Finding a sustainable catch in Madison
More are raising questions on sustainable seafood
There are some easy questions to answer when ordering a meal at a Friday night fish fry. “Fried or baked?” “All-you-can-eat?” “Baked potato or fries?”
But some fish-fry lovers in Madison are starting to ask a few questions of their own. Like, “Where did this fish come from?” “When was it caught?” “Is it sustainable?”
That last question is a big one, and likely the most difficult to understand. It affects much more than the Friday tradition. It’s a question that should be asked about the fillets we buy, the seafood dishes we’re served and the sushi rolls we enjoy at restaurants.
“It’s such a complex issue,” says Matt Robertson, the Midwest restaurant representative for Sea to Table, a purveyor of wild, domestic and sustainable seafood. While many restaurants educate their customers, he says, “I think that the tendency at your average restaurant is just to gloss over the complexity of the seafood system and some of the more broken aspects of it, just to not overwhelm the customer.”
The issues with the global seafood industry are as deep and ominous as the waters into which fishermen around the world cast their nets. Blatant disregard for legal and ethical guidelines involving commercial fishing have resulted in rampant depletion of fish species and irreversible effects on oceanic and freshwater ecosystems. The abuse of enslaved workers in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry was revealed in a 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Associated Press. Yet the demand for fish has increased overall in the past few decades. While annual per capita consumption of commercial fish and shellfish decreased slightly in 2016 from 2015 (14.9 pounds compared to 2015’s 15.5 pounds), Americans took the biggest leap in seafood consumption in 20 years in 2015, according to an annual report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are competing ideologies and concerns about PCBs (or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are manmade chemicals that pollute the water) and mercury levels in fish still considered safe to consume. Yet fish is known to be a good source of lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, rich vitamins and minerals.
As people eat more fish, more questions are being raised regarding overfishing, safe handling, fair working conditions and exactly which waters their fish came from.
“Two-thirds of the globe’s fisheries aren’t managed and aren’t regulated and aren’t even understood at all because there’s no science behind them,” says Nic Mink, founder and co-owner of Sitka Salmon Shares, which is a community-supported fishery bringing wild-caught salmon from southeast Alaska to Midwestern cities including Madison. And even the fisheries that are understood and have regulations in place are still being overfished, Mink continues. There are also larger-scale vessels that follow the rules, but their operations still aren’t as sustainable as they could be. “Even though it’s not overfishing, it’s still really not embodying a lot of the values of the food movement,” Mink says.
Madison is home to some of the most conscientious food consumers in the Midwest, but it’s also a place that doesn’t have great access to seafood. That’s one of the reasons Mink, who lives in Madison and earned his undergrad and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided to deliver to the Madison community when he first started his salmon business in 2012. One of his missions was to help bring seafood into the local conversation about sustainable food sourcing.
It starts with educating chefs, grocery shoppers and restaurant goers, says Mink. “Consumers are educating themselves about why it’s important to know where the fish comes from, and they’re educating themselves about the questions they need to ask about a fish,” says Mink, who is among the people we asked to help explain how Madisonians can make more sustainable seafood choices.
What does sustainability mean?
Mink is a knowledgeable person to ask what sustainability means when applied to commercial fishing, as Sitka Salmon Shares came out of a salmon habitat conservation and outreach program he conducted as a researcher and visiting professor in Sitka, Alaska. Before that, Mink earned his Ph.D. in history and environmental studies from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. “So I kind of have this dual environmental approach to history, but also I did a lot of sustainable food systems stuff and social dimensions of natural resource use,” Mink says.
With some of his students who traveled to Sitka, Mink started thinking about better labeling for fish from southeast Alaska fishermen who apply sustainability and social justice practices. What resulted was Sitka Salmon Shares, which began offering shares in community-supported fisheries (similar to community-supported agriculture shares in which consumers sign up to receive boxes of seasonal produce) the Midwest.
In Mink’s work, sustainability doesn’t just mean operating in a way that allows for continued growth of the company. Sustainability is achieved through thoughtful consideration of environmental issues, safe and desired handling and education and transparency about good practices, which inevitably leads to added value to both the fishermen and the consumer.
