Tag Archives: fish

Do you know if your seafood is “sustainable”? (Don’t worry, neither do I)

Seafood photo

Post by Lillian Brown, PhD student in Anthropology and Food Studies at Indiana University

I recently started a crowd-funding campaign for my dissertation research on sustainability in the seafood industry. I want to know if I can, and how I would, determine whether or not the seafood on my plate is “sustainable”. To answer this question, I need to have a pretty clear picture of where the particular seafood in question comes from. Then I need to decide how to define and measure its sustainability. Most consumer-driven seafood conservation efforts encourage individuals to engage in this type of informed decision-making, which is why I chose to start my research at this stage of inquiry.

Having already worked on sustainable food systems and seafood research for a notable portion of my undergraduate and graduate careers, I knew this would be no easy task—therein laying the research potential. But I also knew that by the time we consumers order seafood off a menu or a display case, someone else has already significantly narrowed our options. This process limits the access we have to information about how this seafood got to the marketplace, and what other options exist. Even the most intrepid consumers would have to work pretty hard to fill in the gaps.

The Author.

The Author.

I wondered where this hypothetical intrepid-consumer would start. So I decided to ask restaurants how they decide what fish and shellfish they serve. Imagine the seafood supply chain. Fishers and fish farmers capture and produce fish. Suppliers and/or distributors buy this fish and sell it to restaurants and markets, which in turn sell and serve it to their consumers. So when consumers purchase seafood from a retailer, the middlemen in this supply chain have already in large part determined our choices for us.  My question, then, is what can these middlemen tell us about sustainability in the seafood industry?

Working in restaurant kitchens, and with seafood distributors and wholesalers I will ask what really matters to them when they buy seafood to sell and serve to their customers. What are their options, and how do they determine their priorities? How do they quantify, or qualify, their criteria? I want to know if they care whether or not seafood is “sustainable”—if so, why, and how do they define it? Then, I will do an archival analysis of federal US and International policy documents, as well as popular conservation efforts and scientific research focusing on sustainable seafood to see if the rhetoric these groups use matches my results in the field.

I expect to find that industry professionals and fishers can talk about eating seafood as well as where it came from at the same time, even in the context of sustainability. A cook’s preference for fish, for instance, will depend on the cut of the fish (fillet or a steak), how it is preserved (fresh, currently or previously frozen, smoked, pickled, salted and dried), and its origin (cold vs. warm water, fresh vs. salt water, farmed vs. wild caught). It will also depend on the technology they plan to cook it with—whether they will deep-fry it, pan fry it, cook it on a grill, or put it in a soup. Many types of seafood taste better, cheaper, or only available at certain times of year due to seasonality, and will often correspond with holidays or family traditions. Specific types of seafood fare better in certain recipes, or culinary styles (paella vs. ceviche, for example). All of these factors contribute to the way a fish will taste on a plate. And, in any case, restaurants and fishers alike may value price and the ability to move product over other variables.

Most policy-makers and scientists consider seafood production and consumption independently from each other. And these conversations usually revolve around how much fish we are eating. But we don’t know very much about how seafood values shift in the marketplace. This is because current fishing research and policy focuses almost entirely on modes of production. What I would like to find is a way to bridge communication between the seafood industry, policy-makers, scientists through conversations about eating sustainable seafood.

For more information on the project, please visit the Microryza site here.

Note from the editor: Readers will notice that the author of this post has provided a link to a Microryza web site. This is a crowdfunding web site for science research. It seems that at least some graduate students in anthropology are using this as a way to fund their research. SAFN welcomes blog postings from graduate students whose work is related to the anthropology of food and nutrition that follow this model. Such postings must, of course, follow our other guidelines (see the Blog Contributors page for more details) for contributions to the blog.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, economics, fish, food policy, Food Studies, foodways, markets, SAFN Member Research, seafood

Fish and Ships: Exploring Seascapes and Engagements in Seafood Politics; a AAA 2013 panel!

2013-Logo-154x200

Organizers: Shingo Hamada (Indiana University) and Lillian Brown (Indiana University)

This session explores the interplay of humans and the sea through seafood production, circulation, and consumption. Anthropologists have studied economic systems since the birth of the discipline, and introductory courses in anthropology usually cover hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and horticulture. However in anthropology, fishing does not receive as much attention as other economic activities. Despite the emergence and development of interdisciplinary food studies, most programs focus mainly on agricultural systems, with fisheries and aquaculture an afterthought. In discussing the omnivore’s dilemma, we know what herbivore and carnivore mean and critically discuss their relations to the environment, but piscivory falls into the space between them.

Fish swim cross physical, political, and ontological boundaries, and seafood leads us to fruitful discussions of anthropological theories and methodologies to capture fish, ships, and dishes. Concerns about genetically modified frankenfish and the accumulation of contaminating substances such as mercury in fish makes seafood “simultaneously healthful and hazardous” (Mansfield 2012). Seafood challenges modernist dualist ontology and leads us to reconsider the work of purification that constructs countless dichotomies which fail to incorporate the complexities that anthropologists study. These include healthy food and junk food; organic and industrial; food production and consumption, to name a few. In the meantime, the specialized skills of the maritime anthropologist, such as diving skills, immunity to seasickness, and dealing with cultural norms that limit anthropologists’ access to boats and other work places, require us to explore interdisciplinary exchanges and research projects.

Does the fact that human beings are terrestrial animals spatially limit social scientific and humanistic inquiries of seafood and seascapes? This session addresses seafood as an underrepresented field in anthropology. We solicit papers that present case studies from any geographic region discussing, but not limited to; the social construction of oceans, risks, and hazards; technologies and techniques around seafood procurement and preparation or preservation; the socio-cultural, and gastronomic importance of seafood; sustainable seafood production and consumption; seafood and disaster; and, seafood safety and security in neoliberal regimes. How do government policies both create and manipulate the dangers of the sea? What are the methodological challenges in the anthropology of seafood? How do the difficulties in access to the field in seascapes influence the way we engage the interconnectivity among seafood production, distribution, consumption and waste?  What particular domains and to which fields can anthropological studies of seafood contribute? At the end of the session the presenters, discussant, and audiences will discuss how anthropologists can best engage with seafood politics, from sustainable fisheries to food choice and consumption.

If interested, please send Shingo Hamada (hamadas@indiana.edu) and Lillian Brown (lillbrow@indiana.edu) an abstract and your contact information by March 8. We are looking to submit a session proposal by the March 15 deadline.

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, fish, food policy

Smokin’ Fish, Smokin’ Culture

by David Beriss

Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?

Cory Mann. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.

Smoking Fish. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.

The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.

At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.

Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.

The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.

1 Comment

Filed under Alaska, anthropology, culture, economics, film, fish, food security, hunting, indigenous people, media, seafood, sustainability