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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — March 26, 2004


Making sensible
seafood choices

Express Staff Writer

Once an occasional luxury in landlocked places such as Idaho, seafood today is booming in popularity throughout the nation.

Ahi, the once obscure Hawaiian term for yellowfin tuna, rolls off the tongues of diners from L.A. to D.C. Upscale sushi restaurants have popped up in the most unlikely mountain-town venues. And fish tacos are no longer just a treat taken in during winter getaways south of the border.

Many of us like the fact that fish is low in fat and high in protein. Others, particularly those who live along the coasts or in regions where fish is brought in fresh as air freight, cannot resist the delicate flavors that can be rendered from even the simplest preparations.

However, there are consequences to our appetite for foods from the world's oceans. The estimated $46 billion consumer seafood market in the United States directs thousands of high-tech fishing vessels after fewer and fewer fish. The world catch of ocean fish has increased by some 400 percent since 1950, bringing once-abundant populations of key food species to the brink of commercial extinction.

One study published last year in the journal Nature reported that overzealous fishing has taken an estimated 90 percent of the world's large predatory fish, including marlin, swordfish and sharks. Some scientists have predicted that the Patagonian toothfish—a species popularly marketed as Chilean sea bass—could be lost as a viable commercial species in five years or less.

Some fishing practices for highly sought-after species is blamed for damaging marine-life habitat and killing immense numbers of unwanted species as so-called bycatch. Corporate aquaculture has been blamed for polluting ocean waters and spreading disease among wild fish populations.

So, can we satisfy our cravings for the subtle perfection found in many seafoods and also do our part to protect the vitality of the oceans? The answer is most certainly "yes."

Numerous organizations today monitor the health of populations of a wide variety of seafood species. Several provide guidelines for seafood lovers and chefs to make choices that could, over time, make a difference in whether generations to come can fish for—and eat—species that are today teetering on the edge of commercial collapse.

One such organization is the California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium. Through its Seafood Watch program, it seeks to educate conscientious consumers about tailoring their choices to lessen demand for endangered fish species. The organization provides free, easy-to-understand listings of which species consumers should try to favor, or avoid. (For details, visit www.mbayaq.org.)

Fortunately, the list of "best choices" for environmentally friendly fish is long enough to allow one to fire up a feast of paella one day and a platter of cracked crab the next. It includes wild Alaskan salmon, Pacific halibut, pole-caught ahi and albacore tuna, spiny lobster, Dungeness crab and stone crab, as well as farmed clams, mussels and oysters.

Species listed as ones to "avoid" include grouper, monkfish, orange roughy, sharks, imported prawns, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, swordfish and bluefin tuna.

Those of us living in the Northwest are lucky. We are close to Alaska, where the rich waters host fisheries that are largely successful in yielding tons of fresh seafood from healthy fish stocks. Pacific halibut, wild salmon and Dungeness crab are regularly available, allowing us to savor the delights of the ocean without worrying about the consequences.

Halibut, with its flaky, white flesh, has always been in my mind one of the most versatile, delectable fishes. Simple preparations allow its delicate flavors to shine through. At the same time, it is structured enough to accommodate exotic coatings and sauces.

For an elegant, astoundingly simple meal, I often serve broiled halibut filets paired with sautéed haricots verts and couscous. It can be served with a rich chardonnay or, on a warm spring day, a dry French rosé.


Quick-broiled Pacific halibut (for 2)

2 half-pound Pacific halibut filets
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and black pepper
Half a lemon, cut in wedges
Olive oil

Preheat the oven broiler. Place the fish filets, skin side down, on a foil-covered broiling pan sprayed evenly with olive oil. Cut the butter into pieces and place over the fish. Salt the fish to taste and add liberal amounts of coarsely ground black pepper.

Cook the fish under the high heat of the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes, until the butter is melted and begins to brown evenly over the top. Turn off the broiler and turn the oven on to bake at 400 degrees. Bake for 6 to 9 minutes, until the fish is firm enough to flake. (Do not overcook. Small cuts could require less time.)

Splash the fish with lemon and serve immediately with a wedge of lemon on the side.

Gregory Foley is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express. He is a former restaurant sous-chef and a former France-based travel guide. His first novel, The Clarity of Light, was released this month.


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