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For two decades, “Save the Bay” has been a rallying cry for environmental advocates and politicians across our region. But few people understand the precarious health of the Chesapeake better than those who make their livelihoods from the food that comes out it. Public officials are now working closely with people in the food business to make fisheries more profitable, accessible and sustainable. We learn about new strategies to take on the Bay’s old problems – and how they may involve your dinner plate.
- Mark Bryer Director, Chesapeake Bay Program, The Nature Conservancy
- Steve Vilnit Maryland Department of Natural Resources
- Barton Seaver National Geographic Fellow; Chef and Certified Sommelier; Author, "For Cod and Country" (Sterling Epicure)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. The best view into the health of the Chesapeake Bay could be the one from your dinner plate. And if public officials had their way, there would be a lot more local seafood ending up on it -- your dinner plate, that is.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Maryland Department of Natural Resources, for example, has been busy taking local chefs out on the water this year to sell them on the idea of putting everything from croaker to crab to snakehead on their menus. They've rearranged weekly fishing days to accommodate weekend demand at restaurants, and they're trying to kick-start oyster recovery efforts.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut can the people responsible for the Chesapeake's fisheries make them more profitable, accessible and sustainable all at the same time? Joining us to explore the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay is Barton Seaver. He's a chef, cookbook author, environmental activist and Washington native. He's a National Geographic fellow, and his new cookbook is called "For Cod and Country." Barton, always a pleasure.
MR. BARTON SEAVERAlways a pleasure, Kojo. Thanks for having me back on.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Mark Brayer. He is the director of the Chesapeake Bay Program at The Nature Conservancy. Mark Bryer, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK BRYERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Steve Vilnit is -- he does commercial fisheries outreach and marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Steve Vilnit, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEVE VILNITThanks for having me on.
NNAMDIOf course, you, too, can join this Food Wednesday conversation at 800-433-8850. What would make you think harder about buying local more often when it comes to seafood from the Chesapeake Bay? 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'll start with you, Steve.
NNAMDIA lot of food people like to think that they're intimately familiar with the food that comes out of the Chesapeake Bay. But you have spent the past several months taking chefs, restaurateurs, academics, anyone that will go with you out on a boat to the Chesapeake...
NNAMDI...to learn more about the place. Why do you do it, and what do you show them?
VILNITYeah, I think, you know, the main reason why we're doing is -- you know, the fact is about 70 percent of the seafood in this country goes through the restaurant industry. Helping these guys to reconnect with the local watershed and actually see the watermen face-to-face helps build value for it. You know, everybody gets a box of seafood at their backdoor as a restaurant, and you may or may not know exactly where it comes from.
VILNITTo go out there and meet a waterman and understand it and shake his hand and see the troubles that he goes through to harvest that product, it really helps to build the value and helps to create a connection.
NNAMDIOh, I was -- I think you may have already answered my next question. But I'll ask it anyway because, as you mentioned, many of these business folks you're taking on your boat could save a lot of money buying cheaper stuff from other parts of the country, that box at the backdoor that you mentioned. What's the sell you make on them to buy from the bay?
VILNITI mean, you're looking at -- in terms of how fresh it is. You know, if you're buying crabmeat from Venezuela or tuna from the Marshall Islands, we're talking product that's come out of the water this morning and is at your backdoor later on this evening. You can't -- I mean, freshness is what it's all about in restaurants.
VILNITYou know, Barton says in his book, you know, the best way of cooking is to start with the freshest ingredients. And, you know, that's true. And to show these guys exactly where the product is coming from, it really helps.
NNAMDIYou're answering all of my questions beforehand...
NNAMDI...because my next question was for Barton. And that is, have you ever been out on the water with Steve?
SEAVERI've not been out with Steve, but I actually...
NNAMDIWhat do you think a chef or a restaurateur can learn from being out there that they can't at a market or from a wholesaler?
SEAVERWell, I think it's very important to understand as a chef that ecosystems do not work in the same way that we have commoditized the products that come from them. As Steve was saying, we look at an order sheet, and it just has a list of species. Well, you talk to a fisherman. They put a fishing net in the water. They're not sure what's going to come up. It's menhaden. It's croaker. It's porgies. It's sheepshead. It's mackerels.
SEAVERIt's Boston mackerel, stripers, juvenile. I mean, there's a whole ecosystem at play here. And yet we really place all of our -- the burden of our consumption on very few species. And so chefs really have the opportunity to explore not only how the ecosystem works but also how the ecosystem of processing works, how that product gets from the fisherman's hands into -- to their backdoor.
SEAVERAnd that's another very important part of the sustainable local dialogue.
NNAMDISteve, to what extent are the people you take out even fully aware of what all is available in the bay? It's my understanding that you spent the summer selling folks on stuff like croaker.
VILNITYeah, there's a lot of species available from the bay. You know, stripe bass -- rockfish and blue crab are obviously two of the superstars in the bay. But there's a ton of species that come there, and they're underutilized. You know, croaker has an unfortunate name, that it doesn't sound, you know, as appealing as a rockfish or a Chilean sea bass. But it doesn't mean it's any less delicious.
