pirates? I’m referring to those giant trawlers with their driftnets that raid other nations’ waters and cruelly pick up dolphins, octopuses and dolphins in the process. By the way, the United States has the second most oceanic territory in the world. Guess who’s #1? The answer may surprise you: France.

Nick devotes the third and final part of his book to the global challenges facing the world’s fish stocks: criminals, climate and conservation. In this regard, and with regard to pirate fleets on the high seas, suspects may have met their match or will soon do so in the form of Big Data, which will make them easier to monitor. The technology can now analyze signals from ocean-going vessels to create a map of traceable commercial fishing activity around the world. And even when scammers turn off their electronic tracking systems, light can be detected from vessels that don’t share their locations.

What I’ve described is just the tip of the iceberg, pun intended, in terms of the recognition that Nick Sullivan shares in The Blue Revolution. It turns out to be a great fish story and one that will leave you much more enlightened as you dive into your next seafood dinner.

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

Opinions expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of that resort or its direction.

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