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What's the appeal of live seafood?

I often read posts raving about how "fresh" a place is just because someone takes a fish or crustacean out of a tank, but I've always found so-called live seafood to be rather lacking in the flavor department. I'd much rather have an animal that's been living and eating in the sea (albeit likely farmed, I know), than stressing and starving (and crapping, no less) in a tiny, tiny tank. My dad was a commercial fisherman, and I've grown up eating seafood, and neither of us have ever preferred anything "fresh" from the tank to anything that was brought in that morning from the distributor. And in the seafood-eating cultures that I know, that seems to be the preference as well.

Anyone else here confused by all thus hubbub? I think it's all just a marketing ploy, but I wonder if anyone else has tried comparing the two, either side-by-side or blind.

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  1. kimcheater, for those of us whose largest body of water nearby is freshwater - in my case, Lake Ontario - seafood-out-of-a-tank is the closest we get to fresh-from-the-ocean.

    Us inland folks don't have the luxury of dockside-to-restaurant sameday seafood delivery.

    1. Lobsters illustrate your point quite nicely. While many supermarkets, Asian markets and even retro restaurants keep a lobster tank, the specimens within may be technically 'fresh' when cooked but the quality is poor. Living in a tank is not at all the same as living in a natural habitat and product quality absolutely declines in captivity! Quality lobsters are easily had from genuine lobstermen (not huge retailers like Lobstergram and that sort of thing) who will mail them to your home or you can even buy frozen tails which will often be better than some sorry fellow who's been in a tank at the Shop 'n Save for siz months.

      OTOH I have purchased live eels (well they were live when I chose them but the guy behind the counter rectified that for me) and thought they were quite good but I've never bought them any other way so I don't know if a superior prepared product is available at the fishmonger.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Kater

        I agree... the tanks that the vast majority of seafood is held in are much too crowded, with questionable filtration. Often times one can see a buildup of bubbles on the water surface, which means that protein wastes are building up beyond the capacity of the water and filtration (if any) and the organisms are probably being stressed out by lack of proper diet, cramped living conditions, poor water quality, lack of dissolved oxygen, and high amounts of ammonia and nitrites. This probably results in seafood whose tissues are far too taxed with the aforementioned toxins. I personally think it's alot more about show. Your best bet on live lobsters is probably to have them sent to you fresh via express.

      2. Considering I live where I can't even get a whole fish, just filets, I'd love a place with a tank and live fish!!

        1 Reply
        1. re: houdini

          Well filets can be just fine depending on the source. My favorite fishmonger doesn't show any whole fish in his case, though he will sell me a whole fish if I call in advance. His quality is wonderful and I'm happy that he's done the work to break the fish down for me.

          Do you have a fish market anywhere nearby? In our area, in addition to stand-alone fishmarkets (some good, some bad) our indoor farmer's/specialty markets usually have at least one fish counter and most of them are great. Also, you can get much better fish as many Asian markets than is available at the grocery store. Have you tried all of these approaches already?

        2. True, the situation does get a bit more complicated if you live further inland. But if the logistics are there to bring over live seafood and then put it in a tank, surely the logistics are there to bring over very recently caught seafood?

          I live in New York, and I doubt much of the seafood here came from a boat right before it hit market (if it came from a boat at all, that is--and if it's in a tank, I doubt that it was ever wild, some crustaceans excepted). So as long as there's an airport nearby (Toronto? Buffalo? Rochester?), and enough demand, I think one could do okay.

          And the problem with filets, I think, are probably not a function of freshness so much as cut/quality (although, of course, the fish keeps better if it's not hacked up first). Can you get frozen whole fish? Flash-freezing is pretty much standard these days, even with sushi. In fact, a flash-frozen wild fish, properly thawed, seems much more appealing over something farmed, stressed, and starved.

          3 Replies
          1. re: kimcheater

            kimcheater, we do have a few fishmongers who bring in fresh fish, and those in the know are aware which day to shop for the newly-arrived fish. We also have Whole Foods and other purveyors who carry very fresh fish.

            When it comes to crustaceans, however, tanks are the only way we can get our fix of lobster, crab, etc.

            1. re: kimcheater

              I wish! I think the reason they sell fillets is that you can't see the fish they came from and so they have a longer "shelf" life. I'm Buffalo and simply cannot find whole fish anywhere.

            2. If you prefer cage-free eggs, free-range poultry, beef and pork, how can you justify fish-tank fish and shellfish?
              Am I missing something?

              6 Replies
              1. re: MakingSense

                Correct me if I'm wrong, but is it not impossible to keep crustaceans alive after they've been trapped without the use of tanks?

                Perhaps Chicago should ban lobster from restaurant menus, too.

                1. re: FlavoursGal

                  No, New England lobstermen ship them all the time. They can live for several days in damp seaweed. I've done several clambakes for as many as 400 people in Washington with live lobsters and clams shipped from Maine.
                  I buy live clams and mussels on ice at the market regularly.
                  Blue crabs are sent from the Gulf Coast or Carolinas live to the Chesapeake Bay area when the Bay season closes or to supplement local catches in season. They stay alive for several days before being steamed locally. Soft shells stay alive as long as a week or more after they're removed from the water. If they're left in the water, their shells harden. They begin to deteriorate after you clean them or they die.
                  Oysters used to be shipped inland by barge and trains, by boats on the Great Lakes or up the Mississipi. They were available in St. Louis and Chicago in the 1800s. Oysters will keep several weeks out of water.
                  I have a house on the Chesapeake and the three local brokers ship the crabs and oysters far inland, much of it going to the wholesale market and auction. It's several days before they reach chain stores like Whole Foods or Safeway although they will be in independent fish markets much sooner.

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    Thanks for this info, Making Sense. I'm just wondering, however, if it's any more humane to keep lobsters crammed together out of water in a seaweed-stuffed box than it is to keep them in a holding tank until needed.

                    1. re: FlavoursGal

                      When you buy lobsters from a lobsterman he catches your crustaceans the day that he ships them. They spend one day in the box and are usually eaten the day that they arrive. We usually give our lobsters free-range of the kitchen counters for a time before they meet the pot because they are kept very cold during shipping and should be brought fully out of stasis before you cook them. I don't know why - I just listen to the lobsterman who tells me to do this!

                      Lobsters in a holding tank are there for a good long time. It is not a pleasant environment. They are kept with their claws bound in a space that is far too small, in water that won't kill them but is not realy the right environment for them. This is not humane, particularly because they're not in any distress in their seaweed boxes and they seem to really enjoy roaming around the kitchen!

                      1. re: FlavoursGal

                        That's a good question, FlavoursGal. Maybe a brief time being shipped live and then used fresh is better for lobsters and other seafood than being kept as "pets." After a day or so, stores can offer them for sale cooked or frozen.
                        The quality absolutely declines rapidly when they're kept in tanks. A lot of stores are getting rid of seafood tanks and other live seafood sales. They are hard to maintain and there have been complaints by animal rights groups. Whole Foods discontinued the sale of live soft shell crabs last year, only selling dead or frozen ones.

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          Thanks, Making Sense and Kater. I've learned quite a bit from this discussion.