VILNITAnd I think by getting them out there and understanding this and actually seeing one. If you look at, you know, the price list that Barton mentioned, you see croaker on there, and you're like, I'm going to avoid that. But if you go out there and see it and, you know, work with it and see the fisherman, then you're going to give it a shot at least. And that's all I'm asking these restaurants to do.
NNAMDIWe talked with John Shields earlier this spring -- the public television host and the chef at Gertrude's Restaurant in Baltimore. He told us that he's been leaning pretty heavily on weekly email blasts that you send out alerting restaurants about what catches are like, what fish is available and when they can get it. What information do you put out in those blasts, and when did you start doing it?
VILNITI've been with the Department of Natural Resources for about a year now, and I started doing it right away. I think the best thing to do is if you gave these chefs the information, they're more likely to put stuff on the menu. If they know the season for striped bass is opening in a few weeks, it will be on the menu when the season opens versus learning about it secondhand and putting it on a week later.
VILNITAnd you're losing a week of good sales there just because it wasn't on the menu right away.
NNAMDIAnd not to confuse our listeners, if they see rockfish on the menu, that's striped bass. But here's Barton Seaver.
SEAVERWell, the other thing is that chefs are expected to have certain species on their menus. You know, we expect to go into a restaurant and find salmon, scallops, swordfish, shrimp, whatever the kind of commodity species, the things that we're used to.
SEAVERAnd so chefs have -- or a little anathema of putting something like croaker on a menu next to those species because, of course, the scallops and the shrimp and the salmon are going to sell a lot better than -- what's that? The croaker.
SEAVERYou know, but if they have a story to tell behind it, some of the information that Steve is relaying virtually through these emails -- if they go out on the water and see this, that passion, that enthusiasm, that story really jumps those fish right off the menu and actually creates sales opportunities within the restaurants and for the wait staff as well.
NNAMDIMark Bryer, you've been nodding, yes?
BRYERYes. Just to build on the points that Steve and Barton are making, it's fundamentally critical, I think, for the sustainability of the Chesapeake and the fisheries that are in there to essentially do what they're doing, which is education. They're building an understanding of the resources that the Chesapeake provides, connecting it locally with people.
BRYERHopefully, those restaurateurs are then reaching out to their staff and to their customers, so that they understand where these resources are coming from. And then their customers and all of us can become better stewards.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. What are your favorite places to hunt for local or seasonal seafood in the Washington region? 800-433-8850. Steve, of all of the food you've pushed so far in these weekly blasts, which of them has surprised you the most with how chefs and restaurateurs have responded?
VILNITI think yellow perch was one that really, actually, surprised me. Here's a small-scale fishery, just over 40,000 pounds for a total allowable catch for the year. These watermen were historically getting 85 cents to a dollar a pound. The product was just being frozen and shipped off to the Midwest to be mixed in with the fish from the Great Lakes. We did a campaign to keep it local, keep it fresh, keep it in the restaurants here and really highlighted it.
VILNITAnd this year, the guys got anywhere from $2 to $2.50 a pound for their fish versus the 85 cents to a dollar. And it was just by keeping it local and keeping it fresh and letting the restaurants here try it.
NNAMDIBarton, take us behind the curtain for a minute. When you were still a chef working restaurants, how did you make decisions about where you were buying your fish, and what you wanted to get? Did you lean on any resources like the one that Steve puts out regularly now?
SEAVERAbsolutely. But back then, and still, chefs really have to hunt for information. The common communication method of the sustainable talk on seafood is through the wallet guides produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, available as iPhone apps, you know, in any form. But those really don't take the story down to the regional level. And so it was very hard and very difficult to get accurate information.
SEAVERBut I was dealing directly with a lot of fishermen. And the problem here is that the supply chain, the profit model, is based on a lack of transparency. And so there isn't a lot of information. Commodities are low margins, and they are based -- that specter of rarity allows people to buy and sell and trade off that. And it really disincentivizes the flow of information through the system.
NNAMDIMark, let's look at this effort from an ecological perspective for a minute. What effects do you think this trend toward localism has had on the marine life in the Chesapeake?
BRYERWell, I think, fundamentally, it's essential for us to bring back the health of the Chesapeake to a level beyond where it is now, which is not where, I think, anybody would like to see it. I think by creating a demand, a local demand for products from the Chesapeake, you do a whole bunch of different things. You build local economies. You get fresh seafood for people who can enjoy that as opposed to shipping things across the country or across the world.
BRYERAnd, thirdly, you connect local individuals by eating striped bass in the summertime when they're most fresh and available. And, by doing so, you are making those people connected not only to what they do perhaps on their property or what's happening in their state in terms of management of the land, but also understanding how the waterman is living, understanding how we manage these resources into the future.
BRYERSo by creating that local demand for seafood, I think, you're creating a constituency that maybe hasn't existed as much as we'd like it to in the past.
SEAVERWell, something that's really shocking, and a lot of people don't understand this, and I get this question a lot from Midwesterners who say, well, where can I find fresh fish? You know, where can I find good products? And I say, you know, 84 percent of all the seafood that we eat in America is imported. We export 60 percent of the seafood that we catch in America.
