VIDEO: Istanbul in 1967

As an expat in Istanbul, I enjoy seeing anything Turkey-related, and this vintage video of the former Constantinople is especially fun to see. Narrated by a droll British commentator, you travel over and around Istanbul, checking out some of the big sights such as Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, as well as life on the Bosphorus before the bridges were constructed to provide alternate access between the European and Asian sides of the city. Not too much has changed in 45 years, though the traffic seems lighter and the city less crowded than with today’s populate of 13 million (or perhaps more) people. I’d like to say that the Galata Bridge is no longer a “man’s world,” but fishing is still mostly men-only even if women are not only “veiled or hidden away”.

They do miss out on some correct terminology: the “different and delightful” bread ring is a simit, best accompanied by some Turkish cheese or with a full breakfast spread. The “hubble bubble pipe” is a nargile, found at many cafes and bars around the city and savored with a hot glass of çay (only tourists drink the apple stuff) or a cold Efes (if your nargile bar happens to serve alcohol). Barbeque remains a national pastime of the Turks and yes, “any old tin” will do. As in 1967, Istanbul is still the place to savor a fish sandwich fresh from the water, hop on a ferry between continents, and admire your newly shined shoes.

Overfishing and the future generation’s catch

The biggest debate in the ocean world today continues to be, Will we run out of fish, and when?

An intense squabble has been going on for nearly twenty years, since the global catch of seafood peaked in 1994. Predictions since have warned that we’ve taken 90 percent of the fish from the sea and that by 2050 or so all of the fish we currently know would be gone, that jellyfish will rule the seas.

Which is very true … in some places. Globally, despite growing international awareness, fisheries are still being abused, particularly the big fish we most love to eat, including marlins, bluefin tuna, cod and snapper.

But highly-placed members of the U.S. government have been making the rounds in recent months very publicly saying that our fisheries are actually doing quite well, thank you, due largely to laws that are working and a grumbling-but-dutiful bunch of fishermen who are obeying them.

A couple weeks ago Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, told a crowd at the Boston Seafood Show that overfishing in the U.S. was in many respects and for the moment … over.

He bolstered his argument with statistics suggesting that the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which imposed strict annual catch limits in U.S. waters, is working, that the 528 different fish species it monitors are doing okay. He called it an “enormous milestone.”

How big an area are we talking? Just how big is the U.S. fishing zone? 3.4 million square miles paralleling 90,000 miles of coastline.

Those who agree with those government stats say the good news deserves better publicity, that doom-and-gloom headlines about the “end of fishing” attract more eyes than those that show, in fact, fish in some places are making a comeback.

I admit to having contributed to some of those gloomy reports, based primarily on my own empirical research. During my travels to coastlines around the world the past two decades I am constantly quizzing fishermen on their personal experiences at sea. Are you catching as much fish as you did ten years ago? Do you have to go further out to sea to find a reasonable catch? Are some species you used to depend on gone or lessened?

Virtually everywhere I go outside the U.S. the responses are the same: There are fewer fish, especially big ones, which requiring fleets to venture far out to sea in order to find a reasonable catch.

One important distinction is that there is a difference between a fish species that is “overfished” and the act of “overfishing.”

While the two can exist simultaneously, there are some differences, which can be confusing, especially in a headline-dominated media.

A species that is “overfished” means it is below its healthy population level. An overfished area can recover if it is temporarily placed off-limits or certain catch limits are instituted, which is what’s happened in recent years in many U.S. waters.

“Overfishing” means taking more fish out of the ocean than natural reproduction rates can replace. There are many examples of fish species that have been so badly overfished they will never come back. Bluefin tuna is currently headed that direction.

Michael Conathan, director of Ocean Policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), explains it this way: “In effect, this is the difference between a household’s budget and debt. Exceeding an annual budget is overspending. Overspending for multiple years will accumulate debt, which can be referred to as being in an ‘overspent’ state. Even when overspending stops, the red ink doesn’t magically turn black. The deficit remains. Many of our fisheries are still overfished (or overspent), but the first step in resolving that dilemma is halting overfishing.”

At a minimum, the current laws regulating fishing in the U.S. have helped the fisheries “make progress” (Schwaab’s words). I am happy to help spread that word. But a worry exists: There are plenty in the commercial fishing business, and politicians whose voters work in the fishing industry, who want to take a glimmer of good news and change the laws and open the fisheries back up to bigger takes. Many believe that would be too much too soon, that the fisheries need more years to fully recover. Grumbling fishermen disagree.

One overriding concern no matter which side of the debate you’re on is that fishing, like all big businesses today, knows no boundaries.

