Friday, June 12, 2009

Fish gotta swim, girl's gotta pay the mortgage

I recently read Abide with Me, the 2006 novel by Elizabeth Strout, author of last year's Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge. At one point the hero, a minister, worries aloud about being confused. Another character points out that confusion can be good because it's hard to be dogmatic when you're confused.
I'm confused all the time, which I hate, but this made me feel better. It's the underlying confusion that I appreciated in Wednesday's article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman about the ethics of buying and eating fish. Figuring out what to do isn't easy, and he wrestles with the moral and practical questions right there on the page. Compare his piece with this passage from a well-received 2008 cookbook:

"Wild salmon is the healthiest and most sustainable salmon, and it's also the best tasting by far. Farmed salmon are as bland an flavorless as factory chicken. They're fed a dubious diet and require antibiotics to control the disease that inevitably results from their crowded, polluting pens. When they escape, farmed fish endanger native species. Need any more reasons to go wild? 'Fish gotta swim for both flavor and health.'"

No, I don't need any more reasons to "go wild." What I need to "go wild" is a trust fund.

Ten years ago, after listening to a devastating radio program, I decided to never buy farmed salmon again -- except at Whole Foods. I like to think (but have no hard evidence for thinking) that Whole Foods holds its purveyors to higher standards that most shops, as they (of course) claim to do. High enough? Don't know. I should research this, but should also spend more time with my grandmother, read the newspaper, balance the checkbook, and find a new job. Meanwhile, this is where I've drawn a wobbly line in the sand with regards to salmon. The other day I bought the Whole Foods farmed salmon -- it's lovely, not "bland and flavorless" - for $6.99 a pound. The wild salmon: $24.99. 

I could be convinced to stop buying Whole Foods farmed salmon. I'm open to informed persuasion. Sell me. I might eventually be willing, if not especially eager, to agree that salmon -- beautiful, velvety, luscious salmon -- should be treated like caviar and chanterelles, a luxury the elite enjoy and the rest of us should basically forget about. If that's what needs to happen, okay. And if that's what needs to happen, we should probably outlaw farmed salmon completely because right now we're expecting an awful lot of high-minded restraint on the part of the middle-class consumer.
What I resent is the casual assumption -- common in food literature -- that upgrading to wild salmon is even an option for most of us. It's not. You need money to have your clear conscience and your salmon too. About that I'm not at all confused.


  1. Tipsy - I feel as though I'm channeling you these week. Had virtually this very conversation with a friend over drinks last night. My conclusion then: will only buy the wild salmon but only when I can find it on sale. My conclusion now: need to try the farm raised Whole Foods salmon to test the waters and bridge the vast gaps between sales. Thanks!

  2. Georgia Jewel6/13/09, 12:27 PM

    Tipsy, there was a story on CNN this week bout a new way of deep sea farming fish that is better for the environment and the fish. Perhaps your dilemma will be solved by innovation. To they have Trader Joe's in your area? Wild caught salmon at reasonable prices. Of course, who knows about the rest of their ethics? They call it "whole Paycheck" for a reason. Someone's gotta pay for those samples!

  3. I have had to settle for canned wild salmon because it is affordable. I can't stand the ones with bone and skin, though. To me, canned salmon is only good for mixing in with other things, not for eating on its own.

  4. Yes, after chatting with a biologist involved in salmon recovery on the West Coast, I too converted to wild salmon only, and have only bought it once in the last three years. I've just gone with your conclusion - it's a luxury.

  5. I can't vouch for Costco's ethics, other than they seem to treat their employees fairly well, but they have wild-caught salmon. I think it's one of the cheaper varieties . . . coho? I'm not sure. Anyway, it's an option, if there is one near you.

    What's frustrating is that you can't just buy wild of everything--that it depends on the variety.

  6. Georgia Jewel6/14/09, 9:14 AM

    Opened up my local paper today to find wild caught salmon for less than $4 a pound at my least favorite grocery chain, Kroger. Hope you have one nearby Thirsty. How are the bees? I'm worried.

