Like so many other food professionals, I’ve been cooking since I was a little kid tugging at my grandmother’s apron strings. I learned food prep basics sitting in her teeny West End Avenue apartment kitchen on weekends as a young boy. I cooked with my mom and dad every chance I could, and I treasured our time making family dinners together. I got my first paycheck at age fourteen shucking shellfish and prep-cooking during a summer break in East Hampton Long Island at a small seafood restaurant called The Quiet Clam. I ran my first kitchen in the summer of 1984 at another Long Island seasonal fish eatery, The Conscience Point Inn.
I had plenty of professional training working in restaurants of many types at an early age. I got an even better education from my father. He would take me fishing for stripers or Montauk monster blues on weekends, foraging for mussels and clams, crabbing, eeling in Three Mile Harbor), and line popping for porgies and snapper blues if we had a spare hour to kill before dinner. He taught me a valuable lesson at a young age – it’s all about the quality of your ingredients and how you use them.
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. That was quite a while ago, and fish farming – aquaculture in general – was a seldom discussed topic. Wild stocks were seemingly plentiful, waters were thought to be clean, fishing pressure was lighter. However, commercial fishing had harmed the populations of most species due to technological breakthroughs. Most importantly, information flow to the public was trickling so this news was scarcely reported and most folks didn’t take analysis of our food systems seriously. For the consumer, freshness was all about clear eyes, firm flesh, and red gills; remember, there were still butcher shops and fish markets in the neighborhoods of American coastal cities. The food revolution hadn’t arrived, but the old wisdom was still prevalent. Food purveyors of all kinds could still tell you where your food came from. We trusted the local fishmonger or vegetable stall vendor.
I remember seeing my first farmed finfish in the 80s – it was a flaccid and mushy trout with very little ‘true’ flavor. I had no idea how the intersection of ideas at that moment would impact my life many decades later. The fish wasn’t very good, but the idea itself was ancient wisdom that really works. Had I been wiser at the time, perhaps I would have become more of an early adopter and advocate for change.
The farming of aquatic organisms has been going on since about 1000 B.C. in China and dates back at least 2,500 years in the Mediterranean where the ancient Romans farmed oysters and fish. The Chinese farmed carp, and many ancient peoples farmed seafood around the world; most notably, the Polynesians have been fish farming for millennia. The very first 360 degree integrated Ag/Aqua farming systems date back to ancient China. Manure would be used to promote algae growth for fish food and after harvest; ponds would be drained and the soil used for farming. The resulting crops would be used in some way to feed animals, and the circle would continue. These types of systems – including grey water home units for raising lettuces, herbs, tilapia, shrimp – are still popular today.
There was plenty of fish farming extant all over the world for thousands of years, but the next big jump in progress came in the 19th century at the end of the Industrial Revolution. Man-made problems, a byproduct of progress (think dams, roads, canals, railroads, growth of cities, and all the resultant pollution) caused fish populations to decline. Salmon couldn’t migrate as freely as they once did, for example. The emerging science of the time focused on trout and eventually other salmonids, and by the 1950s, all processes of the fish farm had been fully mastered in one way or another, from fertilization to transport to release and harvest.
At the same time, other species of fish were being farmed (hello tilapia!), and it was this global explosion in the study of aquaculture that was the genesis for the discovery of artificial feed. That invention revolutionized the system, made it cheaper and created the huge boom of aquaculture in the 1970s, along with a massive leap forward in more durable and less expensive materials for all aspects of the science (including plastics and fiberglass, to name the two most impactful). The feed, the materials, and other practices eventually proved to be commercially unsustainable. Over the last forty years, pollution soared, ocean and freshwater damage became rampant, wild fisheries management degraded or was compromised in many countries, and whole species of wild fish disappeared from commercial viability.
