Reliable evidence suggests that the main reason the Vikings discovered Greenland and stopped off in North America was a quest for cod. All over the globe the populations of traditionally edible fish have dramatically declined. Current catches bring in undersized fish and smaller yields. I’m not just talking about Charlie the Tuna and saving the Dolphins. The threat is very real that soon you may no longer be able to enjoy a freshly caught cut of Mahi Mahi or Grouper. Already fishermen go out to sea for longer periods of time and further away from their home shores to ensure a decent catch. Previously untapped fishing waters, such as the South Atlantic, are being overfished to compensate for the ever growing demand for a lean healthy choice of protein. Fish is a meat more readily available to both the rich and the poor more than any other. So if popular fish such as cod are going extinct then what are the weary fishermen to do? Look deeper. There are plethoras of fish deeper in the seas that before may not have even been considered edible. Quite frankly the deeper down you go in the sea, the weirder looking fish get. We are very superficial, fickle consumers when it comes to our seafood. Have you seen an Anglerfish, trust me it isn’t pretty? You wouldn’t want its gnarling teeth, dangling spine lights, spikes and ghostly eyes staring back at you on your plate. Perhaps a better example is the Chilean Sea Bass. Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Do you think it would whet your appetite, as much, if you knew its real name was the Patagonian Toothfish. Patagonian Toothfish doesn’t quite have the same ring to it? Somewhere along the way, a chef or a public relations firm for a seafood company came up with the Chilean Sea Bass. It just rolls of the tongue with a certain pleasantness and feeling of sophistication. One can’t say the same for Patagonian Toothfish. So is there some dastardly conspiracy out there to replace those beautiful fish we know and love to eat, like the red snapper, hmm, with the ghastly hideous fish from the bottoms of the sea, like the Hatchetfish, ooh? Perhaps, that’s for you to decide.
A more local example of overfishing for me is the Chesapeake Bay. Due to pollution and overfishing the Chesapeake Bay’s fish population has declined significantly for years. The same goes for its once ample stock of Blue Crabs. Maryland and Virginia are famous for their crab cakes and other seafood delights taken from the Chesapeake. However, in recent years crab and fish populations have declined so much that seafood companies from Maryland and Virginia have on occasion been known to import seafood from places such as Thailand and slap on a canned in the USA label for authenticity. Now something is inherently wrong with this wee deception to the public don’t you think?
Maine is another seafarer’s haven known for its cold waters and fresh lobster. In the 1990’s like other seafood populations, the number of lobsters declined significantly. Where had all the lobsters gone? The catches were getting smaller as well as the size of the lobsters. Had the lobsters finally decided to pack up and move to the warmer waters of Florida? No they were being overfished to the point of near extinction. Finally someone realized, hey if we keep catching lobster at this rate, we won’t have anymore to sell and the very thing that Maine is most famous for won’t exist anymore and thus lead to a huge economic downturn for mighty Maine. Strict rules and regulations were put in place, not without incident. Some may disagree, but these regulations are the main reason why the lobster population in Maine has resurged at an enormous rate and the curmudgeonly crustaceans no longer have to worry about their extinction and get to travel to exotic restaurant fish tanks all over the world before meeting their inevitable demise. Pass the garlic butter, please.
Back to the Chesapeake or more specifically the estuaries and waters which lead to the Bay for another disturbing issue. A few years ago, two Asian Snakehead fish were discovered swimming about in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. What’s so bad about that you say? Well this particular fish devours so much food including native fish, that it can destroy a pond’s ecological system. It’s not just called a Snakehead fish because it’s ugly. The Snakehead fish can uncannily crawl over land from one body of water to another when its tummy gets a yearning for something tasty. The two Snakeheads were caught and killed and it was thought that was that. Alas it wasn’t true, the next year a few more were found flourishing in a different body of water. This summer several of the crawling fish were found in another source of water in Virginia. Creepy, I know. Is it possible that some year soon a multitude of Snakehead fish will be discovered in the Bay devastating an already depleted ecosystem stuffing themselves on crabs? After looking at a menu somewhere one day, will we wonder what this new fish called a Chesapeake Bay Striped Rainbow Trout tastes like? Would you feel the same way if you knew you were about to devour a Snakehead? That’s why I say eat more lobster and save the fish. Or else you might be plunking down chunks of change to get a taste of the Chesapeake Bay Striped Rainbow Trout and feel privileged.
Author’s note: This originally appeared on Purple Prose in 2004.