SEA TO TABLE: A Rebirth Of The American Fish
By William Emerson
Friday night, we went out for sushi. I love a delicate cut of fresh fish and prefer to order a simple maki or sashimi. In my post-meal stupor I began to wonder, where did the fish come from?
My brain processed the information. Sushi is Japanese. Did the fish come from Japan or was the fish from America? If it is from Japan, was it fished in the area of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster? That was a few years ago, but it’s radiation. I don’t know the half-life of radiation, but people in Hiroshima are still sick from the Atomic bombs. Is radiation as poisonous as the Atomic bomb?
I couldn’t immediately answer these questions as they kept me up that night. I grabbed my phone and turned to Google for my mid-night answers. My phone wasn’t fast enough, so I got up and went to my laptop.
As the sun stabbed me in the eye, I realized that I had lost a night of sleep over this one meal. I care about the food that I put into my body and didn’t even think twice about the fish at the sushi restaurant… because it is fish. Fish is good for you!
I discovered that more than 90 percent of consumed seafood in the United States is imported from places like China, the Mediterranean, South America, and Australia. Most of the food offered to us comes from other countries. The government even blocked labeling that would tell us where our food originated. This concerns me and I am not alone.
The organic movement has rapidly grown throughout the United States. There is a call for transparency in the supply chain. I’ve been on the organic, locally-grown bandwagon for several years now, but it was only this weekend that I thought about fish.
I was very excited to learn that there are others that have already thought about where and how we source our fish. Ways to meet the demands of our increased desire for seafood. Interest in organic and small farms has also renewed the market for American fish.
People are already creating ways for us to continue our love for seafood, while creating sustainable and regional supply chains. Technology, alliances, and awareness make a rebirth in the American fishing industry possible.
COMMUNITY SUPPORTED FISHING
As the sky turns from night to dawn, the fishermen set off in search of their harvest. Often gone for several days at a time without a guarantee of finding the ocean’s bounty, the life of a fisherman is a daily gamble. Their workplace is as unpredictable as their potential income.
In Beaufort, South Carolina, Captain Laten “Pops” Reaves doesn’t shy away from life as a fisherman. He began working on boats when he was 13 years old. By 16, he was the captain of the Cheryl Ann. He’s trawled for shrimp from Mexico to Virginia, “a seaman is someone that has to love the ocean, has to know what the ocean can do, and respect it. You got to know a little bit about everything. You got to be an engineer. You got to be a navigator. All in one package.” Pops has lost toes and his favorite shrimping boat to the sea, but he prefers not to dwell on the negative.
The original company he founded in 1970, Reaves Brother’s Seafood in Holden Beach, North Carolina, has grown to a four-generation company with a mission to change the seafood business model.
Over the past 20 years, the seafood industry has declined in the United States with many fishermen across the country abandoning their boats in favor of a more stable industry. The family moved the boats from Holden Beach to Beaufort in 1992 when the industry in Beaufort was about 90 vessels strong.
The family realized in the late 1990s that the American fishing industry was, “literally on the brink of extinction,” said Craig Reaves, Pops’ son. Large corporations and foreign countries flooded the American market with seafood. There are, “less than fifteen commercial shrimp boats,” left in Beaufort, he added.
When others gave up, the Reaves dug deep. In order to stay afloat, the family pooled their funds to make ends meet. They tried a variety of businesses to ensure they would continue to fish. Through their trial and error, they have found the right mix.
Business for the Reaves became more stable when they put a focus on community.
Community Supported Fishery (CSF)
The Reaves launched Community Supported Fishery to help themselves, their fellow seaman, and the South Carolina fishing industry. Through the family’s Sea Eagle Market, a retail and wholesale market, the community can partner with their local fisherman.
The partnership allows the seafood to go directly from the sea to the dinner table during the season. It also ensures that the fishermen have the working capital to keep their boats ready for harvest.
CSF helps the consumer save money, keeps money in the local economy, and preserves the South Carolina fishing heritage. Pre-paying for twelve weeks of in-season, low-impact, locally and freshly caught fish, shellfish, or shrimp secures the local fishing industry’s future. It also builds a relationship between the community and the fishermen.
- Our ultimate goal is to get the freshest South Carolina seafood to our state’s communities.
- To preserve and prolong our South Carolina commercial fishing heritage by keeping South Carolina seafood in South Carolina.
- Continue to generate jobs for our families and yours by re-establishing fleets and vessels on South Carolina’s working waterfront.
Certified SC Seafood
People want to buy local and organic produce and meats. Until recently, these terms did not have a legal definition, which meant that they could be used by anyone and defined however they saw fit.
For instance, a “local” product at Publix supermarket means that it was grown in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, or South Carolina where the company has stores. It wasn’t until the 2008 federal Farm Bill that the word “local” received its first legal definition, as a food that is marketed less than 400 miles from its origin.
