Be still my beating heart. A book that embraces the aquatic ape theory of evolution, and includes a recipe for jellyfish. My novel Float does too, but I was writing in the playing fields of fiction, and they are dead serious.
“They” are Oceana, an international organization whose goal is to protect the world’s oceans, and in effect, feed the world. This is the organization behind the seafood fraud study that showed that one-third of all seafood in America was mislabeled, from supermarkets to sushi restaurants. If you have heard the term “boat to plate,” that is the tracking system Oceana is pushing for in order to verify seafood species and its source. Aside from knowing that you are in fact eating scallops and not fish cheeks, this act would reduce illegal fishing, a plague upon the high seas.
But that is just one part of a larger agenda. Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana, and is the narrator, with Suzannah Evans, of The Perfect Protein, The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World (Rodale Press, 2013). Not quite sure why vegan Bill Clinton wrote a foreword to a book extolling the virtues of eating fish, but he did, waving the banner of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 he signed into law while president.
After bashing the industrial livestock complex around for a few pages (the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, worse than CO2), Sharpless sells the reader on the benefits of eating seafood, that perfect protein. Why do terrestrial mammals such as ourselves need omega-3s, which is found mostly in fish? Where is our body pelt of hair? Why do we have the same layer of fat marine mammals have? Allow me to introduce you to the aquatic ape theory, which proposes that we evolved not from a land-loving arboreal ape but one that lived a semi-aquatic existence in flooded plains. A chef in my novel Float — who is known for his jellyfish soup, and not in a good way — insists that we must continue to feed this layer of marine fat for when the water starts rising again due to global warming.
But I digress. The point is, our bodies have evolved to crave seafood in our diets. And like all other natural resources humans have had their eye on, it is seriously depleted and in danger of disappearing altogether. It’s not just overfishing either; it is the way we fish. Trawling comes under particular scrutiny, being a nightmare for both the fisheries and the ocean environment, methodically destroying the ocean floor and everything in its path. Bottom trawlers destroy 4 to 16 pounds of marine life for every fish they catch.
Sharpless asks if it is possible to choose healthy sustainable seafood. But what is sustainable? There is no official government definition, so anyone can slap it on the label. Oceana defines it as wild fish or shellfish that is harvested at a scientifically determined rate that allows the population to rebuild itself each year, and should be harvested without any detrimental effect to the marine environment or wildlife, i.e., no trawling, no bycatch (the fish and wildlife that’s caught alongside the targeted seafood species, then dumped dead back into the ocean). Farmed fish is a no-no because of environmental pollutants and the fact that fish farmers take food, such as anchovies, from the mouths of wild fish to feed their captives. The exception is farmed shellfish, such as clams and mussels, who eat algae and plankton on their own, and clean the water as they grow big enough the dinner table. Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch for a pocket guide when shopping for seafood.
That’s what consumers can do. The bigger question is what can governments do? For them, Oceana proposes three principles of good ocean management:
- Protect the habitats that foster ocean life.
- Reduce the scourge of bycatch.
- Set quotas based on science, not the fishing industry’s bottom line.
Sharpless admits that when sustainability measures work, they often begin with short-term pain, but once you get fishing pressure down to a reasonable level, the fish usually return. The fishermen who are left catch more fish, make more money, and create more jobs. I live in Gloucester and it is painful to watch this short-term pain. Boats sit idle at the dock, then go up for sale. Unemployment is on the rise, which means people will leave in search of jobs. The problem for places like Gloucester is, if and when the fisheries bounce back, will we still have a fishing infrastructure, or will the harbor have been turned over to tourism and condo units?
It is a sad prospect to contemplate. In the meantime, try eating a wider range of seafood. Here is Mario Batali’s recipe for Jellyfish Salad reprinted in The Perfect Protein. Batali, the king of Italian cooking, is also an ocean conservationist. He understands that we have squandered the protein of our oceans to such a great extent that we may have to cook with what’s left, the same premise as the not so successful jellyfish soup in Float. I’ll be hosting a sustainable seafood dinner to support the Gloucester Writers Center in September. Guests, be forewarned.
Mario Batali’s Jellyfish Salad with Golden Tomatoes, Opal Basil, and Arugula,
from The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali (Clarkson Potter, 2002)
Prep time, 10 minutes, serves 4
1 pound salted jellyfish*, tentacles removed
1 pint yellow and red pear tomatoes, halved
10 opal basil leaves, sliced thinly just before serving
1 bunch arugula, washed and spun dry, woody stems removed
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/3 cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil + additional for brushing bread slices
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 slices (each 1” thick) peasant bread, grilled or toasted
Soak the jellyfish for 30 minutes in a large bowl filled with cold water. Repeat until the water runs clear. Cut the body into thin slices and place in large bowl.
Add the tomatoes, basil, and arugula to the bowl. Add the vinegar, 1/3 cup of the oil, and the salt and pepper and toss well to coat evenly. Divide the salad among 4 chilled plates. Brush each toasted bread slice with olive oil. Serve immediately.
*Jellyfish can be found in most Asian markets. Be sure to wear gloves when handling.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s. Her collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023.