SEAVERSo even if you live on the coast, most likely, the seafood that you're eating came from very, very far away. And so by beginning to really invest in and help restore the economic profitability and viability and environmental viability of local fisheries, we're beginning to really kind of answer a whole lot of questions and really help to restore the profitability and also the value of fishermen in our community.
BRYERAnd, Kojo, I know you've dealt with this topic before, dealing with pollution flowing into the Chesapeake.
BRYERAnd one of the big issues we have is building the constituency of the people who live in all the lands that drain to the Chesapeake. What better way to do that than to have them be users and admirers and lovers of the seafood that come from the bay?
NNAMDIWell, let's look at the other side of that coin for a second, in terms of the sustainability. Is it possible that the health of the bay could be a victim of too much success on this front? Could there be enough of a demand that resources are drained or strained in the Chesapeake?
BRYERI'll look to Steve to help me answer this question, but I would say, if we get to that point, at some point in the future, we should be so lucky.
VILNITThere's actually very strong management plans in place for all these species. So we're looking at it carefully. We're not managing for the seafood industry, necessarily. We're managing to make sure that a sustainable system is in place. When you're getting your seafood from somewhere else in the world, you don't know what's going on.
VILNITSo, you know, if someone is looking to eat sustainably, yes, there might be a fishery in Ecuador who's doing a great job. But it's not necessarily the case. They don't have the laws that we do in place, the regulations. All the fisheries that we have here are being looked at very carefully.
VILNITAnd we're looking at a system of -- instead of harvesting more for these watermen to make more money, we're looking at helping them make more for the product they're currently catching, so that it's -- you know, it's keeping it...
NNAMDIIndeed, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources recently started a new effort to get oysters, as The Washington Post put it, to procreate like crazy. How would you say that program is going?
VILNITIt seems to be going really well. The natural spat set this year was increased definitely. The work that Oyster Recovery Partnership is doing to put oysters back in the bay is fantastic. In the past nine years, they've put 2.5 billion baby oysters back in the bay. So there is a lot work being done. The sanctuary levels are increasing to make sure that they're protected.
VILNITAnd we're looking to get watermen from doing the traditional harvest methods of the wild oysters over to aquaculture.
NNAMDIWell, we have a caller, Phil. Gentlemen, don your headphones, please. Phil in Bethesda, Md., I think Steve has some advice for you. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHILHi, Kojo. It's very interesting to hear that good things are happening about marketing and the fisheries and employing the fishermen of Chesapeake Bay. So much depends on people's taste, which is very, very fickle. In the 17th century in Massachusetts, there were laws passed to how often a -- an owner could -- or someone could feed their indentured servants lobster because it was considered a trash fish. Well, look at it now.
PHILThe Chilean sea bass is not Chilean and is not a bass, I understand. Why not name the croaker something like the chopped tank beauty or the wunderkind or something?
NNAMDIWait a minute, we're writing. We're writing. Go ahead.
VILNITMy wife actually suggested that we call it delicious fish.
PHILYes, right. But give it a Chesapeake name, market the hell out of it, and, you know, you've got a start. Good luck.
NNAMDIYou have made an entirely plausible suggestion. Barton Seaver.
SEAVERI think you're absolutely right. And marketing is key. And I speak to this point that, I think, the guiding hand of natural selection has really become that of the consumer. And the consumer has really -- preferences are driven by chefs. And you're absolutely right. Chilean sea bass wasn't in our cultural lexicon 30 years ago. Bluefin tuna even, now, you know, on the brink of extermination, was trash fish. It was cat food 40 years ago.
SEAVERMonkfish, other things like this -- chefs can really drive this consumer demand. And so it stands to reason that if we have the power to destroy by creating popularity, therefore, we can also drive consumer demand to help restore and actually help to evolve sustainable fishing economies alongside of sustainable fishing policies so that the fishermen aren't seen as villains or as the problem.
SEAVERBut fishermen and fishing communities are really seen in this dialogue as the greatest asset and ally that we have in order to promote and perpetuate ocean's resiliency.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. It's a Food Wednesday conversation on the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Where do environmentalism and sustainability fit in to the choices you make at the grocery store or at the restaurants? Call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Food Wednesday conversation on The Bounty on the Chesapeake Bay. We're talking with Mark Bryer. He's director of the Chesapeake Bay Program at The Nature Conservancy. Steve Vilnit does commercial fisheries outreach and marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. And Barton Seaver is a chef, cookbook author, environmental activist and Washington native.
NNAMDIHe's a National Geographic fellow, and his new cookbook is called "For Cod and Country." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Barton, in the years that you've been pounding the pavement on this issue, have you noticed any cultural differences in the ways how restaurants approach these issues now?
SEAVERI think the biggest cultural difference is we're realizing that there's value in the story. Before, we were just selling a product. And I think this is -- also speaks to the evolution of the sustainability movement at large.
SEAVERI think that kind of the overarching narrative of sustainability is not about finding more products or doing something new but rather by gleaning more value from the products that we're already using, connecting back to the communities, using community dollars to provide for and create community services, whether it's, you know -- and that dialogue is so apparent in the local farming community.
SEAVERBut sustainability is about connecting people to their products. And fishermen, restaurateurs, chefs are beginning to understand that customers appreciate and will create a greater loyalty through a discussion of those relationships that bring the food to our plates.
