Chomping at the Bit


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
June 10, 2009

Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer who's penned the "Minimalist" columns for years, promotes simple, no-fuss meals made with honest ingredients that even someone with two left spatulas can follow. His books, like "How to Cook Everything," are accessible if not humbly titled. But his column in yesterday's Times, "Loving Fish, This Time With the Fish in Mind," begs a polite rebuttal.

Bittman longs for the good-old days when scallops were from Maine, swordfish from Massachusetts and pompano from Florida, everything fresh off the hook. Who doesn't share his pining for when life was simpler and fish stocks were decidedly more robust than they are now? However, the seafood industry's answers to dwindling supplies amid growing demand - aquaculture and global trade - aren't Bittman's chowder of choice, so he's only eating about one-third of the seafood he used to. Seafood buying, he says, has become a "logistical and ethical nightmare."

Some of what he writes is agreeable, namely that being virtuous is often vexing. Seafood-buying guides can inadvertently add to the confusion over what seafood species are responsible choices, partly because their messages aren't always congruent. And not everybody cares to learn the difference between gillnets and drift nets or how much fish oil goes into fish feed. Most consumers prefer a farmed salmon to an anchovy, though, which illustrates how difficult changing consumer behavior can be. Taste buds aren't directly connected to the conscience.

It makes little sense to forsake eating fish and tell others to follow, because there are seafood options that are plentiful and prudent. Plus, the health benefits are too great to give up, especially for women and children, who are repeatedly warned to limit their consumption. Giving only passing mention, as Bittman does, to the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified the world's biggest wild whitefish and salmon supplies as sustainable, is regrettable. Not mentioning 50 years of sustainable seafood from Alaska is reproachable.

In a November 2008 column, "A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish," Bittman cited a 2006 Science article that predicted the collapse of wild fisheries by 2048 if current catch rates continue, a "study" that had long since been debunked as sensationalist and lacking credibility. Unfortunately, the work of Boris Worm continues to be casually referenced by environmental activists with anti-seafood agendas, as evidenced by Ted Danson's appearance on CNN on Monday, the inaugural World Oceans Day.

With this United Nations-designated day, along with the release of the documentary "End of the Line," it's again fashionable to condemn the fishing industry and vilify fish farms. But to think that the seafood industry en masse isn't aware of sustainability and the need for conservation is foolish. Change takes time, effort, money and a commodity that's increasingly rare: patience.

Bittman says the situation isn't hopeless. But when it comes to doing objective reporting, a minimalist he is. It's a trait shared by the Times' food editors, who repeatedly print critical articles about seafood with no input from the industry itself, only to run a less-heralded correction a few days later. The days of "read it/believe it" are gone.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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