While terrestrial seasons are relatively fixed geographically
(just try growing peppers in frozen soil), the seasons of the sea
are more fluid. Different species of fish populate different parts
of the ocean at different times depending on water temperature,
individual breeding habits, and the migration of prey. Atlantic
herring, for example, are more likely to be found in Chesapeake Bay
between January and March as they migrate to the Gulf of Maine.
When and where fish spawn is also a factor in determining
whether or not they are in ‘season.’ Disturb that Atlantic herring
during reproduction and there’s a danger not only of depleting
stock in the short term but also of altering the food chain long
term, affecting the availability and health of other fish (in this
case, the increasingly popular Atlantic tuna) and changing the
migratory patterns of yet others.
When this sort of snowball effect goes into motion, it leads to
overreliance on industrial fishing operations, which tend to travel
into deeper waters with high-tech equipment to take a heavy toll on
the ecosystem. There’s also a tendency to import fish from
countries with lax environmental regulations.
Short of moving to Cape Cod, the best way to suss out what’s in
season where is to do your homework before hitting the seafood
counter. A good place to start is The Fish List
stockpile of consumer-friendly seafood information created by a
reputable trio: the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute,
and Environmental Defense. The more you know about the status of
various species of fish, the better equipped you are to diversify
your seafood selections and help fisheries maintain a sustainable
balance of supply. You might also be surprised by the options.
Hankering for the texture and flavor of red snapper? If it’s in
short supply, striped bass is a tasty substitute.
While information about seasonal seafood is beginning to make
its way into the mainstream, it is still a relatively new concept
in the industry, introduced in 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries
Act, which was designed to protect fish in certain areas during
certain times of the year so they can spawn, feed, and breed.
Further study of the human health benefits of seasonal fish is
needed to convince consumers that the issue transcends
environmentalism to affect everyday diet. According to U.S.
Department of Agriculture testing, for instance, wild salmon have
more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids essential to prevent
various diseases than farmed salmon.
If the recent surge in demand for food from small, local,
ecologically responsible farms is any indication, chances are good
that consumers who have already begun to appreciate the quirky
beauty of heirloom tomatoes, and the homegrown terroir of local
cheese, will acquire a taste for what our seas can support.