NNAMDIIndeed. Steve, how would you describe the relationship between sustainability and localism?
VILNITYou know, we see these chefs. They go out to the farms. They look at their berries. They look at their tomatoes. They look at their spinach. They even go out and look at their pigs and their cattle that they're using in the restaurant. But going out and seeing your seafood is extremely difficult. It's the last hunted species on earth.
VILNITSo we have to get the -- by getting the chefs out there and helping them understand that, like Mark said, the watershed is important and that the quality of the water is extremely important and that we need to protect these species, you know, it helps to build that sustainable movement there.
NNAMDIYour department is a part of an effort to get restaurants throughout the Chesapeake Watershed to feature food from the bay on their menus for a week in October. Tell us about the From the Bay, For the Bay Program. What's it all about?
VILNITBasically, it's just a way to raise awareness for the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the works that are being done there, as well as celebrate Maryland seafood. We have over 200 restaurants participating. They're going to feature at least one item of Maryland seafood on the menu for the entire week, and a dollar from each dish is going to back to the Oyster Recovery Partnership to fund their efforts.
VILNITThis $1 donation, which is nothing -- it's going out for a delicious meal -- is simply going to be able to put in hundreds of oysters back for each dollar that is donated.
NNAMDIWell, we've got a caller and a couple of emails with an issue that, I think, needs to be addressed. The email from A.J. says, "With all of the pollution coming into the bay from the Susquehanna River as a result of the rains from tropical storm Lee, is the seafood coming from the bay safe to eat? What about the microbacteria (sic) in the striped bass?"
NNAMDIAnd this from Candy in Maryland, "Consumers have been bombarded in recent years by news reports about massive illegal black market's dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay, agriculture runoff and sewage spills and fish with lesions. In addition, some fish, including striped bass, still carry warnings about the maximum number of portions you can safely eat.
NNAMDI"The number of juvenile striped bass, the next generation have been below average for the last several years. And the Federal Regulatory Commission that oversees striped bass is contemplating action at its November meeting to address the public perception shared by some scientists that the striped bass is in trouble. In the face of all of that, why should people trust the quality of Maryland fish?"
NNAMDIAnd here's one more. Mike in Hancock, Md., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEOh, man. This is the real irony because I'm a local boy. I bring my food into Washington to sell, but my neighbors have all -- and myself -- we've all stopped eating anything on our creek that flows into Potomac that flows to the Chesapeake because of endocrine disruption. The male bass have female egg sacs.
MIKEAnd I feel strongly, ironically again, it's the farm lobby that stops good legislation when Sen. Cardin, for instance, proposed this legislation to clean up the bay or a local legislation to reduce the use of chemicals like (word?). Nothing passes because of the fear of state legislators who can't go up against the farm lobby to stop the pollution of the bay.
BRYERWell, it's a great point. I think, certainly, on the safety side of things, in both states, both Maryland and Virginia have significant programs within the state that are there to ensure the safety of seafood coming out of the Chesapeake. So I think consumers should feel comfortable with that.
BRYERTo the broader issue of the relationship between the land's impacts on the Chesapeake, I don't think any place in the world do you see a tighter linkage between what we do on the land to the impacts that we see in the Chesapeake.
BRYERAnd, you know, to the points that we were having -- we were talking about earlier with regards to building the constituency of local demand, I can't think of a better way to encourage people and talk with the government about investing and protecting and restoring the watershed and, certainly, the clean water that comes out of the watershed to sustain those resources into the future.
BRYERSustainability from a fish standpoint, it is really dependent upon what's coming out of the watershed. And I think the more we can create a local demand for seafood coming out of the bay, the better chance we have of restoring and protecting the watershed and having a clean habit -- a clean and healthy habitat for those fish and crabs that we want to eat.
SEAVERSome of the chemicals that you mentioned, the endocrine disruptors, the Prozac, all sorts of stuff that's in our water, that's a really tough issue to address. But in terms of just nutrification, the number one planted crop in the Chesapeake Bay watershed area is, in fact, lawn grass. And we go out every spring, right, when it's nice and rainy and the soil is nice and porous. And we spray our fertilizer on. And it runs off, and it runs down into the bay.
SEAVERNow, nutrients are what keeps the bay alive. Nutrients should be there. They need to be there. This is how systems work. But, unfortunately, we're putting in more nutrients. But then, in the bay itself, we've removed the plumbing that usually handles those nutrients, the oysters. You know, oysters used to be a navigation hazard to early settlers and sailors.
SEAVERThe reefs were literally so large, they stuck out of the water and had to be avoid -- I mean, boats crashed all the time.
NNAMDIWhat -- they could be that large again.
SEAVERYou know, whales used to swim in the Chesapeake Bay, giant sharks. You know, and then the other major kind of keystone species here is the menhaden.
NNAMDII was about to get to that. Go ahead.
SEAVERMenhaden and oysters both perform a very vital and necessary ecosystem function in that they filter the waterways of these nutrients. They then pass these nutrients on into more bio-accessible forms for either other fish or compact them into the benthic system. And so it creates a whole nutrient transfer cycle.