None of that is possible without necessary and responsible regulation of fisheries. Varying statistics and analyses show that about 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully fished or overfished, and many fish species have been depleted to near extinction. And it’s likely to get worse. The Guardian, citing the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, reports that a 17 percent increase in global fish production is estimated by 2025.
Alaska, which accounts for about 60 percent of U.S. landings (the amount of fish harvested from the sea and brought to the land), is a leader in domestic fisheries policy, Mink says. “There are really important policies in place in Alaska to ensure that the nature of the fleet doesn’t ever really industrialize to a way in which the rest of the globe’s fisheries are,” he says.
Sitka is a fishing community of about 500 permit holders, Mink says, who primarily practice a small-scale hook-and-line method of catching fish, which limits bycatch (which is a fish that was incidentally captured in the process of catching a different species) and doesn’t damage seafloor habitats. Sitka Salmon Shares works with 20 small-scale fishermen (including Drew Terhaar pictured on the cover), who are all co-owners of the business, and whose fishing practices have the least environmental impact. The fishermen are required to make shorter trips and adhere to meticulous icing and bleeding practices that some of the bigger commodity processors don’t or aren’t able to do. After Sitka Salmon Shares’ fish is frozen, it’s processed in Sitka and a couple of weeks later, it’s on the doorsteps of its members.
As the company grows (it’s gone from a fleet of three to a fleet of 20, with about 5,000 CSF members – 1,000 in Madison this year), Sitka Salmon Shares continues to focus on education and outreach, which is another element of creating a sustainable seafood movement.
Mink was involved in Madison’s Sustainable Seafood Week organized by chef Tory Miller, and Mink helps host dinners and events in the Madison area to talk about sustainable seafood.
“We’re really this doggedly idealistic and this traceable community-based system that really is there to benefit fishermen and benefit consumers,” Mink says.
Where does my seafood come from?
Traceability is the keyword today for fish purveyors. With Bering Bounty – a Verona-based company offering frozen-once Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut – people know exactly where the wild-caught Alaskan salmon comes from. It comes from Mark McKeown, who is in charge of the business and is also the fisherman. He’s been fishing western Alaska’s Bering Sea for 14 years, and he can relay how terribly hard cod fishing is on a fisherman’s body, and how captaining for salmon means he’s out on the water for six-week periods. It’s a tough job, but McKeown makes sure he’s doing it right. Fish are bled immediately, all six gill rakers (the bony or cartilaginous projections from a fish’s gill arches) are cut on a salmon, and salmon goes directly into ice within minutes, sometimes seconds, McKeown says. He delivers salmon and cod to a tender vessel to transport the fish for processing, which happens within 24 hours of capture.
Concerned with his carbon footprint, McKeown uses the slowest method of getting the frozen fish from western Alaska to Wisconsin, going from vessel to sea freighter until it gets to the West Coast, where it’s then picked up via truck from a Wisconsin-based trucking company. Keeping Bering Bounty local is important to McKeown.
“You can’t have the best fish on the planet unless it is Alaskan, but we are a local Wisconsin company,” he says. “I fish Alaska because first and foremost I am a commercial fisherman – not a middleman. We are still the only Alaskan seafood company in the state of Wisconsin run by a commercial fisherman.”
It’s not good enough that it says “Alaskan-caught” on the packaging, McKeown warns. Some fish is caught in Alaska and frozen before it’s sent to another country outside of the U.S. to be processed. Maybe it’s shipped to Asia, where it’s thawed and cut into smaller portions. Then it’s shipped back to the U.S. and thawed again, and it might already be nearing or beyond its shelf life, and mushy at that point. “The fact that it’s thawed three times causes a lot of degradation in quality,” he says.
There’s also misinformation about fish, McKeown continues. “The idea of fresh salmon here in Wisconsin is completely untrue,” he says. “[It’s] misleading for folks. You get fresher fish with frozen fish in the Midwest. Until we get the teleporter complete, that’s how it’s going to be.”
What should I know about farmed fish?
