Ellen and Mike hiking near the Bay of Fundy in April 2015.
Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Ellen, I’m 23, I live in Maynard, and I have a degree in agricultural studies and economics. I’ve worked on Massachusetts farms and in food businesses since I was 13. If you’ve been to a farmers’ market in the last 5 years or so, it’s not unlikely that you’ve eaten something I’ve touched. Right now, my fiancé Mike and I work at the Boston Smoked Fish Company in Sudbury – I cut, smoke, and pack the fish, and he sells it at a farmers’ market near you.
At the end of April, Mike and I took a short vacation from the smokehouse and went to New Brunswick in Canada to visit a couple things that are important in our lives. One was a friend. The other was the company, True North, that supplies the Boston Smoked Fish Company with most of its its salmon. The salmon we use is sushi-grade, Atlantic salmon farmed off the coast of southeastern Canada. It’s the same stuff you’re likely to get in any of the sushi restaurants around here — beautiful fish with flesh the color of the salmon-pink crayon in your kid’s crayon box, neat lines of fat across the fillet, brilliant scales black on the back and blue-silver on the belly. I see dozens of these fillets every day I go to work and I’m not quite tired of them yet.
Isn’t it pretty? Credit: The Boston Smoked Fish Co.
But yes, it’s farmed salmon. Every time he goes to market, Mike fields pointed questions about fish farming — it’s a controversial practice. So let’s talk about it. Personally, I think fish farming is a good idea, and my job depends on fish farming. My writing here will reflect this fact. However, what we eat is arguably the most complex and meaningful decision we make on a daily basis, and I heartily encourage you to go out and learn more about fish farming and make your own decisions. This is what food co-ops are for, right? To engage the community in asking questions and sharing information about food. And so, here begins what I think will be a 3 or 4 part series discussing how fish gets on our plates, focusing on the process I’m most familiar with, the sea-to-table chain at The Boston Smoked Fish Company.
Fishing and poetry in the 1600s. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_salmon
In this first chapter, let’s talk about history: it’s hard to understand the ins and outs of fish farming today without first looking back at how people have fished in the past. Fish is an important part of our history and, really, mythology in New England, so right here is a good place to start. (You can read up on this history in chapter 3 of A Revolution in Eating.) Native Americans in the coastal US relied heavily on fish, especially at this time of year when most plants were just starting to come back and most animals were hungry and thin. And there were lots of fish: when the colonists landed, they famously commented on being able to walk across the bay on the backs of cod, and on alewives packed so tight in the rivers that they couldn’t swim. In a one-sentence summary of a couple hundred years, they proceeded to catch them all. (You can read a longer version here, for example.) Alewives were buried in fields to fertilize corn. Cod was salted and shipped south to feed slaves. When we ran out of cod, we ran through the haddock, then the hake. Dredging for ground-dwelling species like cod, flounder, and shellfish accelerated the process by wiping out the seafloor communities that many fish depend on for food and safe places to breed. The invention of refrigerators in the late 19th century only accelerated the process by connecting Boston Harbor to the rest of the fish-hungry country via refrigerated boxcar. Heavy water pollution also took its toll. By the early 20th century, New England’s fish stocks were badly depleted.
Atlantic salmon in a Norwegian aquarium. Credit: Wikipedia
Including its salmon stocks. New England’s rivers once teemed not only with alewives, but also with salmon. Like Pacific salmon today, Atlantic salmon spent most of the year at sea and swam upriver to breed. They live on both sides of the Atlantic. However, as fishermen and watermills proliferated in New England, the salmon died out. The story was similar up and down the northeastern coast of the continent–while Atlantic salmon held on in parts of Maine and Canada, what stocks still exist are too depleted to fish, and are declining, possibly due to warming oceans. In Maine, the salmon species in 11 rivers are listed as endangered species. The story across the pond is only a little better. European stocks have held on longer against overfishing, and healthy wild populations still exist in Scotland and Scandinavia. But fishing is tightly controlled to prevent depletion, and even so, the stocks are declining due to habitat destruction and climate change. Throughout its range, efforts are underway to reintroduce or supplement salmon populations by releasing fish from hatcheries into the wild, but they have usually been unsuccessful. Just a few years ago, a reintroduction campaign on the Connecticut River called it quits after 40 years of failure to establish a sustainable population.
This satellite image of part of the Bay of Fundy shows the salmon farms that raise some of the fish we buy at the Boston Smoked Fish Co.–the circles off the coast. Credit: Google Earth.
This is a familiar story. After centuries of poor management, getting healthy, sustainable protein for everyone from wild fish stocks is just too much to ask. On land, we had an answer to increased human population density and the depletion of huntable animals — farming. And throughout history, people have been applying the same logic to the water. Aquaculture is old. The first evidence of the practice comes from China, more than 5000 years ago. It was also practiced among the ancient Egyptians, native Hawaiians, and Medieval Europeans. Julius Caesar ate farmed fish. Today, fish farming is our last best hope for getting any fish at all onto our plates.
And, at least at the Boston Smoked Fish Company, we think it’s the most sustainable option — which matters to us. As a startup (we’re almost two! aren’t we cute?) we’re pretty interested in being around for the long term, which means we need a sustainable supply of fish. In the next chapter, I’ll get into the ins and outs of salmon farming today. But based at least in part on the lessons of history, my boss has made the decision to focus on farmed salmon. We do use some wild fish: we make a (wicked good) smoked bluefish pâté using wild bluefish, and during the summer spawning season we smoke up wild sockeye and coho salmon from the American northwest. According to our best research, these wild populations are doing pretty well, and we’re willing to rely on them. But for the bulk of our production, farming makes the most sense. Our forebears haven’t left us with many alternatives.
– By Ellen Green
Coming in 2 weeks: Farming for Fish, Part 2