SEAVERSo, unfortunately, not only are we putting nutrients in, we've removed too much of the plumbing that handles it. And the bay itself is just -- yeah, it's a mess.
NNAMDIWell, Mark, so many people seem to fear that the Washington region dodged a bullet when Hurricane Irene came through last month. But people who studied the bay are worried that all of the runoff and overflows caused by Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have unleashed some form of hell on the Chesapeake. What are your concerns?
BRYERA number of concerns, Kojo. First of all, you're right. The one-two punch from those two storms were -- are significant, still significant. I drove over the Bay Bridge a couple days ago and saw, essentially, what was chocolate milk with a lot of debris in it. And no one wants to see that. We're not going to be able to control -- first of all, we're not going to be able to control Mother Nature.
BRYERThese big flood events are going to happen, and the impacts on fisheries are going to happen as well, in at least two forms. One, we change the salinity of the Chesapeake when we have a huge rain event like what -- especially what we saw with Tropical Storm Lee. And that's a troubling factor for oysters. Oysters can tolerate freshwater, but only for a day or two.
BRYERSo there are a lot of folks out there, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, you know, they're monitoring that situation right now. The second issue, and maybe the more concerning one, is sediment. With that much water moving downstream, rivers naturally move sediment. But with that much water -- this was the second biggest flood recorded on the Susquehanna River -- it moves a ton of sediment.
BRYERAnd, unfortunately, it moves a lot of it at once because the dams that are on the Susquehanna River literally scour out the sediment from behind those dams and deliver them to the upper Chesapeake in one big punch, particularly the upper Chesapeake, which is essential for crabs and striped bass habitat.
BRYERThe good news, the ray of hope that I'll leave you with is that it happened at a different time of the year than the previous largest flood, which was...
NNAMDIWhich was 1972, Agnes.
BRYERExactly. Agnes happened in June, just before fish were spawning or as fish were spawning -- huge impacts. Lee just happened last week, and, fortunately, we already had that cycle of life take place earlier in the summer. So we're hoping that we don't have as many impacts from the storm.
SEAVERWell -- and to bring it back to a ray of hope and what our listeners can do, the Chesapeake Bay is an incredibly resilient ecosystem. Floods happen in nature. They're supposed to happen. It's part of the system. The problem is that we've eaten too many of the products that encourage and create that resiliency, the oyster reefs, the menhaden and the other fish.
SEAVERAnd by continuing to support local fishermen, local aquaculture, local oyster farming, we're actually encouraging and incentivizing, literally funding with our consumer dollars, the restoration of these resilient systems. And so that's a big opportunity we have as consumer, to literally eat our way out of the problems we face.
NNAMDIHere's Brooks in -- on Chesapeake Bay, Md. Brooks you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BROOKSThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to say, number one, what a great show. And you always have an interesting show, but this is particularly a strong one, I think. Second, I -- for the folks who were thinking about the pollution event that just happened from the storms, I just flew in on a flight from Boston, which came right over the northern Chesapeake. And the brown plume is huge, and it's down farther south in Baltimore Harbor.
BROOKSIt is quite striking because, when you see the water from the Patapsco coming in, it's quite blue. But the -- it's entering a giant brown soup as the panelist said. So that's got to be significant. But my question, though, was, when you're thinking about -- first of all, it's very exciting to think about using the economy and the consumer economy of fish in the Chesapeake to help restore the bay. That's a wonderful thought.
BROOKSBut I wonder also, are you thinking about it in a way that involves reassembling the ecosystem? In other words, this is a damaged ecosystem. There aren't the predators that were there before. We know that the top predators are important in structuring the system.
BROOKSIs there a strategy through this method that you folks are talking about to actually to restore the system so that it starts to function something like what it was functioning in the 1600s?
BRYERI think it's a terrific question. And back to a point that Barton made that -- in particular, a big focus of the Nature Conservancy's work, Maryland DNR, the Oyster Recovery Partnership on oyster reefs. Oyster reefs, as Barton was saying, provide this incredible filtering capacity, but they also build habitat. Barton was saying, when John Smith first sailed up the Chesapeake, he was -- had to navigate around them, they were so thick and dense and high.
BRYERIn part, trying to restore those -- that feature, that three-dimensional reef, we know that grows fish. And we know rockfish are termed rockfish because they like to forage. They like to eat around oyster rocks, what watermen traditionally call oyster reefs.
NNAMDII just learned something. I didn't know why they were called rockfish.
BRYERSo rebuilding those habitats is an essential part of -- essentially, of rebuilding this ecosystem in a way that's functioning more like it was 3- or 400 years ago.
NNAMDIBack to fish, we got an email from Domenica (sp?) for Barton. "Can you, please, ask Barton how he uses some of the local fish that he and other guests are talking about? What, for example, can you do with croaker besides fry it? I've heard it's really boney. Maybe he could describe a few recipes in his book. I'm always looking for new ways to prepare seafood," says Domenica.
SEAVERSure. Well, thanks for the question. Americans suffer, I think, in their consideration of seafood, from an attachment to names. Oh, I love snapper. Oh, I love salmon. Oh, I love tuna. Well, do you love orange fish that's, you know, flakey and sweet and has a nice dense aftertaste that's meaty and, you know, fun? You know, you like snapper because it's flakey, white flesh fish with a mild, sweet aftertaste and a thin skin that crisps up really nicely.
