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"Fresh" Seafood: Local versus Non-Local

Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 10:47 AM

A recent post on the Pacific Northwest Board criticized a visitor who was going to a Seattle restaurant to eat a soft-shell crab roll, saying: “Point, the only soft-shell crab you could possibly get would have to be flown thousands of miles. What are you doing?” Eating fresh, local foods, including seafood, is indisputably desirable. But if you limit yourself exclusively to local foods, you will deprive yourself of some real culinary treasures. I’ll use the seafood used for sushi and sashimi as a case in point. Some of the best sushi I’ve ever had on the West Coast of the U.S. (I live in Seattle, and formerly lived in Los Angeles) has been air-freighted in fresh from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. If I had avoided these items because they have been “flown thousands of miles,” I would have never had the amazing experience of eating fresh ocean eel (anago), firefly squid (hotaruika), and baby eel (nore sore) at Kaito Sushi in San Diego (where, by the way, thanks to fellow Chowhound “cgfan,” I had some of the best sushi and sashimi I’ve ever had in my life), or eating fresh red clam (akagai) and whitebait (shira-uo) under the tutelage of master itamae Shibutani-san when he owned Shibucho in Los Angeles, or eating fresh golden-eye snapper (kinmedai) and halfbeak (sayori) at Kisaku Sushi in Seattle. To further complicate the subject, underlying the preference for local fish is the assumption that “fresher is better.” But this is not necessarily so. As any good sushi chef knows, the best sushi and sashimi is not necessarily made from the freshest fish. Fresh fish have very little flavor. Allowing fish to “age” breaks down the muscle proteins into components that produce tastiness. Different fish require different “resting” times, and the art of a good sushi chef is balancing the degradation of texture involved in this aging process against the improvement in taste, and serving the fish when the perfect balance of these elements is reached. Another complication is that local fish are not necessarily “fresher” than non-local fish, unless you happen to know a day-fisherman who brings in his catch hours after the fish are caught (and properly stored on board his fishing boat) and sells his catch the same day directly from his boat. When you buy local fish at a fish market, you don’t usually know the conditions under which the fish was caught (e.g., how long were dead fish left in a net?), how the fish were stored on board the fishing vessel, how they were handled during shipment and distribution, or, for that matter, how long they have been sitting on ice at a local fish market.

Soft shell crab, however, is a subject all to itself. On the West Coast of the U.S., almost all soft-shell crab is frozen. The reason for this is that fresh soft-shell crab, let’s say blue crab from Maryland (the best), is usually shipped live just above freezing (around 36 degrees F.). During transit at this temperature, the crab die, but are still considered “fresh” and have a shelf-life of 5-6 days. Because of the time consumed in the packing, shipping and handling process, by the time the fresh soft-shell crab arrive on the West Coast, they must be eaten in one or two days. The risk of not being able to sell all the crabs to customers in this very narrow window of time makes the purchase of fresh soft-shell crabs economically unfeasible for most restaurateurs. You can, from time to time, find a West Coast restaurant that takes the economic risk to purchase fresh soft-shell crabs. But, failing to find such a place, the question for West Coast residents is, “Would you rather eat frozen soft shell crab, or not eat soft shell crab at all unless you happen to be in Maryland between late May and September?” I personally love Maryland soft-shell blue crab, and since I don’t live in Maryland, have decided not to deprive myself of this delicacy by letting “the best”: become the enemy of “the good.”

For these reasons, I think the criticism of eating soft-shell crabs in Seattle, or eating non-local seafood in any city for that matter, is shortsighted.

I realize that the subject of seafood is enormously complex these days, and that this post superficially skims one small aspect of the many issues: local vs. non-local, fresh vs. frozen, farmed vs. wild, pollution, sustainability, etc. These are perilous times for seafood lovers.

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  1. stuck in Hartford County RE: Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 11:28 AM

    I personally feel that you should eat what you like, and you never know what you might like if you limit your choices. You know, EXPAND your horizons a bit. Travel and try different seafood, and try some imported seafood. I love blue crabs, but they are very hard to find in CT- so I either go to MD or try to find another way to get some approximation of them here. Same with crawfish- I love them, but, needless to say, they don't sell fresh crawfish in CT. So I do buy them frozen. I also buy frozen head-on shrimp from LA b/c for some recipes you just need the heads- and I need my new Orleans BBQ shrimp once in awhile! OK, they aren't great (and, neither are the crabs or crawdads), but still better than some local seafood (shad anyone?) . I once had "fish lips" in London. I have no idea where they came from b/c the staff didn't speak English, but it was interesting- an experience I'm glad I had. How about a compromise- local seafood you like, and non-local seafood you like; maintaining an open palate to try new local and non-local varieties. I'm still waiting to try a Kumamoto oyster, though. Raw. Fresh. May Be Awhile.