Some consumers and retailers have turned to farm-raised fish for many reasons. This type of fish is part of the aquaculture industry in which fish, shellfish, plants, algae and other organisms are bred, reared and harvested often in ponds, manmade structures or the ocean.
The FAO estimates that nearly half of world seafood consumption comes from aquaculture, and that this percentage is likely to increase in the future.
China has played a major role in this growth as it represents more than 60 percent of world aquaculture production, and some area restaurants seek out high quality aquaculture options abroad. Both Bonfyre American Grille and Miko Poke serve farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway in the north Atlantic Ocean. “The Wisconsin Food Code states that restaurants are not allowed to serve wild-caught raw salmon that has not been deep-frozen first,” says Caitlin Suemnicht, chief creative officer for Food Fight Restaurant Group, which operates Miko Poke. “Because we liked the texture and flavor of fresh raw salmon for our poke, we search for the highest-quality aquacultured salmon on the market.”
The aquaponics industry has taken hold in the U.S., too, Wisconsin included. There are at least 16 fish farms in Wisconsin that produce fish for eating, says Kathy Kline, education outreach specialist at UW-Madison Sea Grant, who helped develop the Eat Wisconsin Fish program, which educates Wisconsinites about aquaculture and Great Lakes fish. There are other fish farms that produce sport fish for stocking Wisconsin waters.
“There’s some big things happening with aquaculture in Wisconsin and they’ve been on the horizon for a while,” Kline says. A large operation is set to start harvesting Atlantic salmon soon at Superior Fresh near Eau Claire, and it will be the largest aquaponics facility in the world, according to Superior Fresh, and the first indoor recirculating aquaculture system in Wisconsin raising Atlantic salmon. “There’s nothing else like that in the country,” Kline says.
While the aquaculture industry continues to grow, farmed fish still carries a stigma of being dirty and unnatural. “But with the aquaculture that we do in this country, the discharges have to be regulated by the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protective Agency] and by our state DNR [Department of Natural Resources],” says Kline. “And a lot of the newer startups are these aquaponic systems where that water is being recirculated, filtered, cleaned and reused. So it’s actually a very clean system.”
Yet safe practices come at a cost. “It’s very expensive,” Kline says, “to a point where fish farmers often have a hard time negotiating all the regulations.”
When Peter Fritsch started working on a Palmyra, Wisconsin, fish farm in 1997, he was fresh out of college and given the opportunity to experiment with chemical-free fish farming. Co-workers referred to him as “the college kid” because he was so eager to move in a direction that was ahead of the curve. After only a year of Fritsch’s experimentation, the farm experienced an increase in fish and improved water quality. So, starting in 1999, Rushing Waters Fisheries became an all-natural fish farm.
That one year of experience turned into 20 and counting for Fritsch, who is now the president of Rushing Waters. Spanning 80 acres, Rushing Waters is the largest trout farm in the state and operates year-round. The farm raises one-pound rainbow trout from egg to harvest over the course of 18 months. By keeping the fish in very cold spring water, the farm actually encourages a slow and healthy growth cycle. Starting as fertilized eggs, the fish begin life on the farm in a hatchery. It typically takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch, and then the fish are moved to a tank where they stay until they are big enough to move to one of the farm’s 56 ponds. Throughout the entire process, the fish are being sorted based on size to ensure proper development.
“We don’t use any shortcuts,” Fritsch says.
Because his company also doesn’t use chemicals, Rushing Waters actually finds that its water quality improves every year. While this improvement is a major success for the fish and the environment, it was the reason the farm had to abandon aquaponics efforts a couple of years ago. Hoping to expand its business, Rushing Waters tried growing lettuce and basil through an aquaponics system, but discovered the fish were monopolizing the nutrients in the water. The trial proved the impressive water quality but pushed Rushing Waters to explore other business ventures.
Rushing Waters opened The Trout House, an on-site restaurant, in 2013 to create a farm-to-table experience for visitors. “You hook it, we cook it” is the tagline for the restaurant’s Wednesday to Sunday lunch promotion that gives customers the opportunity to fish on the property without a fishing license and enjoy their catch in the restaurant that afternoon. For the price of the caught fish plus $11 for preparation, you can enjoy some of the freshest trout possible in Wisconsin.