Confusion still remains in the marketplace and not everyone is honest nor transparent about where the food originates.
In 2013, Oceana, a conservation group, traveled the country and purchased 1,200 seafood samples. They found that 33 percent of their purchased seafood did not follow the Food and Drug Administration labeling guidelines. Another of their reports found that consumers paid up to double for mislabeled seafood at restaurants when the restaurant served cheaper alternatives.
So, how can the consumer know that their fish is actually local? Craig Reaves in collaboration with the South Carolina Seafood Alliance, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture added a new certification to the state’s certified local program, Certified SC Seafood.
The Certified SC Seafood logo may only appear on packaging by an approved licensed wholesale dealer, distributor, retailer, aquaculture permit holder, or shellfish mariculture permit holder. The approval requires an application through the marketing department at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
The program’s goal is to help consumers easily identify South Carolina farmers, products, and seafood.
FISH SUPPORTED FARMING
Standing in an opaque greenhouse are rows of leafy greens floating on rafts and ripening tomatoes sitting in perlite, a volcanic material. Overhead, strawberries dangle from cylindrical containers. This farm is not an ordinary farm. The only soil that reaches this greenhouse is under the floor.
The farm is an aquaponic farm, a process of combining hydroponics, growing crops in a soilless system, and aquaculture (the raising of fish). This closed cycle farming system helps plants grow faster, yet uses 90 percent less water than soil farming and allows the plants to grow in a tighter environment. The only water loss in the recirculation is through evaporation and transpiration from the plant leaves.
Aquaponics allows the farm to grow a wide variety of pesticide- and herbicide-free plants in an atmosphere that promotes faster growth. The water is in continuous motion bringing a fresh supply of nutrients directly to the root of the plant, rather than the plant needing to seek nutrients to absorb from the ground.
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Aquaponic farms are generally small, which means that they do not own large farming equipment and harvesting is done by hand. The farm’s only need for power is for the water pump that recycles the water.
Reservoirs collect rainwater runoff from the greenhouse, which accounts for 95 percent of the water used on the farm. The water is pumped up eight feet into the large fish tanks that reside in the greenhouse. A second tank sits lower than the fish tanks to capture the overflow. Gravity removes the solid fish waste leaving nitrites and ammonia.
As the water moves through the cycle, the bacteria converts nitrites and ammonia into nitrate-rich plant food. This nutrient water flows under the plant rafts and through the absorbent perlite where the plant roots soak up the nitrates before the water returns to the reservoir and continues the cycle.
Several farms choose to farm Tilapia, one of the most popular kinds of seafood in the United States. This freshwater fish is called, “The Chicken of Sea,” for its mild taste and firm, porous texture. It also happens that Tilapia is one of the easiest fish to raise.
Native to the Nile River Basin on lower Egypt in Africa, the tropical fish is one of the oldest farmed fish on the planet. A 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb displays a bas-relief of Tilapia ponds. This species also delays breeding until the fish ages, which allows farmers to easily maintain the population.
While Tilapia is popular, it is not the only fish raised on aquaponic farms. The fish available on the farm depends on the farmer, however, Trout, Bluegill, Catfish, Largemouth Bass, Goldfish, and Koi can also be found.
The popularity of aquaponic farming and the desire for most aquaponics farmers is to be as natural as possible, which means that some farms might only grow species native to their area.
SEA TO TABLE
There are two dishes that I love more than a clean fish. They are two South Carolina seafood staples: the Lowcountry Boil and Shrimp and Grits. Oh man, I just made my stomach growl.
The Lowcountry Boil is also called Frogmore Stew. Don’t worry, you will not have to track down frogs for this dish. It is named after the very small South Carolina town of Frogmore that once served as the mailing address for the people that lived on St. Helena Island.
In a pot, combine local shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn. You can add other ingredients like butter, onion, or crab. Lay down some newspaper, take out the napkins, and let the crowd chow down.
Shrimp and Grits
This humble dish is a true regional food that has garnered national fame. It originates from the Charleston area and was locally known as “Shrimps and Hominy,” the local term used for grits.
In 1985, a writer at The New York Times stopped in for Chef Bill Neal’s Shrimp with Cheese Grits at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The following morning the recipe was published in the newspaper.
You might be able to order Shrimp and Grits in Anchorage, Alaska, and a Lowcountry Boil in San Francisco, California, but always remember to look for locally-sourced seafood. Help every small boat fisherman or aquaponic farmer stay in business. These are small business owners that care about their product and their community.
The businesses that care about their product and where they source their food also care about their reputation within the community. Knowing your local fisherman or fish farmers or where the fish originates gives you peace of mind. You will not lose sleep wondering if you unwittingly poisoned yourself with radioactive fish.
About William Emerson
A Christian and patriot, William Emerson is a small town boy who enjoys football and everything American. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” - Philippians 2:3