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Celebrate Watermen during National Seafood Month

Working Waterfront in Bass Harbor, Maine
Working Waterfront in Bass Harbor, Maine. Photo: Barton Seaver

Walking the aisles of my local grocery store I was struck by the seasonal expression of the products featured. Not seasonal as in all of the vegetables mimicked that which you’d find at the local farmers market, available only in a distinct season. No, there were still strawberries and asparagus, Spring crops from another hemisphere, examples of our global food supply. The season was expressed by the aisle end caps, the great pagan altars of the marketing gods.

Of course, every store has to look forward to the next big sales event. Once Christmas is over the aisles turn instantly to Valentine’s Day, even though it’s a tough two-month slog away. Valentine’s to Easter candy. Easter candy to grilling season to “Back to School,” to Halloween and Thanksgiving, which due to their proximity are nearly the same holiday in terms of inventory control.

So there I was, the first week of October looking at packages of stuffing, cans of pumpkin pie filling, cranberry sauce, gravy. You get the picture. All of a sudden, Thanksgiving, with all of its mandatory staples was upon me.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays; anything focused around a meal usually places well by my judging. I like the obligatory meal because it does actually represent the true seasonality of the ingredients that are considered essential. I like that it celebrates the role that food had in early diplomacy, as well as pays homage to the fact that we are nothing, neither great nor able without the sustaining nourishment of food.

We take a lot of things for granted, especially the great bounty we are so blessed to share in. But it wasn’t always that way, and for many in this country and on this planet food still represents a fundamental struggle. During Thanksgiving, we remember the blessings of the land, we pay respect to the farmers who provide for our tables, we celebrate what is provided for us.

National Seafood Month

But, it is still October, and there is another minor American marketing holiday taking place — one that has not quite found its footing between the candy-saturated neon plastic pumpkins and the wholesome land-centric gluttony of turkey day.

October is National Seafood Month. While we spend one day every year in food coma-induced reverence for farmers, we have a whole month dedicated to celebrating the watermen who provide for our tables year round. As much as the first colonies in America were saved by the shared bounty of this land, the country itself was founded on the bounty of the seas.

The watermen of this great nation have continued to provide for our tables, enduring in tradition through some very hard times. We have not had the healthiest relationship with our waters. While horror stories abound about failing fisheries, over-consumption, depleted oceans and polluted coasts, there are equal number stories of success and restoration.

As with all of our food stuffs, we have largely forgotten the source of the products that sustain us. With seafood, this commoditization has led to some cases of wholesale destruction of our commons, but also a near and complete decoupling of the fact that fishermen, just like farmers, are the sole source of our access to the healthy and delicious seafoods which so many of us love. Without fishermen, there is no seafood.

NOAA recently released its statistics for 2011 on the state of U.S. fisheries. In this report there are a great many success stories, a good number of lingering disasters, and the to-do list is long. But the most startling figure is that last year 91% of the seafood that we ate in this country was imported from foreign shores.

That means that even if you live in Boston, Seattle, Louisiana, Florida, places storied for their seafood, most seafood you ate came from distant waters.

While there are an exceptional number of difficult issues surrounding seafood — its sourcing, fisheries science, waterfront community security, subsidies, over capacity of fleets, etc, the main issue at hand is that we no longer have any cultural knowledge of a fisherman’s identity or how they impact our lives.

So this month, as you plan meals for entertaining or for a rushed family dinner, try to find ways to acknowledge the source of the seafood you choose to put on your table. Look to tools such as our NatGeo Seafood Decision Guide, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, look for the blue check mark on packaging that indicates a Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery.

Buy American Seafood

But before any of that, attempt a simple and delicious act of patriotism. Buy seafood that is produced in the United States. The U.S. has the best managed and most highly regulated fisheries and aquaculture in the world. While not all of our practices and products are perfect, each and all are under a management plan that will ensure the continued bounty of our seas. And each purchase of domestically produced seafood is an investment towards the restored prosperity of American watermen’s jobs, and a renewal of the health of our seas.

It is an imperfect solution, there is no one silver bullet to solve the ocean and community crises that we face. But to reconnect with a fisherman, to support a community that provides for our tables and whose delicious product sustains our health is a vital first step to creating enduring access to our commons through an industry to which every American owes a great debt of gratitude.

As we enter this season of paying respect, give thanks for seafood, give thanks for watermen, gives thanks that we may continue to participate in the bounty of our seas through the fishing communities that provide for our tables.

Next time you’re shopping, stocking up for the Halloween festivities, don’t forget to pick up some delicious American seafood. I hear that it’s healthier for you than candy!

Click here for a few ideas of easy recipes featuring sustainable American seafood.