Photograph courtesy World Fish
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Farmed tilapia on display at a market in Egypt.
Photograph courtesy World Fish

Here’s How to Take the Guesswork Out of Buying Fish

Remember when dining on notoriously overfished Chilean seabass became akin to ordering kittens off a menu?

Decades ago, seafood was just good for you. Its only tag line was “brain food,” before concerns about “sustainable” or “factory farmed” got in the way. Fish came from the deep, mysterious, clean oceans, and was a wholesome food so pure that even the most arrogant western chefs would serve it uncooked: Sometimes the experts just can’t improve on Mother Nature.

In 2014 eating seafood is wrought with anxiety, which is itself an impediment to feeding seven billion people worldwide. Seafood is by far the animal protein that requires the fewest amount of resources to put on a plate, according to both common sense and an upcoming article on aquaculture in the June issue of National Geographic. In a world clamoring for animal protein, seafood is the ecologically friendly choice over anything that moves on land. But with ocean pollution and our increased knowledge about what is in our fish besides, well, fish, consumer confusion about what to eat reaches its zenith in seafood. (See “Sustainable Seafood“)

Red’s Best: The Real-Life Portlandia

Where there is consumer confusion, there are technology entrepreneurs creating resources to provide information. Red’s Best is a company that falls just short of wrapping each fish in its own resume. The Boston-based business QR-codes its seafood batches, inputting data on each fish into a computer as it arrives on the docks. The fish is up for immediate sale on the Red’s Best website, and delivered to a wholesaler, restaurant, or high-end market with the QR code displaying the fisherman’s profile, time and location caught, equipment used, and maybe whether the fish liked long walks on the beach.

It’s easy to poke fun at such Portlandia thoroughness when consumers are used to grabbing tilapia filets on sale, but traceability is becoming evermore important. That Chilean seabass? It ranges from “Avoid” to “Best Choice,” depending solely on its origin, according to the highly regarded Seafood Watch. Seafood source fraud is on the rise as well. Last year an Oceana report showed prevalent retail mislabeling of seafood, more than one in three samples nationwide upon DNA testing. Your tuna may be escolar and your red snapper may be tilapia or, frighteningly, the high-mercury tilefish that is particularly unsafe for sensitive groups. (See “Farmed Fish: The Other Other White Meat“)

Beware Crab Cake Impostors

Annapolis, Maryland, where blue crab icons dot windowsills like Virgin Mary statues, could use Red’s Best sourcing information, especially this year. From now until crab season ends in November, beware of anyone selling “Maryland crabs” for anything less than exorbitantly expensive. The region’s severely cold winter killed off more than a quarter of the blue crab population, leading the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to impose tighter harvesting limits to ease crabs’ repopulation in coming years. The limits are particularly critical because the number of spawning females is about a third of what experts say it should be. Expect crab prices to $200 or more per bushel.

Which is why some of the most popular Maryland seafood restaurants won’t sell seafood from Maryland this year, but don’t want diners to know it (hence the “Maryland-style crab cake,” which may be stuffed with crab from Indonesia). QR codes or some other method of telling true and beautiful stories of the origins of fish are in an eater’s best interest, but some industries fight it. Laws supporting seafood origin identification can help, such as a bill proposed in the state legislature prohibiting restaurants and retail outlets from mislabeling imported seafood as coming from Maryland.

Old-School Fishermen, New Tech 

Great fishermen aren’t known for technology prowess (must be all that splashing water) and Maryland’s DNR is this year encouraging them to record their activities on a smartphone or tablet, rather than on paper. The brilliance of Red’s Best is that the company records the catch for the waterman, so the latter doesn’t have to worry about it. And often, the waterman receives a higher price for the fish because its source is verified and because, let’s be honest, everyone loves for food to have a story. That’s what cooking TV, advertising, and trophy cookbooks are all about.

I recently spent $49 per pound for Dover sole at a high-end seafood restaurant here in DC. I know the chef and trust that it was real Dover sole from the English Channel, but wouldn’t it be great if every seafood purchase at every price point came with a know-the-chef confidence in its type and origin? Just as eaters embrace farm-to-fork, let’s focus on ocean-to-fork. If fish is a highly efficient and delicious animal protein for those who want to eat well responsibly, watermen might be the planet’s greatest ally, helping feed seven billion people good food.