The market for fish is a global one. Eighty-four percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad; half of that is from farms. Much of the fish caught in the U.S. is sent abroad.

Government fishing officials in countries ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Japan to the Mediterranean, are not as optimistic as their U.S. counterparts. Many of them report parts of their fisheries that are dead and gone, never to return.

While U.S. enforcement seems to be working for now, the worldwide demand for fish continues to grow and someone’s going to fill it. There are plenty of fishermen out there on the ocean happy to comply, rules and regulations be damned.

[flickr image via katiedubya]

Habits and a new path towards sustainable fishing

Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to fishermen and their daily catch. With many species of fish around the globe hammered by overfishing, laws are being written and enforced to protect them, which sometimes means convincing indigenous fishermen to alter centuries-old traditions.

But changing fishing patterns that go back multiple generations can be a hard sell when it is the legends and skills of a great-grandfather, for example, that still drive traditional hunts for green turtles or whales, dolphins, manta rays, sharks and other now-threatened species.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not family tradition that propels the illegal hunting by indigenous fishermen, but greed and willful ignorance of modern-day laws.

A recent story in the New York Times highlights the dilemma of pink river dolphins in Brazil’s Amazon River. The subject of legend (it is thought they are magical creatures that can turn into men and impregnate women), they are also endangered. But that’s not stopping locals from hunting them and using them as bait for catfish (attracted by the strong smell of dolphin meat) or simply killing them to eliminate them as competitors for catches. From the river fishermen’s perspective there are too many dolphins, they’re a nuisance and hardly need protection.

“We don’t like him; we are his enemy,” one fisherman told the Times. “I killed one when I was waiting for the fish to bite. He kept coming closer and the fish were leaving, so I harpooned the dolphin. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Experts in the region suggest thousands are killed every year – out of a population of just 30,000 – though they are supposed to be protected by law.

Though they risk prison sentences, fishermen know enforcers are spread thin around the vast Brazilian Amazon. Evidence of the hunt is hardly hidden, with the genitals of river dolphins sold at open-air markets as aphrodisiacs, alongside oil from anacondas and crocodiles.

1. Certain island groups in the Pacific, from Hawaii to Tahiti, are still home to endangered green turtles. The biggest hard-shell turtle in the sea they can weigh over 400 pounds. Despite laws prohibiting taking them, it is still common to find turtle soup and turtle meat on tables, especially at ceremonies. A few years ago I was on the remote French Polynesian atoll of Raritea (where Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki” had washed up in 1947) and locals were preparing a feast to celebrate the opening of the island’s new airport. The president was flying in to cut the ribbon. In his honor local fishermen had brought back three giant green turtles for the feast, each weighing more than 400 pounds. Finding the endangered turtles was not hard and the fishermen knew what they were doing was illegal — they took me to see them where they’d hidden them beneath palm fronds — but that didn’t stop them.

2. Despite a variety of international laws on the books since 1931 – a moratorium against whaling was established in 1982 — whaling by indigenous communities continues around the globe. Japan is of course the most prolific and renowned, hunting whales off its own shores but also venturing far into the Southern Ocean near Antarctica every year. But the Japanese are hardly alone: Inuit groups across Canada continue to hunt and harvest whale meat, which the government admits it allows more out of political expediency than good conservation; in the Faroe Islands around 950 long-finned pilot whale are killed every summer by locals who claim the hunt is an important part of their culture and history while animal-rights groups protest it as cruel and unnecessary; Greenlandic hunters take 175 whales per year, making them the third largest hunters after Norway and Japan, and have recently gotten a concession from the International Whaling Commission to take two big bowhead whales each year until 2012; indigenous whaling communities also continue to hunt in Iceland, Indonesia and Russia. In the United States whaling is still done by nine different indigenous communities in Alaska, taking about 50 bowhead whales a year from a population of 10,500 and one or two gray whales each year; conservationists don’t believe these numbers are sustainable.

3. In the Philippines the reef fish Mameng (also known as Maori or Humphead Wrasse) is considered one of the world’s most valuable fish and can be found in high-end restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. In particular, its lips are regarded an expensive delicacy. The Mameng is also endangered, thus fished illegally. Big, colorful fish (six feet long, more than 400 pounds), the Mameng have long been classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “at risk,” meaning they may soon be extinct. Still divers take them daily with compressors who fish the shallow reefs of the southern Philippines, usually capturing them by the highly illegal method of cyanide poisoning (the fish are stunned by a squirted mixture of sodium cyanide, which of course kills everything in the area, including corals, sponges and other fish). The captured fish are then fed in pens and fattened for traders, mostly from mainland China. Philippine fishermen are also known to hunt both devil rays and manta rays – both on the IUCN’s “near threatened” list – usually taking them at night using strobe lights and nets.

