Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Fish You Just Ate May Be More of a Globetrotter Than You Are

   Seafood is an integral component of southern culture, perhaps best exemplified by the platters of fried catfish on the menu in every hole in the wall restaurant from Brunswick, Georgia to Lake Charles, Louisiana.  And the Gulf of Mexico is renowned for its appetizing saltwater bounties, oil spill notwithstanding.  So, when I had a guest from out of town visit me in the Florida Panhandle, I was eager to show off all the region had to offer; almost immediately we headed to a local restaurant touting all-you-can-eat seafood.

    Considering my passion for both eating everything I can and local seafood, I didn’t think I had much need for a menu.  Almost as an afterthought, I asked the waitress what kind of fish I could expect to be piled in front of me, my head filled with fantasies of farmed channel catfish or perhaps, if I was lucky, some mackerel or snapper from the seas just to the south.  To my surprise, she didn’t know.  Briefly stepping away to yell into the kitchen, she returned with the verdict…Swai.


    As a vertebrate biologist, it’s not often I’m confronted with an animal I’ve never heard of, let alone when I’m sitting at the dinner table about to eat one.

    “And what is Swai?” I politely inquired.

    “It’s like a catfish, they farm it in Asia.”

    As I looked at the waitress and digested this new information, my eyes drifted around the restaurant, from the plastic crabs and fishing nets adorning the walls to the chalk boards advertising the price of Gulf shrimp and crawfish.  You mean to tell me, I thought to myself, this restaurant, named after a local seaside town, was shipping in something “like” a catfish from halfway across the world?  It turned out I would need that menu after all.

    When catfish was suggested as a potential alternative, I skeptically asked where it had originated; I was reassured when the waitress informed me it came from right here in Florida.  I’m happy to tell you it was delicious.

    Back at home, I decided to look into the curious case of Swai and spent some time researching the animal on the internet.  I learned this type of catfish, along with the closely related Basa, is native to a couple major rivers and their tributaries within southeastern Asia.  An important food source, the species is heavily farmed in ponds, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam.  Produced in mass quantities, the species represents a cheap source of fish, and that’s the reason it’s starting to show up in American markets.

    Catfish farmers in the United States have known about this trend for some time now.  Seeing their potential livelihood threatened by an inexpensive alternative, the catfish industry lobbied lawmakers for new regulations on the influx of Asian fish.  As a result of their efforts, it is now illegal for restaurants to sell Swai or Basa and call it catfish.  But they can still call it the Catch of the Day, feature it in their Fisherman’s Platter, or include it any other vaguely labeled dish. 

   Restaurateurs have a lot of freedom when writing the menu; along with fish distributors, they have been known to get creative in describing a particular species to make it sound more appetizing.  For example, the Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, is marketed in the United States as Chilean Sea Bass.  Which would you rather order, a Toothfish or a Sea Bass?

    I have no issue with eating Swai or Basa in general, although there are some concerns about how these fish are raised and questions regarding whether there may be health issues related to the associated farming practices; but I am an advocate for shopping locally.  Why ship anything across the planet, whether it’s a pair of pants or tonight’s dinner, when you can buy it next door?

    The next week, at another seafood restaurant, I was once again confronted with a dilemma.  The waves of the Gulf of Mexico lapped against the deck of the waterfront restaurant as both fishing and sightseeing boats motored by.  I took deep breaths of salt air between swigs from my beer as I watched the sunset.  It was the classic seaside scene.

    Perhaps it was the atmosphere, perhaps it was the beer, but it wasn’t until my Fisherman’s Platter arrived before I thought to ask what kind of fried filet would grace my plate.

    This waitress was better prepared, “Panaceas”. 

    Well, I wasn’t naïve about the name of this fish.  I knew it was a made-up label to make whatever I was really eating sound more palatable; it’s the same word we use to describe something that will solve all of our problems (Panacea is also the Greek goddess of healing).  But, at least it wasn’t Swai, I told myself.  And, I could reach out and touch the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico from my table, what were the chances of eating a fish fillet that had been frozen and shipped thousands of miles before finally reaching my plate?  Surrounded by shrimp, scallops and French fries, I must confess to a moment of willful ignorance so I could enjoy the meal before me (it was fantastic).

    Something nagged at me though.  Back home, I returned to the internet to determine what kind of fish was being sold as Panaceas.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find any relevant hits.  On a hunch, I Googled Swai again for a closer look.  Realization slowly dawned over me as I slapped my forehead.  Both Swai and Basa are within the same genus, Pangasius.

    Want to learn the socioeconomic, human health, and environmental costs of the seafood you buy?  Check out the Smart Seafood Guide offered by the Food & Water Watch.  The Monterey Aquarium also offers handy pocket guides that recommend responsible seafood choices.  Live in Canada?  There's a guide for you too.


Kelly said...

Great topic! If you go spearfishing with me, you'll know where your fish came from. :)

David Steen said...

If I were to go spearfishing with you, rather than focusing on my dinner I'd be more pre-occupied with thoughts of becoming something else's.