SEAVERWell, you know, what we actually like about fish are the characteristics of them, not the names of them. So substitute -- you know, fish should really be a -- dinner, when you're considering fish, should really be a Mad Lib. It should be blank with broccoli and fennel and sweet potatoes and blah, and you fill that in with white flesh, flakey, crispy fish. Well, that's croaker.
SEAVERThat's barramundi. That's yellow perch. That's striped bass. That's flounder. You know, all of a sudden, you're talking -- you've opened yourself up to a category that's huge and broad. But speaking specifically to croaker and to perch, these are -- tend to be smaller fish, even when they're harvested at full maturity. And so they are a very reasonable and an appropriate portion size.
SEAVERYou know, one of the very best things that all of us can do to save the oceans is, yes, actually to eat...
SEAVER...lots more vegetables and a reasonable, adequate, enjoyable portion of protein. So of perch or a croaker, you're getting a nice 4 ounce fillet, which is perfect. They fry up really well. They poach nicely. A little bit delicate to do on the grill, so be careful. Use a real hot flame. But, you know, these are fish that are readily able to be substituted into almost all of your favorite recipes.
NNAMDIAnd, Steve, you talked early about the From the Bay, For the Bay program. What kinds of food will be in season when that promotion runs Oct. 2 through 9? That's just in a few weeks.
VILNITOne of the main things is blue crab. You know, that's -- it's prime time for blue crab. It's -- you know, we're talking -- you know, one of the watermen I was out with yesterday said, you know, their fat as butter and rusty as a barrel hoop. You know, that's -- when these crabs are done molting for the year, they're just fatting up for the winter season, their hibernation. And it's the best time of year to eat crabs.
VILNITAnd they're most plentiful now, and they're the cheapest now. So there's no reason why these chefs shouldn't be using blue crabs, blue crab meat on the menu. But we also have a few great farms of aquaculture in the area. So we have oysters, going to be on the menu.
VILNITThere will striped bass on the menu. White perch, these guys are getting. There's bluefish. There's a quite a few varieties that we can actually use.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. But you can still join it by calling 800-433-8850. Where do environmentalism and sustainability fit into the choices you make at the grocery store or at restaurants? What are your favorite places to hunt for local or seasonal food in the Washington region? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or tweet us, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIOr simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the Food Wednesday conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIThe Bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, we're talking about it with Barton Seaver. He's a chef, cookbook author, environmental activist, and he's a Washington native. He's also a National Geographic fellow. His new cookbook is called "For Cod and Country." Steve Vilnit does commercial fisheries outreach and marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
NNAMDIThey join us in studio, along with Mark Bryer, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program at The Nature Conservancy. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. By the way, listeners on the Eastern Shore and in coastal Delaware can hear more about what local watermen think about the bay's health by tuning into "Coastal Connection" on 88.3. That's Friday at noon or 8 p.m., or by heading over to wamucoast.org.
NNAMDIWe've got this tweet from @Bruno. "I've got no problem with croaker. If they rename scavenger fish feces eaters, I may change my eating habit." Yes, we can fully understand that. Steve.
VILNITWell, that applies to lobsters and crabs and shrimp. I mean, they're...
NNAMDII was thinking the exact same thing as you said that. Steve, what kinds of conversations have you had with watermen since these storms we were talking about pulled through during the past several weeks? Have you gotten a sense yet for how it's affected the people who depend on the bay for a living?
VILNITI haven't heard a lot of feedback from them yet. What I have heard is that, you know, this huge freshwater flush that we're going to have here is going to move things around. They're going to have to start re-hunting for the fish again and find out where they're located, find out where the crabs are. So it's going to give them some troubles for a little while.
VILNITWe're going to see a little bit of a lack of availability in some of these species that are coming out of the bay for just a little while. But these guys are -- have been doing this for many, many generations, and they're very effective at what they do. So I imagine they'll be right back on track soon.
NNAMDIHere's Malcolm in Germantown, Md. Hi, Malcolm.
MALCOLMHi. I have one quick comment. I would suggest for renaming the croaker that you avoid silly thing like delicious fish or something and simply find an Indian or an foreign name for it...
MALCOLM...and if nobody can understand -- and who knows what tilapia means, for example?
NNAMDIOnce it sounds "exotic," people will go for it, huh?
MALCOLMWell, it's just they don't understand, there's no association with the name. But the other question I have is -- there are some fish like hake and pollock, which gets used an awful lot in processed fish food, like fish sticks and fish cakes and things. What stops them from being menu items?
SEAVERWell, pollock and hake are very popular now up in New England, especially in the form of fish and chips or in classic preparations, baked in milk and all sorts of things. Just by virtue of how the economies of those fisheries work, especially pollock, it mostly is coming out of Alaska right now. It's the largest fishery in America. And its -- the economies of that just drive it towards that commercial production, and it's a huge fishery.
SEAVERAnd so it's really just talking more about the economic kind of viability of it rather than the taste or the preference for it. But I know plenty of people that greatly prefer pollock and haddock to almost anything else fresh.