4. While illegal shark finning gets most of the attention in the waters off the highly protected Galapagos National Park and marine reserve, the illegal taking of sea cucumbers in the surrounding seas has essentially stalled future growth. While quotas are in place, allowing up to 2 million sea cucumbers to be taken each year legally, recent annual catches have been coming in at just over a million. “That’s not because the fishermen are taking any less,” says Sea Shepherd’s Galapagos director Alex Cornelissen, “it’s because the other one million are being taken illegally and not reported.” Giant bags of sea cucumbers, headed for ports across the Pacific in China and Japan, are confiscated each year in mainland Peru. “But it’s a mafia-like organization that transports them,” says Cornellisen, “which is very hard to stop.” The last time a Sea Shepherd activist uncovered a cucumber smuggling ring a hit was put out for his life. The pay off? $40. “Life is cheap in Peru,” says Cornellisen.

[flickr image via visualpanic]

The future of Japanese fishing

Given the hammering Japan’s fishing towns took thanks to the earthquake/tsunami and the continued leaking of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant it is legitimate to question the future of fish in the region.

Just like the fishermen in the Gulf after the BP spill, seafood providers across Japan are concerned about an inevitable public relations fall out even if its fish stays available and safe, i.e. non-radioactive.

While the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the world’s biggest — selling more than 400 species of fish six days a week, a $5.5 billion a year business providing 40 million Japanese fish-lovers – has not yet backed off selling anything, buyers have fallen off due to a lack of fish.

The most immediate concern is that so many of the small towns in the north – and their boats, docks, jetties, nets, tackle and fishermen – are gone. Fish farms and onshore processing plants have been wiped out, hundreds of thousands of wild fish washed onto shore, dead. As a result, scallops, sardines, oysters, seaweed, bonito and even shark’s fin have largely disappeared from Tsukiji in the past week.

The normally packed aisles of the sprawling market – the equivalent of 200 football fields under one roof — are quiet. “We’re not selling anything because there are no customers,” one wholesaler at the market reported. Sales to restaurants have fallen off too.” Sushi restaurants near the market are suffering too, in part due to the lack of tourists.Tsukiji’s general manager, Tsutomu Kosaka, told the New York Times, “It’s not like the brand is just damaged now – it’s over. At least for now, the brand is finished. Gone. It’s hopeless.”

The early consensus based on what’s happened so far at the struggling nuclear plant is that fish pulled from the sea off Japan should be safe, given that winds and currents will disperse any potentially dangerous particles before they can pollute. But Japan’s seafood export business – $2.4 billion last year – will definitely take a hit.

South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the Philippines announced more intense screening of seafood from Japan. Many restaurants across Asia have stopped buying seafood from Japan. “Until the situation stabilizes in the country, it seems unlikely that guests will feel comfortable consuming Japanese products,” said the manager of the Hong-Kong-based Mandarin Oriental International hotels. The Four Season Hotel’s, also Hong Kong-based, has suspended import of all Japanese food, including scallops and abalone, buying instead from New Zealand and Australia, Scotland and Indonesia.

While dairy products (milk and eggs), grains, vegetables and meat might be susceptible to radioactivity exposure experts suggest that the impact on fish will be “negligible.”

Far from Japan, in Mumbai, caution was being taken. “You don’t know which fish is contaminated and which one is not. So the precautionary principle is to ban all fish coming from there,” said one nuclear expert.

The reality is that relatively little Japanese seafood makes it to the U.S.; your corner sushi restaurant is more likely to get its fish from China, Chile or Thailand. Most imports were stopped before the nuclear plants started leaking. Still the FDA said it may “increase and target product sampling” of goods from Japan for contamination.

One market that will most likely grow? Export of seafood from the U.S. to Japan, currently a $750 million a year industry. The 127 million Japanese depend on seafood as a staple, consuming twenty percent of the world’s seafood. But for the moment almost all exporting to Japan is on hold as the country rebuilds its infrastructure; simply delivering goods to many corners of the country has stopped.

But the short-term future of Japan’s fisheries may be most affected by perception rather than reality. The market for Gulf seafood is way off, nearly one year after the BP spill. Given the massive destruction along Japan’s coastline, the impact on its fishing grounds – and fish — could be felt far longer.

[flickr image via DigiPub]

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

As a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimately wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.

Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.

As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]