Jennifer Burns Bright wants people to try something different the next time fish is slated for dinner.
Bright gave a “Fish Tales: Traditions and Challenges of Seafood in Oregon” presentation Friday night in Port Orford as part of the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project, which seeks to engage citizens in pertinent issues of the day.
Bright taught food studies at the University of Oregon before moving to Port Orford — and said she has learned so much more, about the industry, the fishermen and their families and others working on the docks.
“When you live across the Coast Range, you don’t really understand what goes on over here,” she said. “When I began, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But living here enabled me to connect the dots.”
Those dots start as microorganisms in the ocean and go up the food chain to accountability in the market.
Americans really don’t eat a lot of food that comes out of the sea — 15.5 pounds per person each year, Bright said. That compares to 480 pounds of vegetable and 175 pounds of grain products.
Of those 15.5 pounds, the bulk — shrimp, salmon and canned tuna — comprise 55 percent of the average American’s diet. Ten species, Bright said, represent 90 percent of what Americans eat.
“We have a pretty non-diverse diet,” she said. “We eat a lot of farmed salmon, a lot of canned tuna. It’s a huge, huge industry.”
But farmed fish — originally believed to be a way to avoid decimating native species at sea — have been getting a bad rap of late, she said. And people increasingly want to know where their food originates and how it was farmed.
Take shrimp, for example, she said. Many larger-sized shrimp are farmed in Asia in fetid pools, often in water so laden with bacteria the shrimp must undergo bleach washings or antibiotic innoculations before they can be shipped overseas to the United States for consumption.
Bright also spoke of store-bought fish that sometimes are on the shelves — frozen and on ice — but slowly losing their taste, color and texture.
“Filets at least a week old are deteriorating,” she said. “They’re actually rotting. It’s really a gamble I know I don’t want to take.”
Taste tests at the Food Innovation Center in Portland have shown that fish bought at the dock or flash-frozen are among the best — and they’re readily available in all Curry County’s coastal cities.
Yet, Americans still import 90 percent of their seafood, with a full two-thirds coming from China, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Chile. Some of that originated in the U.S., was shipped overseas for processing and shipped back as processed food products, Bright said.
The other third of that comes primarily from Alaska, Louisiana, Washington, the Virgin Islands and California.
“Oregon, though, is the biggest live-fish fishery, from Seattle to Los Angeles,” Bright said. “And yet, 90 percent of that goes out.”
The largest number, volume and percentage of fish pulled from the sea, however, doesn’t even make it to dinner plates. Most ends up as animal food, fertilizer, supplements and fish-farm pellets — “feeding wild fish to farmed fish,” Bright said.
There are ethical issues to consider before making purchases, as well.
In Asia, people desperate for jobs are often “hired” onto boats that take them out to sea to work — as indentured servants, paying off the costs to keep them — for years. Conditions at many fish farms are abysmal, Bright said, with ponds clogged with algae that consume the oxygen and starve the fish. The density of fish in pens increases the odds of them catching diseases.
Plastics are becoming another concern throughout the world, as is increasing water temperatures and acidity levels due to global warming and domoic acid outbreaks on the West Coast, which affects the catch — and a community’s pocketbook.
A breach in a fish pen last year in Puget Sound introduced hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Ocean — an invasive species invasion that has yet to play out, Bright said.
Other elements that come into play — and are under the radar for most Americans — include how processing companies play into the equation. The top five processors in Oregon buy 70 percent of the catch, Bright said. That’s good for the consumer who relies on consistency and the fisherman who will always have a buyer — but it brings up questions of monopolies and price fixing.
Pacific Seafood is the largest processor on the coast, with 40 plants in the U.S., Bright said. If it succeeds in purchasing Trident Seafood — that proposal is wrapped up in litigation — it could also corner a market on ice.
Other fish in the sea
People are missing out on so much by only eating the top predators on the food chain, too, Bright said.
At the base of the seafood triangle is seaweed, from which healthy salads and supplements are made. Hake, skate, anchovy, bivalves and squid offer a different culinary experience few companies market.
Albacore and salmon, America’s favorite fish to eat, are at the tip of the seafood triangle and bring with them other concerns. For starters, those larger fish feed off smaller fish that have consumed such items as plastics and mercury. When the little fish is eaten by a larger fish that is eaten by the largest fish, those contaminants go with it — and to the plates of people everywhere.
Think different, Bright suggested.
Americans have yet to find a love for gooseneck barnacles, the savory dulce and whiting. Surimi, which is whiting and pollock cooked down to make fake crab, can be flavored — even as ham — or made into gluten-free noodles.
“That’s protein for the masses,” Bright said. And if people demand it, companies will deliver.
She displayed a box of fish sticks from the 1950s that advertised the ease of cooking them; the same company 70 years later advertises health. Today’s box of fish sticks says they’re made of Alaskan pollock — that sounds wild and sustainable and healthy, Bright noted. “Fifty-percent less fat” can mean there’s more breading.
“Think about your values,” she said. “The market is thinking that for you. Depending what you want from food, they’ll market to it.”
But farm-fishermen see this, too, and are changing their methods as wild fish populations decline, Bright noted.
For example, some farm with stacks of crab traps in the ocean that feature sugar kelp on the top level that shelter and feed black cod. Shellfish are on the bottom tier, eating everything the cod drops as they feed. Other fish meander in between.
The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project has almost 40 topics from which to choose, ranging from affordable housing to immigration, food systems and dying. Facilitators link topics to the local community and challenge participants to think in new ways.
Videos and more information are available at oregonhumanities.org.