NNAMDISo there you go, Malcolm. Thank you so much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Steve, it's my understanding that one of the fish that's catching a lot of attention from local chefs these days is the snakehead, the invasive fish that so many of us have been preconditioned to think of as the enemy. What's the story behind how snakehead became a restaurant commodity?
VILNITWell, you know, one of the best ways of making a fish go away is to make it worth something, and I think I've heard that from you, Barton. But, you know -- so, basically, we introduced this fish to the restaurants, let them try it. It's actually a very tasty fish. Helping -- having the restaurants help us with managing the fishery by knocking down the populations is pretty much a no-brainer.
VILNITIt's a way that the restaurants have something exciting to sell again, something different to sell again. At the same time, we're reducing the population, and we're helping out the native species in the area.
NNAMDIWell, Barton, you've been telling people that snakehead is a good fish and that it should be. Why is that?
SEAVERWell, snakehead are a voracious, invasive species. And they spend all day eating very tasty things. So, you know, they eat bass and juvenile other fish. And so, you know, they just -- they create this great flavor profile. And they have a meaty, firm, wonderful texture, and it's a really great eating fish.
NNAMDIYou make it sound like a no-brainer, yeah.
SEAVERIt is a no-brainer. Well, and the other thing about it is that it really represents an opportunity in the sustainability dialogue. You know, we were speaking about this off air a little bit, but sustainability relies on fear and sort of guilt to maintain the status quo, you know, the idea of sustainable, able to be sustained. There's not a whole lot of reward in that.
SEAVERAnd I sort of liken it to Crystal Pepsi, if you remember that product fad from many years ago.
SEAVERAnd, you know, it was touted, we've revolutionized soda. We've reinvented the world. And people were like, oh, my god. I can't wait. Like, what does it taste like? And they say, it tastes just like regular Pepsi. And people said, no thanks. You know, Crystal Pepsi is on the market for three months or so, and I don't exactly remember. But people are not willing to change their habits in order to get what they already have available.
SEAVERAnd so the sustainability dialogue, I think, is all too about -- all too often about maintaining the status quo. And in the case of invasives, whether we're talking about Asian carp, the lionfish, whether we're talking about snakeheads, it's offering people this, you know, very active opportunity to participate in the restoration of an ecosystem, and that has more sex appeal. That is more romantic to people and, frankly, more enticing.
NNAMDIMark, from the ecological point of view, do you think we can really eat our way out of the snakehead problem?
BRYERI'm not sure if we can eat our way out of it, Kojo. But I know we can certainly help, I think, as both Steve and Barton were saying, minimize the problem. We know that invasive species can create great ecological as well as economic harm, and it's very difficult, once they're introduced, to remove them.
BRYERBut if we can, particularly through the conversations like we're having now with Barton, create an incentive for people to harvest those fish in a reliable way, I'm sure that we can reduce the ecological impacts from those.
SEAVERWell, and, you know…
NNAMDII now consider it a moral imperative to eat snakehead fish.
SEAVERWell, the history of the world, and of evolution itself, is a history of invasive species. And all of the fruits and vegetables that we eat -- nearly all of them -- are not exactly native to the exact bioregions we're in. So there is a discussion about, you know, this is sort of -- we're in the -- in an era that is governed by human actions. And so these invasions are prominent, and there are going to become more of them.
SEAVERBut there's also a problem with developing a fishery around them for the purpose of eradication, is that you create a perverse incentive to actually maintain that fishery then. And we've seen this time and time again, whether it's the Bering Strait's opilio crab fishery, the rainbow smelt fishery in the Great Lakes. Both of these were major problems. And so we created a fishery.
SEAVERAnd now, there's very powerful fishing lobbies arguing and actually creating laws to help, you know, restore the populations of these once invasives.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Jim in Bethesda, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHi. Yeah, I just had a question. I was a former commercial fisherman and have been involved in consulting in fisheries in Latin America and locally, too, on -- formerly on the board of aquaculture for the state of Maryland. And I find, as a former commercial fisherman, with the technology today, why we aren't promoting more frozen product. Bycatch is a large portion. A lot of fisherman are not allowed to keep those, and that can be adding to their bottom line. Once you catch it, it's -- the mortality rate is extremely high. So you can't -- throwing it back is basically just giving food to the other fish.
JIMBut when you spend tens of thousands of dollars targeting certain fishery and you catch other fish -- and not to mention the fish you're catching that go to waste because they're two or three weeks out -- we really need to develop a definition for what is fresh.
JIMBecause I was -- as a commercial fisherman and somebody who eats seafood all the time, I would prefer a fish that's been frozen, i.e., the bluefish tuna that's frozen on the boats or is immediately frozen at the dock, then thawed out at the time of preparation, as opposed to a fish that's in a store that's been sitting on ice for two weeks on a boat and, you know, then another week for distribution purposes to the store and the end user.
JIMAnd what that does is you get a lot of people turning their nose up on frozen products. We're not buying frozen. When you go into a store, they're all just asking, just fresh, just fresh.
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Barton Seaver for you, Jim.
