Sustainable Fish for the Kosher Consumer

By Hannah Lee

Earlier in the spring, my husband asked me to serve more fish.  As I am a vegetarian, it would mean shopping for items I do not eat (or taste, so recipe adjustments happen at the dining table).  However, I knew there was a fish purveyor at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market and I started chatting with them.  An interesting bit of news was that the male head of household, Murat Aritan, had left for Alaska and he’d brought his young daughter along on their summer journey.   So, I asked to interview the couple when the family reunited again.

Earlier this month, I met the adults, Murat and his wife, Amanda Bossard, in their Fishtown office.  Amanda wanted to talk about sustainable fishing, Murat wanted to talk about their CSS (Community-Supported Seafood) and I wanted to know if it could be kosher.  It was a lively conversation.

More after the jump.
Fishermen are the sentinels for our oceans, said Amanda.  They’re the first ones to know about the changing conditions of our oceans– indicators of the health of our environment– even before the scientists who may sample only sporadically and periodically.  And Alaska can be the test model for sustainable fishing.

What is sustainable fishing?  Comparable to organic produce, it means harvesting sea life via means that do no harm to the environment or collateral damage to other species.   This means avoiding the most popular varieties served in restaurants, as over-fishing depletes the ability of the species to maintain its population.  Knowing which species are sustainable is difficult, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides an updated list on its Seafood Watch, downloadable to your printer or as an app for your mobile phone.

How did the couple become involved in fishing?  They were high school sweethearts, growing up in Fishtown, a Philadelphia neighborhood bordered by the Delaware River, Frankford Avenue, and York Street.  Amanda left town first, winning a partial scholarship to study in Anchorage, Alaska.  Murat went north independently and fell in love with the pristine clime of Alaska.  He learned fishing and crabbing from the professionals.  Amanda worked for the Alaskan Fish and Game Department until the birth of their second child, now 5.  Their first  child, a daughter now aged 7, was introduced to fishing on the family boat, the FV (for Fishing Vessel) Sunset, at the tender age of 1-1/2, when they made a 10-day ocean crossing to the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific Ocean.  Their second child, a son, made his water debut at age 2-1/2.  This summer, Murat served as Chief Engineer, re-habbing a Fairbanks Morse (marine diesel) engine for a tugboat; he and his daughter slept on their own boat.  Murat and Amanda no longer fish together, because with two children, it’s no longer possible to monitor both of them on board while working.

They founded Otolith Sustainable Seafood in 2004 to: “encourage responsible harvest methods; reward harvesters who promote effective management of sustainable fisheries; provide transparent and unbiased evaluations of seafood resource management; and network the shared interests of responsible seafood consumers.”

Otolith’s CSS provides its patrons with the freshest product, without the middlemen.  Substantially different from the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture)programs now increasingly popular for organic produce, this CSS offers tremendous flexibility.  The subscriber pays in advance, but can choose when and how much of which species to collect; each item is individually packed into small vacuum-sealed pouches about a pound in heft.  The fisherman is guaranteed a market before he embarks on his expedition.  The products are cleaned and processed at the dockside and immediately flash-frozen.  Otolith brings the items in by barge and truck to Philadelphia, where the items are held in a cold-storage facility until claimed.  The consumer is guaranteed a product, because the fisherman is paid only after he returns to dock, with the right species.  

Otolith, a name that refers to the earbone of fish (which can be used to assess the age and health of fish), works directly with hook-and-line fishermen, not the ones who haul fish by trawling (pulling a huge net through the waters), a process that results in large amounts of “by-catch,” untargeted species including dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks, and may also include sub-legal or immature members of the targeted species.  The by-catch die in the process.

As part of their five-year plan, Murat hopes to return to fishing, but permit rights are expensive, ranging from $20,000 to $60,000.  Quota rights are also costly, as quotas were set about by the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1996 (popularly known as the “Sustainable Fisheries Act”) and newcomers have to buy the quota rights from those who were in business then or were grandfathered into the system.  And he would like to expand his markets into franchises, retail stores, and restaurants.  The latter is an especially hard nut to crack, as chefs usually prefer to work with large wholesalers.  There’s also the prejudice against “flash-frozen” products, but the “fresh” fish offered in some of the restaurants are simply defrosted fish, tagged as fresh.  They are looking for a business partner who shares their vision.

Fish are amazing creatures.  Do you know that adult salmon can find its way home (up to 5,000 miles away) by its sense of smell, some two to five years after spawning in the breeding grounds?  This skill means that salmon can detect minute concentrations of contaminants in the water.  Also, fish are not equivalent or interchangeable.  For instance, tilapia does not offer much nutritional value compared to King salmon (I compare it to anemic iceberg lettuce versus robust vitamin-rich kale).  The oceans were also amazing in its ability to rebound from a multitude of assaults– small catches by many fishermen–  but with  the advent of trawl fishing done by a few, large operators, they have floundered in their recovery.  

What about Paul Greenberg’s 2010 book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
in which the author touted the future of farm fishing?  Amanda disputes his claim, saying “the ocean reigns supreme in its ability to efficiently and affordably produce the largest biomass of renewable and healthful fish.”  Farm fishing still relies on wild catch to feed its stock.  “Instead of fixing the existing situation, get us back to where we were,” she says, farm fishing is alluring because it offers the potential for a lot of short-term profit, but in the long-term, it will not be sustainable.  Farm fishing has environmental costs that affect even people who do not eat fish, because it impacts on watersheds and the availability of protein for other species.

So, is sustainable fishing kosher?  I asked my local kosher grocer and he said that the halachic (religious legal) rulings constantly change (because of changing conditions).  Currently, he is allowed to bring in fresh salmon and tilapia, but only with the skin on.  That means the fish are processed aboard ships that are dedicated for that species.  So, I reported back to Murat and Amanda, their CSS fish are no different!  Their canned salmon even has the OU kosher certification and all of it was responsibly harvested.  They’re now interested in finding delivery sites for kosher consumers.

Murat is a first-generation fisherman, so he has no cushion against the economic vicissitudes.  He bought a boat, but the permits and quotas are extra investments.  It is still possible for high school graduates to start work as deckhands and to retire with a comfortable living.  “We can show young, ambitious men not bound for college that there is another way.”  Is the industry sexist?  Not really, because women can work as captains and deckhands and they can serve in field-and-stream research and management roles.  However, if one wishes to raise a family, it’s not tenable to leave one’s family for three months at a time.  “We need to create a generation of fishermen who can maintain the front line of defense for our oceans,” proclaims Amanda.  The consumer can participate by making personal sacrifices, in choosing to not eat fish that are not sustainably harvested.