“The only kind of seafood I trust is the fish stick, a totally featureless fish that doesn’t have eyeballs or fins.”
Recently during a business trip to Baltimore, Maryland, I found myself with a bit of spare time and pulled a Ferris Bueller.
Two things I’ve always enjoyed: seafood and aquariums (the irony is not lost on me). So Baltimore was a good place to be. It's home to the National Aquarium, and if you’ve never been and happen to be in Baltimore (or if you are actually taking a vacation to Baltimore), then I highly recommend a visit. It’s laid out well, and you can see aquatic life that ranges from the darkest reaches of the Amazon to the deepest depths of the Pacific. Of course Baltimore is well known for its seafood, especially crabs and oysters from the nearby Chesapeake Bay.
What’s not to like about seafood? It’s healthy. It tastes good. It can be prepared quickly and easily. It’s also about the only food source that the average bloke can catch and eat on his own. I don’t know about you, but I have no clue how to shoot a turkey and get it onto the dinner table. Seafood is also amazingly diverse and abundant. Almost all the word’s waterways have provided sustenance for our species for millennia. Almost every cuisine has at least one dish based on something that once lived in the water.
Because the National Aquarium is primarily an educational and research institution, the issue of “sustainability” of course had to rear its head, dispensing guilt like flakes of goldfish food. (Let’s not get started on the goldfish graveyard that sprouted in my backyard when I was a kid.)
Now, a plate of oysters arrives with concerns of mercury; Asian-raised tilapia undermines American fishermen (fishing persons?); then there’s over fishing; Monterrey Bay Aquarium sustainability warnings; imported shrimp that comes with a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.
What’s a seafood lover to do?
Aquaculture is one solution, but that’s not without it’s drawbacks. Farmed fish simply don’t taste the same as the wild kind. At one restaurant where I had dinner in Baltimore, the oysters were farmed. They were good, but there was no there-there. That’s the whole point of oysters; they should have terroir. (See my post on oysters.)
Another approach is what I call the “trash fish solution.” When one species of fish gets depleted, protect it and move on and find a new one to gobble up. Not enough cod? Then how about “Chilean Sea Bass”?! Speaking of which, there’s really no such thing as “Chilean Sea Bass.” It’s a made up name. The real name of this fish is Patagonian Toothfish. For many years, it was considered a “trash fish,” something thrown away by fisherman seeking more lucrative prey.
Some guy named Lee Lantz came up with the name "Chilean Seabass" in 1977. He was looking for a name that would make it attractive to the American market.
So back to the aquarium. At one tank, which focused on life in the Chesapeake Bay, I saw a large, healthy specimen called a “Stripped Bass,” also know as the Rockfish, the official state fish of Maryland.
“Hey, I had one of those last night—it was pretty damn good!” I was quickly admonished by an employee of the aquarium: “We don’t like to talk about that around here.”
So much for a guilt-free trip to the aquarium.