“We want you to play with your food,” Fritsch says.
The restaurant draws ingredients and inspiration from its fishery, smokehouse and other local farms to produce a diverse menu that draws visitors from across the state. This past summer, Rushing Waters opened another Trout House in Delavan, Wisconsin.
Fritsch noted that Wisconsin needs to take care of the natural resources that make it stand out. While Rushing Waters is not officially organic certified yet, its successful chemical-free approach to fish farming is proof that the process can be done safely with sustainable and tasty results.
What should I know about Great Lakes fish?
Farm-raised fish offer the opportunity to eat hyperlocally, but there are also species from the Great Lakes on restaurant menus in Madison.
Kline and the UW-Madison Sea Grant saw the local food movement expanding, but noticed that local fish wasn’t included. The Eat Local Fish program was created with a focus on educating Wisconsinites about local fish and aquaculture. They started by conducting surveys at grocery stores, including Metcalfe’s Market in Madison. “And that really confirmed what we already thought – that people were already confused,” Kline says, “or weren’t really aware that we still have commercial fishermen going out from Wisconsin ports and you can buy the fish here in local grocery stores.”
Part of the outreach Kline does involves getting information to people about some of the primary concerns about Great Lakes fish: PCBs, mercury and sustainability. Eating fish from the Great Lakes became a concern in the ’70s, Kline says, when researchers found out about the industrial contamination of waterways from pollutants. PCBs accumulate in fish and the people who eat the fish, and, unlike mercury (which is in every piece of fish you eat), PCBs never leave the body. Many people stopped eating Great Lakes fish altogether, Kline says, PCBs being one of several factors among others, including invasive species, cheap imported seafood entering the U.S. and a tainted impression of Great Lakes fish as “polluted.”
“Our DNR started testing fish regularly, so we know what the contaminant levels are. And they are going down,” she says. “But they’re still there, and people need to know about them.” Especially women of childbearing years and kids, Kline says. Eat Wisconsin Fish’s website lists the species of Great Lakes fish with descriptions and offers advice on how to prepare and how often people should eat the fish.
Contaminant concerns aside, there are also bottlenecks in the distribution chain of getting Great Lakes fish onto local plates, Kline says. There are fewer commercial fishing operations and processors on the Great Lakes (Kline says several decades ago there were certain buyouts by the DNR), and many commercial fishermen find higher profits in sending fish to alternative markets. “With little demand in Wisconsin, it’s easier for them to dress the fish and send it out on a big truck to the east coast,” Kline says. While some fishermen are still happy to work with Wisconsin restaurants, it’s not as efficient to take small orders, and some don’t have the means to fill an order for less than 50 pounds, for example.
But measuring by management standards and proximity, it’s more sustainable to choose Great Lakes fish, Kline says. “Our fisheries specialists would say the Great Lakes are managed very well.”
Suzie Q Fishing Co. is one Wisconsin-based operation offering Lake Michigan catches, including the popular and sustainable choice of whitefish. Along with other Madison chefs, Jonny Hunter, the James Beard-nominated founder of the Underground Food Collective and Madison Magazine’s 2015 Chef of the Year, often sources from Suzie Q Fishing Co. for his restaurant, Forequarter.
Robertson of Sea to Table recalls the 2016 outing in which Sea to Table brought chefs Adam Struebing from Madison Club, Patrick McCormick at the time from Oliver’s Public House and Derek Lee from Pizza Brutta to Two Rivers to fish. They brought the catch back to Madison and used it for events during Sustainable Seafood Week (which will be held again this year in June), presented by the Madison Area Chefs Network in partnership with a few seafood purveyors. “When chefs are concerned about the food they’re sourcing and interested in the quality of their ingredients and supporting local communities, they get pretty psyched to go on a trip like that and meet the fishermen who are catching their fish,” says Robertson, who also went on the trip with the chefs. “To actually see and understand the process and what goes into catching this fish that they’re serving at their restaurant, it really gives an eye-opening experience.”
What questions should be asked?
