At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Monday, June 13, 2011

Badlands - Badfish

By Niaz Dorry, NAMA's Coordinating Director

I got pulled over in Illinois. I’ve been driving across the country with my dog Hailey heading to BALLE’s national conference, amongst other stops.

Getting pulled over is never fun. The highway patrol officer asked me what I was up to… was I on vacation or what? I told him I was headed to Bellingham, Washington to give a talk on fisheries issues. He asked for the typical stuff… my driver’s license and registration. But he also asked for my business card. I gave him a card and one of our seafood wallet cards. He went off to his car as I anxiously awaited my fate.

He came back and handed me my stuff plus a written warning (you have to read the whole blog to find out what I was warned about). Then he went on to talk about fisheries issues. He said the reason he was interested was that along the Mississippi River, where he lives, small scale commercial fishermen are losing their businesses to fish farms, imported seafood and big chain stores and with that has come loss of tradition, livelihoods, access to good local fish, businesses and a social element of their communities which are deeply connected to the river’s environment. Sound familiar? It seems even in the mid-west who fishes matters.

We went on to discuss what’s going on around the world and how fishing communities everywhere are facing the same problems.

I was grateful to only have a warning and went on my way. As I drove through the mid-west stopping at various places for meals, I couldn’t help noticing the seafood items on the menus… “farm-raised white fish” was the most predominant item. How much more generic can we get? White fish? What is that? What happened to recognizing our food? Do we put “round red globes” on the menu instead of tomatoes? Or “red meat” instead of beef or lamb?

Going through South Dakota was one of the highlights of the trip. Having never been there before, I was looking forward to taking a couple of days to hike through the Badlands and the Black Hills. As I expected, the place took my breath away. The history and scenery was amazing. I could imagine what the place looked liked when the buffalo were running free, the original people taking care of the land and there were no billboards advertising all you can eat shrimp. Almost all the seafood advertised in this area comes either from factory farms or factory fishing operations.

Spearfish Creek Canyon, South Dakota
It was on the menu of a tiny little place called Cheyenne Crossing that I noticed particular attention to where their seafood comes from. Alaskan cod and halibut were the main items featured, which are not bad considering the Pacific Northwest is the closest place to this part of the world where marine based fishing is taking place. So in many ways, they were offering as local as they could. But Cheyenne Crossing is right on the Spearfish Creek where fishing used to be a mainstay. Mining in the Black Hills affected the river’s health and it has taken years for it to be considered healthy. Recreational fishing happens on the Creek, but I couldn’t tell if there was any fish from the Creek actually on any menus. Which took me back to the stop in Illinois and the story the highway patrol officer told me about their local fisheries.

I realized even more the importance of our work on fleet diversity and maintaining healthy marine fisheries that feed our food systems, our communities, our economies and our lives without undermining the health of the ocean.

By the way, I was pulled over for following too closely. I didn’t want to argue about how the car in front me pulled in from the left lane once s/he saw the highway patrol car in the median. Talking about whether it would have been safer for me to break suddenly or pull abruptly in the left lane was not going to be as much fun or productive as the conversation I ended up having with the officer. Talking about fisheries instead put us on a level playing field and created a connection between two ships passing on the Illinois toll road.


  1. You're a person who gives talks about fisheries and you've never heard of Whitefish (the species) or Whitefish (the generic term)?

    Are you familiar with the fact that most restaurants buy their seafood weekly or sometimes daily and therefore do not know ahead of time what exact kind of fish they will be serving? Most try to buy one type of whitefish and one type of darkfish. Since menus tend to be permanent, they usually don't say what exact kind of fish is being served. Instead some just say "ask your server" and others say "our whitefish" and "our darkfish"

    I should think if you are going to be giving lectures you ought to know these things.

  2. Thanks for your comment and teaching me more about restaurants work. The point I was trying to make is that we need to go beyond dark and white fish and actually know the species. It's only then that we can truly protect them. The servers don't often know. Often the chefs don't even know. It's very much up to the restaurant and their values. I once asked what fish I was about to get and they said salmon. I asked what kind of salmon and they said Atlantic. I asked if it was wild, they said yes. Nothing can be farther from the truth unless the restaurant is engaged in the trade of endangered species.

