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Fish forever

(article, Kim Carlson)

The flavors of Thanksgiving are behind us (or will be when I eat the last of the turkey soup for lunch), and now we are turning our appetites toward . . . fish.

Why fish? 

Not only is fish a terrifically healthy food (read Catherine Bennett-Dunster's column on omega-3s for more on that), but it's tasty and, often, sustainably harvested, which unfortunately can't be said for much of what we eat. 

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We've got fish on our minds this week also because this weekend's fund-raising dinner we're helping to sponsor in Portland features fish prominently on its menu. In fact, one of the guests who will join Deborah Madison in discussion that evening is Bay Area fishmonger Paul Johnson, who supplies fish to Chez Panisse and many other notable restaurants, and who's been writing about fish for years, first as a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and now as the author of the impressive and substantial book Fish Forever, published just this year by Wiley. 

We love Johnson's thick, informative text and recommend it heartily. It's a thoughtfully written and beautifully produced book.

Johnson told me that he set out to write a traditional cookbook, but that's not what happened. Instead, the book, organized alphabetically by species, gives a little background on each type of fish, spells out its known health benefits and pitfalls (mercury, PCBs, and so forth), and discusses its situation from an environmental perspective. He tells you what to look for — and yes, there are recipes, too.

"I was just going to do seafood recipes, but health and sustainability are on people’s minds," he said. "The book took on a life of its own." 

Johnson, who grew up fishing in Rhode Island, brings a bicoastal sensibility to his work, and a lifetime of experience monitoring fisheries. He's seen firsthand the diminished fisheries that are often in the news.

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"Absolutely there’s been a change in the availability of seafood," he says. "I was raised in a fishing culture. There were beautiful little fishing dories, small-boat fishermen. Not many years later, bluefin is on the verge of extinction."

At the same time, however, Johnson points out that as a nation we're eating more fish than ever, in part because of the wide availability of farmed fish, or aquaculture. But Johnson isn't opposed to aquaculture — if it's the right kind, that is. The "right kind" usually is a polyculture, much as has been practiced in Asia for years. In the West, monoculture, most of which Johnson opposes, is the predominant form of aquaculture. 

"They're basically feedlots," he says. 

That said, he does write that some smaller artisanal salmon farmers are using practices he supports, "and they should be supported and encouraged."

Johnson has good reason for including the fish he does include in his book. In the introduction he writes, 

bq. The seafood species for this book don't all belong on an environmental "green list"; many — including monkfish, grouper, and cod — are here largely because they are among the most popular species in the marketplace. Some species are included because they're associated with vital issues such as the importance of supporting good fishermen in a bad fishery. Still others, like butterfish, mackerel, sea robin, and wreckfish, are here because they are underutilized and should be promoted. The "green lists" I leave to the more dynamic venue of the Internet; my favorite is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

What we fish-eaters need is more transparency, so we can make, as Johnson says, "wise choices" about seafood. Lacking that transparency, what we all need is a good fishmonger. 

In Paul Johnson, we have found just that.

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