Cannery Row

I recently spent a wonderful couple days with my family down in Pebble Beach.  Ironically, none of us golf.  However, that doesn't mean there weren't plenty of things to do, namely a visit to Cannery Row.  Briefly, Cannery Row in Monterey was a massive sardine fishing and canning industry back in the 1940's and 1950's.  At its peak during WWII, companies were canning 250,000 tons of sardines a season, and at its collapse in the mid 1950's a mere 1,000.  Reasons for the collapse are debated, causes being both overfishing and the natural fluctuation of sardine populations.  However, it would be undeniably foolhardy to say humans had nothing to do with it.  Nowadays, Cannery Row is a major tourist destination for its restaurants, Steinbeck history, and most especially, The Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I especially enjoy the 'juxtaposition' of the vintage canning sign with the high-performance muscle car.  Feel free to mentally punch me for having said that.

Visiting the aquarium was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.  Endless exhibits of psychedelic jellyfish, humbly terrifying sharks, and whimsical sea otters.  Tidal pools where you can pet sting rays. Dolphin shows. Model set ups of Edward Rickett's laboratory famed by Steinbeck's namesake novel.  Puffins, star fish, tuna, anemones.  Seeing everything in one day is impossible.

 Turns out taking pictures of moving fish with an iPhone is quite the challenge.  This was the best I got, a small school of anchovies.  Sorry everyone.  Photography is not my specialty.

However, while wandering through the Open Sea exhibit, I couldn't help but over hear a conversation to my right.  I was enjoying massive schools of sardines shoot by, only to be followed by enormous Hammerhead sharks and Pacific Bluefin Tuna.  All of the sudden I hear, "Man, I'd love to eat that."  Here we are, not only looking at this majestic two-decade-old bluefin tuna, but surrounded by demonstrable depletion of fisheries in the Cannery Row history, and all this dick can think is "mmm, Kuro Maguro."  I didn't say anything, seeing as how it would have ruined both mine and his day, but I would have loved to.  It certainly got me thinking, though.    

Our culture is full of all these buzzwords nowadays.  Locavore, grass-fed, free-range, sustainably-grown, and the completely exhausted organic.  No, I’m not going to delve into the entire Michael Pollan industrial food complex discussion, but there is something endemic to our dietary culture that's not good.  It both pains and excites me to see so many inquisitive diners these days (at least in my current hometown of San Francisco…enter reader eye-roll).  “Excuse me, miss.  Is this beef local and grass-fed?  Is this chicken cage-free raised?  Is this gluten-free?  I don’t have celiac’s disease, but Anderson Cooper told me gluten is bad so I don’t want it.  Do you think the chicken had friends?”  Maybe the last one’s a bit Portlandia-esque and unfair.

Yet, I've witnessed these very same customers become giddy as hell when they see Hamachi, Monkfish, or King Crab on a menu.  Put Black Rhino on your menu and people will lose their shit.  "How dare you serve an endangered species."  But put Bluefin Tuna on your menu and people will go ape shit with excitement.  In reality, Black Rhino might be the more responsible choice, given how few breeding Bluefins there are left in the world.  Why does everyone care so much about gavaged ducks, so much that it's banned in California, but nobody seems to care about the ever-dwindling populations of the sea?  People have wholeheartedly fought for legistlation against foie gras production, in which there are still questions of adverse effects on the animal to be debated, yet don't blink twice for entire species of fish being decimated beyond recovery.

It's the panda effect.  If it's cuddly or seems to have a personality, it's worth saving.  Furry means friend, fish means food.  But does veal really deserve our attention so much more than the diseased, concentrated salmon in farms off the Chilean coast?  What if I were to say that octopuses are highly intelligent?  They problem solve, have discernable long-term memories, and have even been observed "playing."  Would you still be comfortable eating your poulpe provencal?  It's a personal choice that each individual has to decide on his or her own.  But it doesn't detract from the point that our oceans are being heavily overfished.

Take the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland and its cod fishery collapse, for example.  In 1968, the total cod catch was 800,000 tons.  By 1975, it was down to 35,000.  The reason for this enormous change was more effective means of fishing leading to larger catches.  With these large catches, no of-age cod were being left in the sea to breed.  In 1992, the Canadian government put a moratorium on cod fishing in the Grand Banks and the cod population has yet to recover.  Many scientists argue that it never will.  Too many fish have been pulled out of the gene pool for it to recover to what it once was.  This same tragedy is happening world wide.  Thousands of boats are pulling 10-times the amount of fish they're allowed by their quota daily out of the sea.  Entire schools of pollock, meaning entire genetic stocks, are being pulled out of the Bering Strait to make those Filet'o'Fish sandwiches.  20 pounds of bycatch (undesirable fish, coral, sea turtles, etc) are caught in shrimp trawlers for every single pound of shrimp.

So why not just eat farmed fish?  Unfortunately, this is not the answer either.  There are many reputable fish farms out there, and particularly Oyster farms that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.  However, many farmed fish such as salmon require a 4 to 1 ratio of feed.  Every pound of salmon that is grown requires 4 pounds of sardines, anchovies, or other fish to be caught and fed to them.  Not exactly sustainable.  Entire regions of mangroves are being destroyed by Malaysian shrimp farming, just so we can have those easy-peel 21-25 IQF prawns.  They dump waste into one area just to move on to the next once it's reached capacity.  The transgressions are endless.

Whatever your moral dietary choices be, there is an undeniable atrocity happening in our oceans.  The ocean is not inexhaustable or ever abundant.  No matter what ethical eating choice you make, there won't be a choice left when it comes to seafood if we keep on pace.  There is a ceiling to what we can take from the sea, and it seems that we're dangerously close to that proverbial point of no return.

So please, choose your seafood responsibly and sustainably.  Nobody's perfect.  I have some Indonesian shrimp in my freezer right now.  But so long as you stay educated, spread the word, and practice what you preach as much as you can, things should get better.  Follow the The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watchlist for your area.  Eat sardines, local fish, and farmed Oysters.  Follow seasonal guidelines for fish like those provided by TwoXSea.  Frequent and support transparent establishments that provide you with all pertinent seafood information.  Be that asshole who questions where and how your seafood was sourced!   It's the only way to make things change.  Plus, I'd like my little niece and nephew to be able to enjoy the bounty of the sea just as we have.


The SF Oyster Nerd


  1. This NY Times article on bluefins is one of the best attempts I've seen at putting fish on the "cuddlier" more sympathetic side of people's sentiments:

    1. Four Fish is a great book. Thanks for the share.

  2. very well written article! it's sadly true that out of sight, out of mind is how most people relate to our oceans.

    1. Cheers...hopefully we can make a difference with spreading the word and companies like yours.

  3. Very appropriate post considering the past weekend's contributions to Surfrider, Another thought: chickens, veal, and geese get more protection and attention possibly because they are so very much easier to regulate. There's a lot more sea to cover than regulated farmland, makes it a lot harder to patrol and enforce. Also, fish are ugly. And if American popular culture has taught us one lesson, it's that ugly things don't matter. If only Kim Kardashian worked for the fishes...