Fish Phase: From Aquaculture to the Grill

If it seems like we're all eating more fish than we used to, that's because it's true. A few short decades ago, if anybody mentioned having fish for dinner, it usually summoned images of frozen fish sticks being shoved into the oven on a baking sheet. Today, however, we're in a new fish phase, and the phrase "fish for dinner" is more likely to evoke images of salmon steaks brushed with tarragon butter, sizzling on the grill. It probably never occurs to most people that about 96 percent of the fresh salmon sold in supermarkets is farm-raised Atlantic Salmon, with at least 12 countries currently using aquaculture methods to produce pen-raised salmon. When it comes to our fish favorites, a list of today's Seafood Top Ten still shows canned tuna at the top (never underestimate the staying-power of tuna-noodle casserole). However, the next favorite is shrimp (fresh or frozen), followed by Alaska pollock, salmon, cod, catfish, clams, crabs, flatfish ( flounder, halibut and sole are flatfish varieties), and scallops.Today, at least half of these types are being farm-raised by aquaculture methods. Aquaculture is the science of raising water-based animals in a controlled environment, and it's said to be the fastest-growing segment of American agriculture. We're not alone in practicing aquaculture, either. The world production of farm-raised fish more than doubled from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s.According to Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, aquaculture provides about 25 percent of the world's seafood. In case you're wondering what quantities we're talking about, more than 20 million tons of edible seafood are raised by fish farmers each year.Currently, at least half of the seafood we eat in this country is supplied by other countries. For instance, shrimp is imported from South America and Asia, orange roughy is supplied by New Zealand, and tuna comes from Thailand. Today, you may also find that the tilapia, trout, striped bass, Atlantic salmon, mussels and clams you buy have come from a farm. That goes for oysters, scallops, channel catfish, white sturgeon, and shrimp as well. Roughly half of the 850 million pounds of shrimp that Americans eat annually is provided through aquaculture. Aquaculture is not new to the United States. Back in the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt's "farm pond '94 program gave federal assistance to those who stocked farm ponds for raising fish and selling them. It was another twenty years before catfish farming began in the Southeastern part of the country. Aquaculture goes back even further, though. The Chinese have been farming fish since 2000 B.C. Today, approximately one billion Asians derive all of their animal protein intake from seafood. When visiting an offshore fish farm, such as the salmon-raising operations in Scotland, you get an impression of the open sea, because that's where the fish pens are. It requires a boat to get to these deep water sites. On the other hand, catfish are raised in above-ground clay-based ponds filled with water that's pumped from underground wells. The ponds are rectangular, ten to twenty acres each, and sometimes look like giant versions of the ponds people construct in their gardens. The catfish are fed high-protein floating food pellets made from a mixture of soybeans, corn, wheat, vitamins and minerals. This way, fish come to the surface to eat rather than feeding on the bottom, as catfish do in the wild. Aquaculture is on the rise at a time when The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that more than 40 percent of the fish species in U.S. waters are known to be over-fished or seriously depleted. There are other advantages to farm-raising fish, too: Price and availability remain fairly stable throughout the year. Here are a couple of suggestions for preparing the fish you buy.TroutMore than 90 percent of the trout sold in restaurants and supermarkets today is farm-raised, and most of it comes from Idaho. Since trout is a mild-flavored fish, go easy on the seasonings. A good blend to start with is citrus juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Or, for a shortcut, try brushing the fish with olive oil and sprinkling it with the lemon pepper seasoning available on supermarket shelves.CatfishThe amount of U.S. farm-raised catfish produced each year -- 472 million pounds -- is more than all other U.S. aquaculture species combined. Channel catfish, which are the kind you buy in the supermarket, grow to reach 1-1/2 to 5 pounds. By contrast, the river version of wild catfish may reach 57 pounds. In other words, those biggies can attain the weight of your average Dalmatian. Grilling or sauteing are favorite preparation styles, but catfish is suitable for most preparation methods. If you're stuck for ideas, some experts suggest that catfish easily lends itself to many chicken recipes. In Classic Catfish, Mississippi authors/restaurateurs Evelyn and Tony Roughton provide a recipe for Indonesian catfish sate that calls for marinating catfish strips in a mixture of 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 Tablespoon vinegar, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, and a clove of crushed garlic before grilling the fish pieces that have been threaded on skewers. Wherever your fish dinner comes from, remember to figure 4 to 6 ounces per portion if you're buying fillets. Thicker fish steaks remain the most moist when they're grilled. Varieties well-suited to grilling include firm-textured fish such as tuna steaks or swordfish, and higher-fat fish such as salmon or trout.

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