Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fish ain't trash, it's food!

Quote #1: “[Language is] really a pretty amazing invention if you think about it. Here I have a very complicated, messy, confused idea in my head. I'm sitting here making grunting sounds and hopefully constructing a similar messy, confused idea in your head that bears some analogy to it.” — Danny Hillis

Newsflash: I love language, words, and the social sciences (specifically social psychology) just about as much as I love seafood and fishing. So you can imagine my disdain for the misuse of language when discussing seafood. Yup, that’s right, “trash fish” is in the news again.

On March 10, the Chef’s Collaborative is hosting a TrashFish Dinner that will include eight chefs preparing three different species: dogfish; sea robin; and scup. The dinner will also feature a short talk from NatGeo fellow, Barton Seaver. First of all, I applaud their efforts. I know for sure that their hearts are in the right place but for the love of Pete, please stop calling fish trash.

Quote #2: “Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It’s a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people’s minds. I’m talking about your language.” — Mark Pagel
There are companies that get paid muchos dineros to frame ideas and curate language and information in order to make a product or idea more enticing. Even in fisheries. Browne Trading Company coined and applied the term peekytoe crab to rock crab because it sounded better and because the connotation was... friendlier. Dogfish? Cape shark. (Not sure that one is much better.) Chillean seabass? Oh, you mean Patagonian toothfish? Veal, foie gras, offal or baby cow, goose liver, animal organs? Which would you rather eat? Those "cider apples" hit the ground before they are made into cider, distributed into your share, or put on your counter, but no once calls them "ground apples" or "trash apples" because that would be, well, not good marketing. No one calls harvested fruits or veggies trash, not even "less-appreciated" vegetables like... brussel sprouts? Kohlrabi? (I love vegetables so I'm not sure what might be considered less-appreciated.)

There is extensive research on selling and framing that includes the importance of positive, clear, and informative language. If we are trying to move more consumers to think about purchasing a variety of fish, is calling it trash really helping to achieve that goal over the long term? And if businesses like Open Ocean Trading are working diligently with other businesses and fishermen to get fishermen fairer prices for their catch, how is calling their catch going to help achieve that?

Quote #3: "Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fishermen have been dehumanized by organizations like Seafood Watch and Oceana; they don't need any more dehumanizing and destructive language describing them, or their work. Fishermen don't call fish trash, and I don't think a single one of them would call how they make a living trash work, or that the ocean is a trash producer.

Chef Michael Leviton recently wrote a post for HuffPost called, "Are Trash Fish Really the Answer?"
In this article he attempts to cover a couple of fishery management points, and seems to try and defend his use of the term "trash fish." There are just a few points I want to make, and I apologize now for any snark that comes through. It happens.

" embrace the full meaning of sustainable seafood."
If you say something like this, it is necessary to DEFINE what sustainable seafood means to you. Those of us working in food systems have been working very hard for a long time to DEFINE that term, and have realized that everyone has a different definition. This occurs especially in seafood. (Please refer to quote #1, above.)

"Yet there is actually no such thing as 'trash fish."
Nope, there's not. So... stop saying it.

"Skate and monkfish, for example, were once frowned upon by chefs and fishermen alike."
Debatable. Fishermen will fish for anything, and usually have a better idea of what should be fished for than anyone because they SEE it everyday. There are many species, like dogfish and monkfish that are a pain in the ass because they eat lobster and tear up gear, but that doesn't mean fishermen don't want to fish for them (In fact, it's quite the opposite.). They don't fish for them either due to regulations, or because there are currently no markets. It is usually the fishermen that PUSH for something like dogfish or monkfish to be harvested because they see how it is destroying other species, or because they are plentiful.
"Skate and monkfish ultimately made such strong entrances onto the culinary main stage that they were ironically overfished."
This is grammatically incorrect. "Ironically overfished?" Is this some type of hipster fishing? I think you mean, "that they were THEN (comma) ironically (comma) overfished. Also, monkfish, skate, and dogfish were all protected by some archaic regulations at one point in time which allowed their species to rebuild fully (monkfish) or grow to the point of becoming a nuisance (dogfish).  

I get it. Trash fish has a nice alliteration. But, so does delicious fishes, or scrumptious, lush or.. succulent species? Trash fish is uncreative, lazy, counterproductive, and just downright annoying at this point. I understand the basic premise of this event, and again, I am appreciative of any event that promotes seafood.

So, I apologize Chef Michael, I really do. Like I said, I know your heart is in the right place. Thank you for your efforts and building some consumer interest in these other species. I just hope this is the last time we hear "trash fish" from you, or any other chef.

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