    1. s
      sweetTooth RE: Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 11:38 AM

      For some of us the issue goes beyond what *I* can enjoy *now* to how can I do my part to keep the human race from killing itself and the planet. To me local is all about not wasting fossil fuels into flying my food in from thousands of miles away. To me, it is about keeping pollutants out of the oceans, about not creating an un-sustainable demand on our oceans. It really is okay if I don't consume the most delicious fill-in-the-blank in all my life. What would be a tragedy is if all of us did want it all and killed our future generations and the rest of the species on the planet trying to get it.

      1. t
        tzurriz RE: Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 12:07 PM

        Not local, but no extra fossil fuels required. . .

        My dad was in Boston on business last week. He had to drive, because he was in like 6 other places as well, but Boston was his last stop before driving home to Chicago. So, he took a cooler with him and bought six 2-3 lb lobsters. Covered 'em in ice, and when he got here they were still alive and wiggling.

        They crawled around on my kitchen floor for a while, which really thrilled my toddler, and then the whole family got together for one heck of a meal. Lobster, corn on the cob, potatoes, andouille sausage, fresh home made bread. Oh it was so good.

        Because we don't live near the ocean, should we not be able to eat shellfish?

        5 Replies
        1. re: tzurriz
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          sweetTooth RE: tzurriz Sep 25, 2009 12:24 PM

          Tzurriz, not at all. I got on my soapbox because the OP seemed to have missed one of the biggest motivations behind the eat local movement. He said that he didn't get why people want to eat local fish for such and such reason. So I was merely pointing out, perhaps with a little too much sarcasm, that there are much more important reasons why. I am hardly a no-impact person and every day I make many conscious and some not so conscious decisions about what I consume. I hope that when someone finds me missing the forest for the tree, they will call me on it. Glad to hear you came by such an awesome treat! Are we cool? :)

          1. re: sweetTooth
            t
            tzurriz RE: sweetTooth Sep 25, 2009 12:31 PM

            of course! :) I've been missing sarcasm lately. too much time with the toddlers I think. :)

            1. re: sweetTooth
              Tom Armitage RE: sweetTooth Sep 25, 2009 01:02 PM

              The issue of fossil fuel and other sources of energy used in the production and distribution of food is critically important, and one that I completely overlooked in my post about non-local seafood. Thanks to sweetTooth for catching my omission and raising the issue. It’s much too complex a subject to weave into my post, which focuses just on the issue of the quality and “freshness” of seafood, but is certainly something that needs to be considered when discussing what food we consume. Still, I hope that my observations about the issues of freshness and quality of seafood have some useful content.

              1. re: Tom Armitage
                johnb RE: Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 02:51 PM

                Unfortunately, the issue of fuel consumption as brought up by tooth and many others is not that simple. I have done some looking into this related to local tailgate markets vs. hauling produce 2000 or more miles, but i think the same would be true in varying degrees with seafood. Bottom line, when you buy from some little "local" guy who brought the item to you from wherever he caught it or grew it, the carbon footprint can be as big, or possibly even bigger, than the stuff brought from far away, depending on circumstances. This is especially true if you live in the big city and his location is on the far outskirts, as it often is. That little truck doesn't haul much, and he typically returns to where he come from empty. Big trucks haul a lot, don't burn anywhere near as much fuel per mile per unit carried, and don't generally go back empty. So the fuel burn per unit carried to you can be very similar---again, it all depends on the specifics. The essential point is that, just because something comes from a non-local source, that doesn't necessarily mean that fuel has been saved, and for sure the amount of fuel consumed for what you buy is nowhere near proportionate to the distances involved.

                This reasoning doesn't necessarily apply to fish that are airfreighted in, but even there those fish typically (not always) fly in the bellies of planes that fly anyway with passengers, and the extra fuel burn from the fish may be insignificant. Again, simple-minded conclusions about carbon footprints can easily be extremely misleading.

                Foods that are shipped by ocean vessel (e.g. grapes from Chile, sweet onions from Peru) are practically guaranteed to need less fuel than domestic produce, due to the extreme fuel efficiencies of ocean vessels. OT--This is why, for example, it can be profitable to ship raw materials from the US to China, process them there, and ship them back for sale here, as sometimes happens.

                This is not to say that there aren't good reasons to consume local things, but the fuel saving argument that is often bandied about has been greatly overstated.