Even if you’ve done your research on sustainable fish, you still might not know what questions to ask your fishmonger or waiter.
Chef Tory Miller encourages asking questions, even if it makes you sound like the annoying characters in the “Portlandia” episode in which two restaurant-goers grill their waitress to get detailed information about the chicken served. “Even the fact that someone would think to ask, ‘Is this sustainable fish?’ is a step in the right direction,” Miller says.
Miller, the James Beard-winning (and recent “Iron Chef Showdown” victor) of L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo and Estrellón, has been a passionate advocate for sustainable seafood within MACN, a collective for Madison chefs. He encourages chefs to use resources like The James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch app that helps chefs gauge how sustainable their seafood is by inserting answers to questions, including “Where was this caught?” and “How was it stored?” “How big was the vessel?”
But still, Miller recognizes that sourcing sustainable seafood is difficult in Madison. Distribution, budgets, staff education and lack of customer interest in fish dishes are all barriers, he says. A few years ago, he considered not selling anything that wasn’t a freshwater fish or something he could get from a Wisconsin farmer. After re-evaluation, Miller puts it bluntly – Costco is still going to sell a billion pounds of shrimp. And Americans are still going to buy a billion pounds of shrimp. “So [you’re] saying, ‘I’m not buying anything from Asia’ is not helping the problem,” he says. “What would help is you saying, ‘I demand a better product, a safer product,’ ” Miller says. “You can still make a difference as a chef and as a customer if I demand to know where my stuff is coming from,” he says.
Labeling and awareness are getting much better, though, which makes it easier for consumers to feel good about buying and consuming fish, he says.
Metcalfe’s Market in Madison was ranked No. 1 in Wisconsin and in the top 10 in the nation for sustainable seafood by Greenpeace. Seafood offered at Metcalfe’s is labeled according to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch sustainability criteria. “They were really out in front on that,” Kline says about Metcalfe’s commitment to being transparent and responsible about sourcing fish.
Festival Foods also adheres to Seafood Watch’s ratings, and in April 2016 began offering only sustainable seafood. “Our decision to transition to 100 percent sustainable seafood was easy to make,” said Mike Zimmerman, senior director of the meat and seafood department at Festival Foods, in a statement released in February. “As a responsible retailer, we consider it our duty to sell only sustainable seafood and educate our guests about its importance. We need to be part of the solution so there will be an abundance of marine life for future generations.”
According to Whole Foods’ website, the national grocery store in 1999 became the first U.S. retailer to work with the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading certification program for sustainable wild-caught seafood. Whole Foods sells only wild-caught seafood from fisheries certified sustainable by the MSC or rated “green” or “yellow” by Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center.
The Seafood Center on South Whitney Way, which also operates out of the Willy Street Co-ops on Williamson Street and University Avenue, labels its fish with the country of origin, whether it’s wild or farmed and whether it’s defrosted. Susan Shebilske, who has been with The Seafood Center for 32 years and is the non-frozen-fish buyer, says she doesn’t get a lot of questions from customers about sustainability, and The Seafood Center doesn’t often have certified sustainability labels visible to customers. But if someone asks about it, Shebilske says, she has that information behind the counter and will share it with them, and it is sometimes displayed on signs. Shebilske says she doesn’t usually ask specific questions of the places from which she buys fish about length of boat trips or how the fish is stored, but she says she trusts her long-time sources. She said she would ask those kind of questions of a new supplier, though. “We know which fish are being overfished and we kind of leave those alone,” says Shebilske, who also says they try to avoid buying fish caught illegally.
Sea to Table operates with a transparent mission of allowing customers to know details as specific as the names of the fishermen themselves whenever possible. Sea to Table works with 38 independent fishermen and commercial docks around the country and ships to more than 1,000 chefs, restaurants and institutions in the U.S. The New York-based company also started offering home delivery of fish portions in February 2017. A year later, Robertson says his business receives more orders from Wisconsin than from any other state in the Midwest. Part of Sea to Table’s mission is the focus on the symbiotic relationship between fishermen and consumer, he says.