  7. Oh, if only I could invite you over for coffee and discuss this with you and your readers. I am so glad you brought it up. I grew up on a fishing boat in Southeast Alaska, fishing for "wild" salmon. (And I am go, girls!!) We never called it "wild" when I was growing up...that's a recent invention by marketers to separate it from farmed fish. But here's what you need to know: NEVER EVER BUY OR EAT FARMED SALMON. There are so many reasons. Most obviously the health issues which you already know about. Who knows what kinds of strange cancers and mutations people may start suffering from due to farmed salmon? The environmental dangers of escapement from farmed pens also frightens me. Third, which many people don't think about is the "fair trade" issue you are supporting when you buy wild salmon. When I was a kid in the '70's and '80's my dad went into debt every single year to continue to do what he loved: be a fisherman. He took all kinds of odd jobs in the winter and we went on food stamps to get by until summer. Now, the market and smart people everywhere have realized how healthy WILD fish is for you and the small fisherman are now finally able to make it through the winter on their summer's earnings. Something you may not know: WILD salmon is NEVER caught by large factory-type operations. It is always caught by an independently owned boat, owned almost always by a family who works themselves to death to bring that beautiful salmon to your table. So, please, BUY WILD.

    Costco's wild salmon is fantastic. I wholeheartedly support buying it from them. If it is really WILD, I believe you can feel safe buying it. Wait for it to go on it canned...but please don't buy it farmed!

  8. Thank-you, Miss Spider, that is VERY compelling and convincing.

  9. oh dear oh dear. talk about confusion...i eat a lot of salmon. i suppose it is all farmed.......NOW what to do?

  10. The only way I get my wild salmon is through Trader Joe's - otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat it an average of 1x a week like I do now.

    But yes, I agree - there is this assumption that everyone can afford to buy wild, and honestly the prices at Whole Foods for wild salmon are such a deterrent.

  11. What confuses me is that when I visited Alaska, I was told repeatedly that the numbers of wild salmon returning every year to spawn was declining markedly. In addition, *nobody knows why*. So my thought is that if everyone who is eating farmed salmon were to switch over to wild salmon, wouldn't that decimate the wild salmon numbers? So now I'm thinking that buying wild salman may be could for local fishermen, but not the salmon population. I've never seen this issue brought up in the numerous articles I've read. Anyone have answers?

  12. Oops, I meant "So now I'm thinking that buying wild salmon may be good for local fishermen, but not for the salmon population." I'm a terrible typist.

  13. I know, AzureSong, it's very confusing.

  14. and does eating farmed salmon measure up to say, eating a hot dog or a piece of beef??????

  15. I don't know, Mary. I think farmed salmon is probably healthier than a cheap, conventional hot dog, but not as healthy as a grass-fed, organic hot dog. It's probably about the same for the earth, though I don't really know. Basically, we should all eat kale. Lots and lots of homegrown kale. I don't think there are any issues attached to homegrown vegetables, provided you check your soil for toxins, eschew pesticides, and don't use too much water
    After that, it's a zoo.

  16. Or raise our own meat--totally doable. If you have the zoning.

  17. Yes, the wild salmon numbers out in the Pacific NW are not good. They kill sea lions who eat too much salmon, and marine mammals are a federally protected species!

  18. Fish eating is one of those things that the more I learn, the less I eat. BUT one of my favorite food critics here in MN, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, did a great article earlier this year on sustainable fish. It's geared to MN, but still is useful for everyone:

  19. OK--just have to respond quickly--don't want to preach, but...not sure where you visited in Alaska, but the salmon runs in Southeast Alaska (AKA, "The Inside Passage") are better THAN THEY HAVE EVER BEEN. It is one of the most carefully and sustainably managed fisheries in the world. Seriously, it is a model for fisheries management throughout the world. I am not sure, but what you might be thinking of are the Bristol Bay salmon runs, which are somewhat hit or miss. It's hard to tell where your wild salmon is coming from, but if you really want to investigate it you can. Here's the deal: salmon fisheries throughout Alaska are well managed. The Dept. of Fish and Game don't allow overfishing. You can feel safe and guilt-free eating it. Salmon from the Pacific NW (Washington, Oregon) is a totally different issue: an example of what can happen when fisheries are managed poorly or not at all.

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  24. The only salmon I would eat is that which was caught fresh or bought from a native fishery. Wouldn't trust any salmon bought otherwise. With all the dyes in feed from fish farming operations. Why would anyone eat farmed salmon. Just because salmon can be farmed doesn't mean they should be farmed. The whole industry of farmed fish is STUPID and nobody can ever convince me otherwise.

  25. So, it's not a rainy day but I've been reading through your archives as a reward for completing 11 soul sucking academic job applications this weekend. And I just wanted to say that I love and 100% agree with your remarks in this post.