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What's an environmentally-concerned fish-pusher to do?

June 25, 1998

Dennis Shaw

I promise. I promise. I'll never push oysters again.

It was a bad habit of mine in the first place, I confess. Any time anyone would tell me they didn't like some sort of food, I'd take it as a personal challenge.

"Well," I'd say smugly. "You've never tried my scalloped oysters. You'll love them."

So I'd make scalloped oysters and watch their faces closely as they took their first bite. Alas, some people still didn't like oysters. Other people refused to try them, period. But a few enlightened folks would admit that they were good, and they'd become oyster fans. Victory!

It wasn't just with oysters. I'd also do it with things like mustard greens and brussels sprouts and lamb kidneys and boiled beef tongue. The less appetizing something sounded, the harder I'd try to turn people on to it.

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But I've changed somewhat. I still push brussels sprouts, but no more oysters or fish. My dreaded "environmental guilt" has surfaced.

Maybe it's because 1998 is the "Year of the Ocean." I'm seeing more articles than usual about how we're over-fishing the seas and seriously depleting the stocks of many kinds of fish. The clincher was when I read that more than 300 of the nation's top chefs took swordfish off their menus. They said we're harvesting them before they have a chance to mature, and unless we start protecting them now, there won't be any swordfish in the future.

I've known for years that oysters, particularly from Chesapeake Bay, have become expensive and scarce due to over-harvesting and disease. And one day the light bulb came on in my feeble brain: why on earth I was trying to turn oyster haters into oyster lovers? It just made them cost more and harder to get. Why make it worse?

I also read horror stories about the "by-catch" of other fish that are killed in the process of catching the ones we want to eat. "Dolphin-safe" tuna is a rare exception; most other fish have little protection.

I vowed I'd stop trying to get people to eat fish. But it was hard. I just couldn't stop being pushy. However, I took a new tack, and switched my sights to farm-raised fish. This seemed like a solution. Instead of depleting stocks of ocean fish, I'd promote commercially farmed shrimp and salmon and catfish.

But I made the mistake of reading up on fish farming. Alas, from an environmental perspective, it's far from a perfect alternative. Fish farms create some significant environmental problems of their own.

Worst of all seem to be shrimp farms. Many of them are created by cutting down endangered mangrove forests, which are rich wildlife habitats. Also, many fish farms cause pollution with their animals wastes, just like the mass raising of chickens and hogs.

One farm-raised fish, tilapia, seems to be safe, because it's raised in enclosed tanks and can carefully be controlled. But it's no fun to push tilapia, because it's a mild and tasty fish to begin with, so most people I know already like it. There's just no challenge in trying to get people to like that.

Dear, oh dear. What's an environmentally-concerned fish-pusher to do?

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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