Meanwhile, demand for fish increased, and aquaculture production of all types – from shellfish to sea vegetables to finfish – increased. “In terms of global production volume…farmed fish and plants combined surpassed that of capture fisheries in 2013,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2016 report declared. However, aquaculture is not what it once was – the quality in many cases is simply amazing.
We are now in the middle of an environmental and food crisis, and there are a dozen ways to address this issue. One of the biggest is increasing our consumption of sustainable seafood. So what are the current hurdles to that? I think there are three big ones:
- The mythology of universal negligence
- The perception of quality
- Culinary education
Negligence happens, but there are some amazing companies out there doing incredible work, respecting our planet and creating superb fish and shellfish of superb quality in a sustainable way without causing harm to the environment, the product, or to fellow humans. I have seen many dozens of these companies up close over the years.
For decades, the volume of feed for animals over the course of their lifetime was greater than the weight at harvest. That’s not sustainable. Nets and pens were made of materials that were damaging to the water systems. Animals were raised in pens that were too small. Byproducts from the aquaculture system, such as uneaten food or bio-waste, would damage the local biosphere.
However, companies like Verlasso – a farm in the Chilean Patagonia committed to raising the most delicious, healthy salmon in harmony with the environment – have fought to correct those problems and many more. I can list dozens of other companies all growing different species that have done the same.
When I talk about aquaculture in public, many consumers still believe in the mythology of universal negligence. I can tell you that at Verlasso, the feed ratio that used to be 8 pounds of feed to grow 1 pound of fish at harvest is now 1:1. I actually consider it 0:1 since the food is now so advanced that it only uses sustainably-caught fish scraps and bones that would otherwise be disposed of. Nets and pens are now made out of modern materials that do no damage to their environment, the fish swim in a space twice the size they used to a decade ago, and the feed is monitored so no excess goes uneaten. The fish are raised in swift moving ocean water to minimize fish waste impact. Mussel and oyster beds are planted on the inland side of oceanic pens to clean the slower moving water as a sustainable bonus. There are many aquaculture companies that are publicly leading the charge for proper fisheries management. Verlasso is one of them.
The quality of commercial aquaculture products over the years has increased dramatically. I have personally seen the farms and tasted oysters, clams, mussels, bass, salmon, shrimp, sea urchin, scallops, carp, catfish, tilapia, trout, halibut, barramundi, abalone, and a variety of vegetables. These all have dramatically increased in quality over the last decade – none more so than salmon.
This year, I spent a few days in Chile at three Verlasso production facilities and was really impressed. The perkiness of the live fish are something to behold. The fins are mature and well-formed. The scales are vibrant, and the flesh is firm on both live and harvested fish. The muscle texture is resilient, and the muscles are easily differentiated to the eye. The fat layering is uniform from muscle group to muscle group and distinct as well, allowing for a variety of superb flavors and mouth-feels, depending on the cuts from each part of the fish. This has always been assumed to be the unique attribute of wild fish. Not anymore. The perception was always that seafood raised in even a sustainable farmed system was somehow less desirable than eating a wild product… that’s a myth. In fact, at its core, eating farmed seafood helps relieve pressure on our wild stocks.
There are many sides to our culinary education deficit; let me address just two areas: the first being the kitchen and the second being the world around us. We all need more information about making quality evaluations when we shop for food, especially at the seafood counter where fraud and misinformation are rampant. For example, fish can be legally labeled as ‘fresh’ and still have been frozen. Seafood consumers are often given insufficient, confusing, or misleading information about the fish they purchase. In an even more glaring example, Oceana conducted a study released in 2019 that identified the following:
- The United States is the second largest seafood consumer worldwide.
- The American Heart Association, as well as new dietary guidelines from the U.S. government, both recommend eating eight ounces of seafood, (or two seafood meals) a week. I personally think that recommendation is light.
- Seafood is a global commodity, and 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
- Less than 1 percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud. With more than 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world available for sale in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect the American consumer to be able to independently and accurately determine what they are actually eating.
- Oceana’s nationwide study of retail outlets, grocers and restaurants found that seafood was mislabeled 26 to 87 percent of the time for commonly swapped fish such as grouper, cod and snapper, disguising fish that are less desirable, cheaper, or more readily available.
- While seafood fraud encompasses any illegal activity that misrepresents the fish you purchase, including mislabeling and falsifying documents, to adding too much ice.
- This study was massive, collecting more than 1,200 samples from 674 outlets in 21 states. DNA testing found that one-third of the 1,215 seafood samples were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
My point is simple – when we bring fish into our kitchens, we need to have determined accurately what we are buying, where it was caught or harvested, how it was handled, and so on. This idea is especially relevant to my support of aquaculture and brands like Verlasso because it assists our communities in making quality purchase evaluations. Verlasso is a transparent company with a mission statement to “go green” all the way. That’s the type of commitment as a consumer that I trust.
We talked a lot about sustainability and responsibility on the farming side, but what about shopping? We now know that we need to shop where someone can tell us where the fish is from and when it was caught, whether it was frozen or not, and how it was handled. Many grocers, markets, and fishmongers have that information readily available. Ask for it, so you can shop with an eye for brands you trust. Now what else can you do?
Well, the other day I’m at my grocery store in Minneapolis, and I see a lady grab a cantaloupe. She presses it, smells it, and checks for the aroma of ripeness from the blossom end. I see another guy dip into a bag and snag a grape, checking for flavor and texture before he put it in his cart. I watched a deli counter attendant hand a slice of turkey to a customer before they spent four dollars on a half-pound of sandwich goods.
So what about fish? Why the mystery? What’s to hide, Mr. Retailer? The only way we can change the system is to change our behavior. We all recognize dried or spoiling chicken or oxidized meat at the grocery store when it’s going bad, but what about fish? We smell our produce, so why not check that fillet with a proper sniff before it’s wrapped up and in the cart? Consumers need to be the final step in quality control.
Look for fresh, firm flesh, a clean smell/aroma, clear eyes, and bright, red gills on whole fish. Bruises and spotting can be cut away on the flesh side of a filet – ask to see the skin side. Look for clean and consistent color and appearance without streaks, alterations, or color changes (which indicate interior bruising or improper handling).
If you can afford to, buy more than you need for the recipe at hand. Once you have a nice piece of fish in your kitchen, use what you need for the meal you’re preparing, and simply bake/steam/poach/grill the rest. I do that with all of my salmon, so I have healthy snacks, cooked fish for salmon salads and other meals in my fridge. It saves money, time, and improves our family wellness.
Last tip – when it comes to cooking fish, less is more. Always.
Cook it how you like – fresh, healthy fish doesn’t need much done to it other than some simple seasoning. If you are looking for great recipes, especially for Verlasso salmon, there are loads of them on my website.
We all need more education on the real world issues surrounding our global and national food system. After all, we are what we eat – literally. We also swim in food culturally; it’s our most powerful totem. That means the big picture issues of economic and environmental sustainability are vital to our civic responsibility as good global citizens.
On an individual level, I am often asked what we can do each day to make a difference? I believe being an informed consumer is what we should aspire to. We must understand the issues at hand with the meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and dairy we consume.
Our ongoing learning is vital to this process. The good news is that we can act our way into making a better world through our personal food choices, while at the same time making the world more equitable. This is critical because so many of us don’t enjoy the freedom of choice with what we eat. That’s criminal.
For those who do have that choice, I would insist they pay attention to companies that care about what they do in the water. I would insist they buy food from companies that create jobs in places where there has been an economic downturn. I think companies that care about those issues also care for their product quality all along their supply chain. I have seen that firsthand in Chile on my visits to where Verlasso raises their salmon, and it’s why I believe so strongly in what they and like-minded fish farmers are doing in the world.
Curious to see seafood farming done right? Join me on my journey as I explore Verlasso’s salmon farm.