SEAVERWell, Jim, I think you bring up two points. One, to answer the comment about bycatch, we have a problem as consumers in that we walk into a grocery store with a preordained recipe, and we walk up to the counter and we say, I need salmon. And in the past, the person behind the counter would say, well, it's February. We don't have any salmon.
SEAVERBut because we created this demand, we've literally forced retailers, producers, fishermen and the aquaculture community to create product for us, and that's available at all times. What we really need to do is change our consumer culture, to walk in to a fish counter and say, hey, what do you got that's best? What's freshest? What's most vibrant, lively? What most fits my economic needs? What is my family going to love?
SEAVERAnd they might say, well, mackerel. They might say bluefish. They might say menhaden. Who knows? It might be a bad day of fishing, and they're selling you the bait. Who knows? If we were to participate in that way as consumers, we would incentivize and allow local fisheries to bring more -- to land more of their product to create more value throughout the ecosystem.
SEAVERAnd then the comment, too, on the frozen product -- frozen fish enjoys a very bad reputation because disingenuous fishmongers, I think, in the past, would have it on the fresh counter for a week. And if it didn't sell, they would freeze it in order to prevent it from going bad, and so frozen fish was just not very good.
SEAVERBut now technology exists where it is deep-, flash-, freeze -- frozen at the point of harvest, within hours of it coming out of the water, sometimes even pre-rigor mortis. It's micro-misted with a film of water to prevent ice damage. It's cheaper. It's less environmental impact in terms of carbon, in terms of shipping it through much slower, more carbon -- less carbon-intensive ways through container ships.
SEAVERAnd there's also better cost because retailers are not throwing it away. There's not a built-in waste, you know, queue factor here, and so you're paying the real cost of the fish and not an added 30 percent markup for the waste.
NNAMDIJim, thank you for your call. Here is Fred in Arlington, Va. Fred, your turn.
FREDHi. What I can't understand in all of this conversation is we keep talking about saving the bay. And we keep talking about it by allowing reproduction of these organisms that filter the bay, oysters, et cetera, et cetera. You know, I can't help but think that there's a corollary to another wildlife management issue, and, really, this is a wildlife management issue. In the early 1900s, there were very few white-tailed deer.
FREDI mean, there were so few of them that you could barely find them. And wildlife managers stepped in and said, okay, we're not going to harvest this many. We're not going to allow you to shoot doe. We're only going to allow you to hunt for, like, a two-week period. You can only shoot one animal, and that one animal is a buck. Now, that...
NNAMDIOh, now, we have deer on our front lawns.
FREDI'm sorry. Hello?
NNAMDIAnd, now, we have an excess of deer.
FREDExactly. Now, we have -- and by doing that, we have a huge surplus of deer. I can't help but think there's a corollary here in being able to do the same thing. Now, I understand the differences. One is the commercial venture -- that is to say fishermen who have boats to make a living at it -- and another is the people who are subsistence hunters or supplemented their protein by hunting back in that time.
FREDBut at some point, aren't we really just going to have to bite the bullet and say, okay, let's use some tax dollars to buy these boats and to basically retire them and to retire fishermen from fishing and from oystering so that we can allow the bay and the organisms there to reproduce and to actually rebound? I'll take my answer off the air. That's all.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Fred. Barton?
SEAVERFred, I think you bring up a good point, but I would disagree with you. I don't think this is a wildlife management issue. This is a human behavioral issue. We need to fish. We need to support economies. We need to restore the bay. Our health is dependent on the health of the ecosystems that create the nutrients that provide for us. And so it's an opportunity.
SEAVERTo me, I think, is really the compelling narrative of conservation as a story of responsible consumption. It's not what we don't do, but, rather, it's what we do and how we do it.
BRYERAnd just to build on that, Barton's point, is that the connection between what we do on the land, in particular, and how we sustainably harvest seafood is essential, particularly in the Chesapeake. If we don't connect those two things together and continue to build constituency, that lives on the land but depends on local resources from the bay, it's going to be very hard to achieve the goals that we all have with regards to the health of the Chesapeake and saving it.
NNAMDIAnd we are almost out of time, Steve. But it's my understanding that you've worked to help fisheries rearrange their catch days so that they better accommodate the days when there's a high demand at restaurants, like the weekends. Where did you come up with this strategy? And when did you decide it needed to be implemented?
VILNITWell, I came from the seafood industry. My background has always been there. And one of the things I noticed when we came out into the fisheries was that, you know, we're allowed to harvest product two days a week, but those two days a week were on Monday, Tuesday. There's really no sense in that if we can just keep those same two days a week, but move it to when the restaurants are most busy, which is a, you know, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
VILNITLet the watermen actually get some benefit for having those two days and get a higher price for their product.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Steve Vilnit does commercial fisheries outreach and marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Steve, thank you for joining us.
VILNITThank you very much.
NNAMDIMark Bryer is the director of the Chesapeake Bay Program at the Nature Conservancy. Mark, thank you for joining us.
BRYERIt was a pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Barton Seaver is a chef, cookbook author, environmental activist and Washington native. He's a National Geographic fellow. His new cookbook is called "For Cod and Country." Barton, thanks for stopping by.
SEAVERKojo, always great to see you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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