We all try to do the right thing most of the time, but sometimes we find ourselves unable to make the best right decision.
I am a loyal supporter of Olympia's fabulous Farmers' Market, which has just decided to extend its April-December season by opening up on Saturdays year long. My husband and I went down to the market Saturday in the pouring rain. We decided too make a meal of whatever local, fresh produce was available right then. We bought kale and carrots and then hunted for some protein. We found it: smoked salmon mostly and some very fresh-looking fish we found out were smelt. Smelt!
That's one of the many prey species of the marbled murrelet! These are small, schooling fish also known as forage fish. Forage fish!
Forage fish around the globe are suffering from overfishing. There is a global crisis happening right now as forage fish populations are declining at alarming rates. Many forage fish never appear in restaurants, but are ground up to make animal feed and fertilizer--which apparently we need in unsustainable quantities.
The normally abundant forage fish are a critical link between the ocean phytoplankton and zooplankton and many seabirds, larger fish, and marine mammals. The fish marbled murrelets commonly prey on includes sardines, anchovies, juvenile herring, saury, and sandlance, and smelt. But I wondered...were the smelt actually one of the over-fished species?
Luckily I had my wallet-size Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide with me. Unfortunately smelt wasn't on the list of "best choices," "good alternatives," or "avoid." Hmmm....so we bought eight fish for $3 and were told to fry them and eat them whole.
So we ate our dinner--savoring our first smelt from the Pacific Northwest and sauteed kale from a local vendor at our local Farmers' Market. We also ate some leftover rice and beans to round out the meal. But I had a nagging feeling that my willful ignorance about the smelt situation. I looked again at my fish-buying guide to see if I had overlooked the smelt--no I hadn't. But I did see a note that due to the size of the guide (wallet-sized), the full list of recommendations is posted at seafoodwatch.org. I searched for "smelt" and up came a page of different kinds of smelt.
Here is what I learned: I should avoid eulcahon, also known as smelt, caught in British Columbia in conical or seine nets, and that smelt, also known as eulachon, wild caught and certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, were a good alternative. Hmmm....what had my husband and I bought? Were were our smelt/eulachon caught and how? Ii could find no information on the smelt purveyor online.
I Googled "eulachon Pacific Northwest fisheries" and discovered--to my dismay--that in 2010, the population of eulachon from the U.S.-Canada border south to include Washington, Oregon, and California, was listed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. I hunted for the NOAA seafood-buying guide, but did not find one on this otherwise excellent website.
Now what? What did this threatened status mean for the dinner table? Were all Pacific eulachon in the listed range off limits to fishing?
I went back to the NOAA site and read that they designated 16 specific areas as critical habitat within California, Oregon, and Washington--an area of freshwater creeks, rivers, and their associated estuaries totaling 335 mles) of habitat. And that the "Tribal lands of four Indian Tribes are excluded from designation after evaluating the impacts of designation and benefits of exclusion associated with Tribal land ownership and management by the Tribes." The four tribes are the Lower Elwha Tribe, Quinault Tribe, Resighini Rancheria, or Yurok Tribe.
Given that there is a chance that tribal fisherman--possibly Quinault--supplied our smelt to the seafood retailer at the Farmers' Market. I couldn't find this kind of information about the retailer online so, I will just have to hold off on another smelt fry until I can get back down to the market to find out. Or spend another hour researching this on the Internet.
Depending on what I learn, will I buy more smelt? Should I support the Farmers' Market and the local fishing industry (and get a load of delicious protein with Omega 3s for $3) or should I find some better source of protein with less environmental impact? Can I offset my smelt purchase by biking or taking the bus to the market? By making a contribution to a marine-conservation group? By tracking down non-GMO tofu monger and learning to love "soylent white?"
I am sure you are shaking your head, wondering why anyone should worry about eating a "threatened" forage fish every once in a while? Well, as I used to say to my kids when they wanted to bring home a rock from a national park, "What if everybody did that?"