“As there’s more awareness of issues with importing fish and fish fraud and the lack of transparency in international fishing, people will just want to start learning more about U.S. fish,” Robertson speculates.
What kind of fish should I eat?
Consumers’ tastes influence what types of fish are harvested, for better or worse.
“The next step is eliminating those danger fish,” Miller says. The danger fish he’s referring to are the overfished and/or endangered fish that still show up on menus and at fish counters. “I always fantasize about what would happen if you just decided no more bigeye [ahi tuna]. No more tuna,” Miller says. “I get that there’s always fear of ‘Well, the next guy is going to have it. Why should I be the one who doesn’t have it?’ ”
Miller says the participation of Jack Yip of RED and Shinji Muramoto of Muramoto (downtown and Hilldale) – two of Madison’s most notable sushi chefs and restaurants – in Sustainable Seafood Week last year sent a huge message. “It’s such a statement if you get involved with this,” Miller says. It helps educate customers about the true cost of a sushi roll featuring a fish that might be on the endangered or watch lists, he says.
But Miller is optimistic that people will choose to eat more sustainably. “I think at the end of the day, it’s very difficult for people to look beyond what the possible repercussions would be,” he says. “It’s a hard fight to fight. I think now more than ever, people are more open to challenging their sourcing.”
And chefs and consumers are becoming more open to other abundant, sustainable fish options. John Gadau and Phillip Hurley experiment with the seafood options they serve at Sardine and Gates & Brovi. “We have a certain price point that fits our model,” Hurley says. “So it does limit things, but it forces us to get a little more creative.”
Daniel Bonanno offers an occasional fish fry at his restaurant, A Pig in a Fur Coat. He serves ling cod–a sustainable bycatch.
Robertson has a whole list of what Sea to Table refers to as “underloved” species, including dogfish, Acadian redfish and porgy, which he describes as an easy-to-cook fish kind of like a poor man’s snapper. “They’re abundant, affordable,” Robertson says. “It’s just about gradually shifting awareness toward these underutilized fish.”
As for new and lesser-known farmed fish, Kline calls out Arctic char raised in an aquaponics facility called Aqua Terra Farms in Bristol. She also mentions saugeye, which is a cross between a walleye and a sauger. It’s not on the market yet, but will be in the near future. “And they grow faster, which is always good for a fish farm,” she says.
Mink of Sitka Salmon Shares has a few fish he wishes were more popular: keeta salmon, dusty rockfish and black bass (which is another type of rockfish), to name a few.
“You have to educate about cooking, and you have to educate about why this is a great fish ecologically for a fisherman,” Mink says.
Mink knows his customers are still going to want pristine, delicious fish like king salmon, though. “King salmon is a mind-blowingly good fish,” Mink says. “But do you value the social dynamics of that fishery? Do you value the sustainability of it?”
Even the Wisconsin fish fry has changed over the years as fish populations evolve. “The fish fry, this emblematic piece of food culture, has an entirely different undergirding than it did when people were eating it 30 years ago, or people 60 years ago who were eating it when that undergirding was Wisconsin fish,” Mink says. “That’s a really fascinating thing – that this very important food culturally to people in Wisconsin has just gone through incredible evolution from local fish to an Atlantic fish to a Pacific fish with different species along the way.”
People likely won’t stop eating at Friday night fish fries or enjoying familiar seafood dishes – but they might change how and when they eat it, all while the fishing industry continues to change.
“You’re always going to be battling industrial fisheries [as] fisheries continue to consolidate. Fisheries continue to industrialize, and that’s unfortunate,” Mink says. “But we’re building this very adaptable model that hopefully can change as our oceans change and our populations of fish and composition of the fish change.”
There might not be king salmon in 10 years that is available at a commercially viable level, he says, and it may not be something that an ecologically responsible company would catch.
“Fisheries are so rapidly changing and management is so ambiguous,” Mink says. “Consumers have to be adaptable and systems have to be resilient, so that the new fish that are going to be caught, that are going to fill ecological niches (that we may or may not know even exist right now) can be brought into the system, and people can feel good about eating that fish and understanding that fish.”
Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine. Editorial intern Margaret Duffey contributed to this article.
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