The Art of Food: Lots of other fish in the sea?

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The second stop on the Art of Food tour is the “Fish Plate by the Eyebrow Painter” from the coastal Apulia region in southern Italy. Like so much of the world, the region of Apulia was dependent on the seas and its fish harvest for life support. This reddish-brown clay plate, which features paintings of fish and water, displays the ancient culture’s reverence for the fish of their region and demonstrates how art can offer a commentary on daily life. It is thought that dishes such as these were most likely used to serve fish, and that “exposing more and more of the fish images while eating would have created the impression that the fish were replenishing themselves on the plate.”

Unfortunately for today’s oceans, the reality of replenishing fish isn’t quite so easy, and treating fish as an inexhaustible resource has become a serious issue. In his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg traces the relationship of humans with four fish—the bluefin tuna being the most well known. Over the course of about 40 years, the story of the bluefin tuna has become a tragedy of the sea. Once thought unworthy of eating due to its bloodiness, a bluefin tuna now sells for thousands of dollars at market. That’s a good thing for fishermen, I’m sure, but a devastating fact for the species. It’s estimated that there is only one bluefin left for every fifty that were in the Atlantic Ocean in 1940. The future outlook is even grimmer. One of only two known Atlantic-bluefin spawning sites, the Gulf of Mexico, is in crisis due to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in April 2010. April is the beginning of bluefin spawning season.

While some species of fish are disappearing, others are taking over. Anders Halverson exposes the dangerous effects of rainbow trout colonization in his book An Entirely Synthetic Fish. Through repeated genetic mixing (among other things), rainbow trout have successfully wiped out smaller native species throughout the United States. A current battle is now being fought in the Great Lakes where Asian carp are threatening a similar native conquest.

Living in the Plains states my whole life, it’s hard for me to truly feel the effects of crises going on in the fishing world or to understand the degree of reverence the inhabitants of Apulia had for the fish they would spend hours catching, preparing, and eating. It wasn’t until this past summer when my family went to Alaska and I saw salmon literally fighting their way upstream in their natural environment that I sincerely learned to appreciate water- and fish-dependent cultures. If these fish can sacrifice their lives for one goal—to spawn—why is it so difficult for us as humans to give everything we have to help protect the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes? What can we do so that fish like the salmon, bluefin tuna, and rainbow trout can survive in a way that, in addition to feeding the world, is also healthy for the natural ecosystems of the earth’s waters that support human existence?

One unique initiative that that may help strike a three-chord balance among preserving earth’s waters, meeting consumer demand, and growing fish in a sustainable way is aquaponics. Aquaponics is a way of growing crops and fish together in a re-circulating system. Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, a non-profit organization based in Milwaukee that supports people through the development of community food systems, has created an aquaponic system with tilapia and yellow perch. In this system, water from the fish tanks is filtered through a gravel bed at the bottom of the tank, pumped back up to nourish the plants, and then drained back down into the fish tanks. The crops and fish are both harvested and the water is recycled. Allen’s system differs from other aquaculture systems and mass fisheries by avoiding genetically modifying fish and adding harmful chemicals and fertilizers.

For people such as the ancient inhabitants of Apulia, I’m sure the idea of “growing” and “harvesting” fish would seem bizarre, like we’re trying to control the uncontrollable waters of the earth. Even I think it’s a little weird to say, “Hey, check out this aquaponics system where they’re growing fish.” Fish aren’t meant to be grown and harvested the same way as corn or beans, they’re meant to be wild. As Andrew Beahrs, author of “Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods” writes, the flavor of America has always been wild, and “preserving our wild foods is a dietary, culinary, and environmental necessity, but also an essential way of protecting and celebrating the inherent richness of American life.”

However, for the sake of preserving local species and for producing safe and uncontaminated fish and crops, a contained environment is important. The New York Times sums up Four Fish by pointing out, “Greenberg makes a powerful argument: We must, moving forward, manage our oceans so that the fish we eat can exist both in aquacultural settings and within the ecosystems of wild oceans.” The fishing world has definitely changed since an inhabitant of Apulia painted this fish plate. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that we as humans are dependent on the ocean’s harvest for existence and we should not take that resource for granted. Amazing how generations later, an ancient culture’s reverence, displayed on a plate in a museum in the middle of Missouri, can remind us of that.

About the Author: Kim Nochi is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology focusing on the art of Medieval Spain. In addition to her scholarly interests, she has a personal interest in food policy and local food systems, a result of growing up in rural Nebraska (yes, she’s a Husker fan!). This blog post is part of the “Art of Food” series.

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