JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest story in our series about food in America, a collaboration between the “NewsHour” and NPR.
Tonight, our focus is on seafood, and specifically a movement to ensure sustainable seafood. That means fish caught domestically and locally, and not fished to extinction.
Despite the vast expanse of shoreline in this country, more than 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported. Many conservationists, fishermen and foodies are out to change this.
Special correspondent Allison Aubrey of NPR News has the story.
ALLISON AUBREY: Cape Cod, Massachusetts, named for the cod, but that’s not what fisherman Jamie Eldredge is catching today. Cod’s been overfished in these waters. Now he’s laying his lines for a fish that most American’s have never even heard of. It’s called dogfish.
And was it a good catch? How much did you land?
JAMIE ELDREDGE, Fisherman: It’s a daily limit of 6,000 pounds, and probably was just a little shy of it today.
ALLISON AUBREY: That fish ends up here at this processing plant just up the road.
So, this is dogfish here, kind of a long sharky-looking thing?
BRIAN MARDER, Owner, Marder Trawling: Yes. Yes, it is the most plentiful fish we have on the East Coast right now.
ALLISON AUBREY: Owner Brian Marder says the Chatham fishermen will bring in six million pounds of dogfish this year. His operation turns that spiky shark into long white fillets.
Who’s buying this fish?
BRIAN MARDER: This is all being packed for the European export market.
ALLISON AUBREY: I’m told that the French love it. They call it salmonetes.
BRIAN MARDER: Salmonete, yes.
ALLISON AUBREY: Which sounds kind of fancy.
BRIAN MARDER: Yes.
ALLISON AUBREY: Are you telling me that everything being processed here is just going to be shipped out?
BRIAN MARDER: Yes, it is.
ALLISON AUBREY: Ninety-nine percent of it?
BRIAN MARDER: Ninety-nine percent.
ALLISON AUBREY: While all this dogfish is shipping out to Europe, where’s the fish that Americans like to eat coming from? Turns out it’s being flown in from countries around the world, arriving at warehouses like this one we visited.
Santa Monica Seafood is one of the largest distributors on the West Coast. This year, they will distribute 42 million pounds of seafood, much of it imported. Lots of fresh caught seafood going out and tons of seafood coming in from overseas, it’s a swap that plays out across the United States, according to Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly Bio. She’s director of Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They track and rank environmentally responsible fisheries.
JENNIFER DIANTO KEMMERLY, Monterey Bay Aquarium: Over 90 percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is actually caught or farm-raised overseas. And the majority of the seafood that we catch in our U.S. fisheries doesn’t stay here in our local market. It goes to other countries.
ALLISON AUBREY: Does that make sense?
JENNIFER DIANTO KEMMERLY: We’re kind of missing out on the bounty that we actually have here. We’re not celebrating the local fisheries as much as we probably should be.
ALLISON AUBREY: And that bounty is so plentiful, the Environmental Defense Fund has launched a campaign to get Americans eating these lesser-known species from our own coastal waters.
NARRATOR: Eat These Fish is a campaign to celebrate the comeback of America’s fisheries.
ALLISON AUBREY: Like New England’s overfished cod, fisheries around the U.S. were being depleted. After environmentalists sounded alarm bells, Congress passed an act in 2006 that required fisheries to set quotas by 2011.
Now fisheries have rebounded.
Nancy Civetta is with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. She’s been trying to promote the story of dogfish. She says even with all the demand from Europe, there’s still plenty left here for Americans to eat.
NANCY CIVETTA, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance: There’s so many out there, that we don’t even catch the quota the government allows us.
ALLISON AUBREY: But here’s the challenge.
NANCY CIVETTA: We don’t eat dogfish in this country. We import salmon, tuna and shrimp. We do not eat the food that we’re bringing to shore right here.
ALLISON AUBREY: Civetta says importing most of the fish we eat could have consequences down the line.
NANCY CIVETTA: If we continue to import and buy from other countries, then our fishing industry could wither away. If we’re going to maximize the potential of this fishery, then we need to create markets, so that the fisherman can fish for it, they can better their bottom lines, and we can have a sustainable coastal community.
SEAN DIMIN, Sea to Table: So what they do is they lay down on the bottom of the ocean.
ALLISON AUBREY: Sean Dimin runs a company called Sea to Table that he says is doing just that.
SEAN DIMIN: We come out here to places like Chatham, fishing communities all around America’s coasts, and we figure out how to get the best directly to chefs, universities, distributing directly from the point of catch to the point of consumption. Beautiful photos of the fish that we can now sell directly to people’s homes.
ALLISON AUBREY: Back at Sea to Table’s Brooklyn headquarters, Dimin explains that his operation is a complete departure from the traditional model.
SEAN DIMIN: A big thing that we do is sell fish that fishermen are catching, not necessarily what American consumers and diners think they want. And that’s a big part of what we do is supporting American fishing communities.
MAN: That’s beautiful.
ALLISON AUBREY: And the model aligns perfectly with a big push at university dining halls to source their foods from more local and sustainable sources.
MAN: On the count of three, say dogfish.
ALLISON AUBREY: This group runs the dining halls at the University of Massachusetts. They serve 55,000 meals a day. They have made a commitment to bring this dogfish and other underloved fish back to their campus.
It’s at university dining halls like this one, where thousands of people eat every day, that you might be able to shake things up. These students are used to trying new things, and a lot of them love the novelty of it.
So what’s the appeal here? Why go out of the way to buy dogfish?
BOB BANKERT, Chef, University of Massachusetts: Being in western Massachusetts, we love to support the Massachusetts fisheries, and that it tastes great.
ALLISON AUBREY: University of Massachusetts chef Bob Bankert is grilling dogfish fillets. He’s lathered them in a spicy seasoning to make tacos.
At another food station, the dogfish becomes an Asian flash fry. It’s drizzled with wasabi mayo on top. The students are curious. A display tells them where the dogfish comes from and who caught it.
Selina Fournier is manager of this dining hall.
SELINA FOURNIER, Dining Hall Manager, University of Massachusetts: There’s students that may have never heard of such a fish, and so when they saw the fish here today, and then got to taste it, the whole association really creates that story and bringing it to life, and hopefully creating something exciting that they will want to order even when they’re not at UMass.
ALLISON AUBREY: Is that your hope, that you’re sort of setting a new generation of eating habits here?
SELINA FOURNIER: Definitely. We are setting the standard for the way that these students hopefully continue their health and wellness once they graduate UMass.
WOMAN: Thank you.
ALLISON AUBREY: Ruth Crawford and Ana Yrazusta went for the Asian flash fry.
So, give it a try. Tell us what you think.
ANA YRAZUSTA: Oh, my God.
RUTH CRAWFORD: It’s so good.
ANA YRAZUSTA: Amazing.
ALLISON AUBREY: What’s the biggest appeal to you here?
RUTH CRAWFORD: It’s new, local, fresh, so healthy.
ALLISON AUBREY: Sea to Table already has about 1,000 customers, including dozens of large universities and restaurant chefs. And they’re also planning to roll out direct-to-consumer delivery, so people can get fish delivered right to their front door.
And are you hoping now that, 10 years from now, most Americans know what dogfish is?
JAMIE ELDREDGE: Well, we hope so.
ALLISON AUBREY: Fishermen like Jamie Eldredge are eager to see if companies like Sea to Table can capture the taste buds of the next generation.
I’m Allison Aubrey of NPR News for the “PBS NewsHour” in Chatham, Massachusetts.