                1. re: johnb
                  Tom Armitage RE: johnb Sep 25, 2009 07:20 PM

                  Assuming that there is no sustainability issue, as there is with bluefin runa for example, the question comes down to, “Should I, or should I not, eat soft-shell blue crab in Seattle that has been flown in from Maryland?” As johnb has pointed out, the answer, even focusing just on the environmental impact of using fossil fuel, isn’t always obvious or clear. In addition, the process of making choices about what we eat involves a whole series of complex balances and trade-offs. There isn’t an easy, all-or-nothing, knee-jerk answer to the question. I could, I suppose, refuse to drive or be a passenger in any vehicle – car, bus, airplane, etc. – that uses fossil fuel, and limit my transportation to walking or riding a bicycle. But am I willing to make the lifestyle sacrifices that go with this choice? Speaking personally, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that I drive a Hummer to get back and forth to work. But, hey, although I have already conceded the relevance of the potential environmental effects of eating non-local food, this is way beyond the much narrower point I was trying to make in my original post. Did I miss the forest for the trees? Maybe, but trees can also be worthy objects of our attention and focus, and I, for one, mix the quality and enjoyability of food into the complex calculus of factors that influence the answer to that most basic question, “What should I eat?”

          2. EWSflash RE: Tom Armitage Sep 25, 2009 08:21 PM

            " These are perilous times for seafood lovers."

            Especially seafood lovers that live in Arizona.

            Local isn't really even a consideration, and whenever the Next Big Thing gets overfished, like it always is, I quit eating it, which further limits my selection. Shark, giant clam, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy. You can see it coming when the price starts rocketing upward from $2.49/lb to the mid teens and the fillets get smaller and smaller, but chances are they're severely depleted before they hit 8.99/lb. I spent a couple of years trying to figure out why shrimp were getting so cheap and so bad before I found out about foreign freshwater shrimp farming. I give it up with a sigh, but not necessarily at sushi, because a.) it's so good, and b) I don't eat nearly as much. An order of sushi is't like a 6-oz fish fillet.
            Actually, last I heard there was a freshwater shrimp farm that was being eco-responsibly run in Arizona, in that they were irrigating crops with the shrimp water when they did water changes. Yeah, it's still dry old Arizona, though. But if they're still in business, I'd buy their shrimp at least once.
            Eating locally is a great idea, but you'd likely starve to death in Arizona. That's why Barbara Kingsol ver moved her family back to the Appalachians to do the work and eating for her local-food book.

            2 Replies
            1. re: EWSflash
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              Tohono Rat RE: EWSflash Sep 25, 2009 09:52 PM

              Actually, the Tohono O'odham and many other Native peoples have survived well in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for 10,000 years or so. The desert provides wild foods (mesquite beans, cholla cactus buds, prickly pear fruit, etc.), meat (from rabbit to pronghorn antelope to deer), and desert adapted crops (tepary beans, 60-day corn, squash varieties). To learn more, you may want to visit www.tocaonline.org and www.desertraincafe.com.

              As a broader point, there are a wide variety of factors that go into the decision to eat locally and/or seasonally, including a few mentioned here already. Just a few that come to mind....

              • Environmental Impacts – Both in terms HOW FOODS ARE PRODUCED (e.g., 1) industrialized production that relies on concentration of resource and fossil fuels vs. smaller-scale production that relies more on human labor; or 2) over-fishing vs sustainable fisheries) and HOW MUCH ENERGY IT TAKES TO TRANSPORT THEM.

              • Economic Impacts – Are the foods produced by exploiting cheap labor (as most conventional AND organic produce is)? Are healthy foods more expensive than unhealthy ones making them unavailable to the poor? Does the production of the food rely more on fossil fuel inputs than human labor thereby eliminating jobs?

              • Health Impacts – When we (and YES! me included) eat things that undermine our health, we pass on the fiscal costs to society (seen insurance premiums lately?). When we feed our children corn-syrup laden crap at school that sends them on sugar jags we both undermine their health and their ability to learn.

              • Cultural Impacts – Have we moved away from distinct food cultures? Food traditions are one of the two or three most significant factors that define a culture (along with language and perhaps religion). What happens to cultural vitality, distinctiveness and diversity when we lose our food traditions?

              Eating – what we eat, how we eat it, where it comes from – is one of the most profound ethical issues that each of us face. And we face it every day, every meal. I am far from a fundamentalist on these issues. I love Spanish wine, French Cheese, Japanese sushi and South American/African coffee. But I also love looking forward to tasting the first really good tree-ripened peach (from about 100 miles away) every year after 11 months of going without. The anticipation combines with sublime flavor to make it a magical moment... a far cry from the mealy ones you get in the depths of winter at your local Safeway.

              Eating ethically is hard work and full of compromises. The very effort to be aware of these issues, acknowledge the impacts of our choices and even "own" (I hate this usage of that word but am too tired to think of a better one) our our hypocrisy is a good start.

              Local? Organic? Seasonal? Produced without exploiting workers or the Creation? Wow.... this is hard. But we must try. Now I have a headache. I think I will eat some South American chocolate.

              1. re: Tohono Rat
                Tom Armitage RE: Tohono Rat Sep 25, 2009 10:05 PM

                Good post. This sure isn't the direction I thought the thread would take when I made my OP, but I'm enoying the ride. Deciding what to eat is "full of compromises" -- boy, that's for certain!

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