    The paradigm shift we are seeking with our work - and the main subject of my talks - is to change the catching, selling and buying habits so that we don't reduce marine animals to such generic terms. The public needs to know more and as I mentioned earlier often the servers don't know what they are serving.

    Restaurants need to change their habits and we are working on marketing shifts that can help with that process, especially the process of letting restaurants know what is available seasonally and at the time of their purchase.

  3. what? change their habits? Restaurants buy their fish weekly or daily and because of freshness issues they CANNOT PREDICT what they will be buying. Servers cannot be expected to always remember what today's fish is especially if someone forgot to tell them. Yeah, a good server will remember but there's a reason the "catch of the day" is usually written on a chalkboard. It has nothing to do with bad restaurant practices and everything to do with complying with health and safety laws as well as trying to get good quality. Fish sellers usually come to the restaurant with a few choices. If one seller doesn't have quality stuff, the kitchen manager will call their backup seller. You clearly have no idea how this works. Even the cheap diners I've worked at, if they actually use fresh fish then they often don't know what it is until its in the fridge. And many times (usually Monday or Tuesday) they may not know because last week's fish hasn't been all used yet and this week's fish hasn't been broken into yet.
    Your attitude that restaurants are just being lazy is astounding to me.

  4. if anything, you need to work with suppliers. Fish sellers. Restaurants are mostly at their mercy through quality and price. To expect a restaurant buyer to be responsible for the selection of seafood they purchase is expecting far too much. I doubt many restauranteurs will listen at all. Especially when you display no understanding of how food purchasing works.

  5. Smibbo, you are clearly a resturant owner. What Niaz is trying to explain is beyond your knowledge of the global problem. You are basically missing the point here and taking the matter personal.

  6. no, I'm not a restaurant owner. I've worked in many many restaurants of all types for over 20 years, so I DO know what I'm talking about.

    I don't take issue with Niaz' "point" overall but to act outraged or even just huffy that restaurants use a terminology that SHE does not understand is ridiculous. When I explained the terminology she replied that restaurants need to change their habits? What? That still makes no sense to me. How can they put the specific species of fish on the menu if they do not know what fish they will be buying next week? I totally understand what she is doing and I am suggesting she put her efforts in a more production direction. Telling kitchen managers that they need to "change their habits" about buying fish is going to get her politeness at best. Most of them will chuckle at her ignorance and go right back to being dependent upon their fish supplier.

  7. MY point is that most restaurant buyers don't know where their fish is coming from and they don't have much choice in the matter. They don't have free market choices to take their business elsewhere because their choices are based on availability, price and value for dollar. Foremost, restaurant buyers want to have steady supply. They want predictable quality and they want decent price. They are dependent upon two or maybe three fish suppliers in their area. They can't afford to be super-choosy unless they are some weird high- end place that ships their own fish in.

    If you're going to be lecturing about something like this, you need to know the terminology and the realities of the people you are lecturing to. Otherwise you're just another privileged do-gooder to them.

  8. I really do appreciate your thoughts and passion about this, Smibbo.

    I do have some understanding of how restaurants work as we have been working with quite a few of them around these issues. We are also working with suppliers so the work of the restaurant owners can be made easier. Maybe what we are doing there should be the subject of another blog so we can give you and others a better sense of where we are coming from.

    I also do understand there is are fresh water species that are referred to as Whitefish. My frustration - or the reason I got huffy as you say - is because I see whitefish used as a generic term so much without referring to the actual species. You may think that wanting those who serve us know what they are giving us is asking the restaurant owners/kitchen managers too much. But frankly I don't think so. I work with enough restaurants to know that is one step they can take. It may take time and some restaurants might find that step easier than others. That's fine. One step at a time. But from my standpoint of living and working in a fishing community, and working with fishermen for nearly 20 years we need to get beyond the generics if we are to save the fisheries we care so much about. It's time for us to share the burden of what's happening to our oceans and we cannot do that if we treat fish like non-discript blobs of fillets.

    I will certainly take all your words to heart and we'll do our best to even better understand the restaurant world as we move forward.

    Thanks again.

  9. Thanks Niaz for your comments. Smibbo, are you familiar with what is going on in England? They are trying to get restaurants to purchase underutilized species and have been largely succesful. Restaurants do care and are willing to change....but it will take some time and much work. For more information, see here: