Americans have been thoroughly schooled in recent years about the health benefits of eating more fish and seafood. Few, however, hear much about the enormous threats of commercial over-fishing and perilously depleted fisheries in U.S. and global waters, or about the alternatives for sustainable seafood choices from American aquaculture.
Awakening public interest in these issues and the hope of promoting more sustainable approaches to selecting seafood for dinner, however, has prompted enlightened research-oriented aquariums, including the Tennessee Aquarium at Chattanooga's riverfront, to help tackle the problem.
Enter the Tennessee Aquarium's new "Protect & Serve" initiative, and the kickoff events the Aquarium and its culinary partners are offering this weekend.
The Aquarium launched the event with a fund-raiser Thursday that featured celebrity chef Alton Brown, a cook well-known for his Food Channel shows. Brown explained why choosing sustainable seafood from American aquaculture is critical to the recovery of natural fisheries, and demonstrated his skills with recipes for his five favorite U.S. aqua-farmed, sustainable seafood choices -- catfish, trout, Maine lobsters, oysters and shrimp, all of which thrive in healthy aquaculture environments.
Chefs from seven of the city's best downtown restaurants -- Hennen's, 212 Market, Table 2, Broad Street Grille, Porter's Steakhouse, St. John's and GreenLife Grocery -- prepared dishes with these seafood choices for the event, and are featuring these choices at their restaurants over the weekend. On Sunday, they also will participate in a public "cast-iron cook-off" at the Chattanooga Market.
The Tennessee's Aquarium's "Protect & Serve" initiative deserves support because it reflects the seriousness of the issue of overfishing and the consequent threat to the ecological health of the world's oceans, which is, in turn, a critical factor in human health and climate change around the globe.
Americans who live away from coastal fishing centers may not be familiar with the devastating impact of decades of overfishing in fisheries in U.S. waters and elsewhere around the globe. Nor are many aware of the astonishing capacity of modern commercial fishing fleets and gear -- often subsidized and deployed by poorer countries -- to deplete fisheries and drive the most desirable species of fish to the brink of extinction.
Cod, salmon, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, swordfish, sailfish, sharks and many other popular types of fish have declined precipitously, along with other sea life, including dolphins and most species of sea turtles. Top-of-the-food chain predators like the magnificent bluefin tuna -- which can reach 1,500 pounds and breeds in just two of the world's fisheries -- are down to around to 10 percent of their numbers just a few decades ago. So are sharks, which are slaughtered for their fins as readily as bluefin tuna are killed for sushi.
These and other popular sea animals are nearing commercial extinction. Even when long-line and drift-net fishing trawlers observe national and international catch limits, these animals are trapped and tossed aside as part of the fishing industry's tragically wasteful by-catch component.
Aquaculture fish farms, in the ocean and in freshwater ponds around the world, cannot effectively produce healthy predator fish because they cannot replicate their natural conditions and food stocks. Salmon trapped in ocean ponds become infected with disease and sea lice, and are further contaminated by inadequate feed and antibiotics. Chinese and South American tilapia farms, which produce most of the world's commercial tilapia, are notoriously toxic and low in omega oils.
Brown, a student of the demise of sea life, encourages people to eat his five favorite species of American aquaculture, which he praises as the cleanest, healthiest and best-regulated seafood sources in the world. He specifically recommends catfish and trout from well-managed fish farms in Sequatchie Valley and North Carolina, and sustainably harvested Maine lobsters. He also reasonably urges Americans to ask where their seafood comes from. Large grocery store chains are required to post their seafood sources, but small independent stores are not.
Citizens, as well, should urge Congress to defeat a current House bill, H.R. 2304, deceptively named as the Fishery Science Improvement Act. It would reverse course on successful efforts to restore America's fisheries. The bill is just one example of why fisheries are being depleted, and why American aquaculture should become the mainstay source for local seafood.