Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Conservationist in the Clouds

Hannah Sassoon, ‘15

Don Carlos was sitting on the porch when we arrived at Cuerici. We could smell a wood stove burning, and I thought for a moment that it was smoke hanging in the air around us—but it wasn’t dry, it was wet, and it didn’t rise or twist. It rolled under the roof trusses. A cloud. We joined Don Carlos on the porch. From leather rocking chairs and long log benches, we looked across the Talamanca mountains, breathless.

We could recognize the altitude by the flora, too. Compared to the tall palms and Heliconia we’d just seen in the rainforest, this looked like a temperate zone: oaks (Fagaceae), dogwoods (Cornaceae), blueberries (Ericaceae). We’d come to Costa Rica as botanists. Here, 2700 meters above sea level, we found a distinctive habitat: un bosque nublado, a cloud forest.

Cuerici is more than a biological station: it’s a trout farm, and it’s the home of Don Carlos. The land he stewards—including 200 hectares of primary forest, a blackberry farm, and a patchwork of impossibly steep cow pastures—straddles the top of a mountain. Its Atlantic face is wet, its Pacific face dry. Don Carlos’s family has lived here for generations.

The trout operation at Cuerici is less than twenty years old—the result of a government-sponsored economic development initiative. Rainbow trout in the cloud forest? It’s a good question. They’re nonnative, and a notoriously aggressive species. But Don Carlos’s truchas are well contained and integrated into the cycles of Cuerici. 

At the base of the hill below the station is a small dug pond, divided down the middle into two squares. This is where Don Carlos keeps reproductive trout. They’re large—easily twenty-four inches long, most more like thirty. From the bank, we watch them swim around each other, dorsal fins gliding above the pond surface. Don Carlos is describing egg collection. With his thick fingers, he draws two vertical lines in the air. The fish have two sacs, he explains in Spanish. That’s where all the eggs are—hundreds, thousands. When they are ready, he captures the fish and massages their bellies to release the eggs. It’s a skill to know exactly when a fish is ready—something Don Carlos has learned over many seasons. He refuses to buy in eggs.

Up the hill is the hatchery, a dimly lit building. A stack of incubation shelves stands in one corner with water running over it all the time from a suspended pipe. Eggs incubate here for a month before Don Carlos moves the fish to small tanks, also in the hatchery. When they reach three centimeters in length, he moves them again, this time to one of the long, narrow, concrete tanks that run the length of the building. He doesn’t move them all together, though—he selects the hatchlings by size, one at a time. We watch Don Carlos climb onto the ledge above the concrete tanks. This water—he points down—comes from underground. It can’t have organic matter or sediment in it because particles can suffocate the fish at this stage.

Outside the hatchery is a row of larger tanks for juvenile trout. There are thousands of them, flipping and folding and forming schools. Most are sold at this size, four centimeters; the best are kept for breeding; the rest are kept for eating.

Don Carlos cleans the tanks twice a week. He puts the excrement in the compost to feed knotted piles of red worms, which he feeds, in turn, to the trout. He’s always looking to foster these sorts of cycles. Here, sustainability is not an ideology; it’s a necessity.

When Don Carlos’s grandparents moved to Cuerici Mountain, they slashed and burned to create pastures and gardens. They raised cows, they hunted, they felled the biggest trees, they made charcoal. And when the government outlawed deforestation in the 1970s, they began to sell their land, piece by piece, as pastures. Don Carlos saw the forest disappearing, and he decided, with eight friends, to buy the land. They still share it.

They’ve delineated their land use: part of the forest is a conservation site, another part is a reforestation site. Some areas are still cattle pasture (so the residents of Cuerici can have milk and manure); some are kept clear for blackberry bushes.

I’m criticized by conservationists, Don Carlos tells us, for having a cow, for having blackberries. But it isn’t so black and white: the point of land stewardship, he explains, is to balance conservation with human needs. Don Carlos lives by the idea of enough. Conserve what you can—it is enough. And take only what you need—it is enough. The problem, he says quietly, is when people want to make a lot of money from the land. That is more than enough; that is too much.

Behind the station, Don Carlos shows us a spread of palm seedlings—a hundred at least. It’s an edible species, so slow growing that it can take fifty, sixty, seventy years to reach maturity. When Don Carlos’s family first lived at Cuerici, these palms were everywhere. Now in the forest there remains only one.

The seedling project is an experiment. Don Carlos has propagated these palms, and he intends to plant them across the mountain. He knows he won’t live to learn their fate, much less to harvest them and eat them. But he is content as he leans on a bench and gazes at their light green fronds. This is enough.

Together, we head inside for lunch—trout. Above the station, clouds comb through the oaks, mixing with wood smoke.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Brendan Bashin-Sullivan ‘15 writes about his recent trip to Tokyo and the way we conceive of efficiency in the food system:

If fish were self-aware, and had developed a notion of retributive justice, and could conceive of an afterlife, they might cast the Tsukiji Central Fish Market in Tokyo as fish hell. Approaching the market you see the small fry in the various outbuildings, those who have been gutted for a particular organ or chopped to pieces, or marinated, or hung out to dry. These are the outer circles, and you sense that the fish have gotten off easy because of their size. It is when you reach the final circle, through roofed, shabby, blood-slick wet concrete paths that weave between brightly lit stalls, that you see the tuna. They are maybe not fish anymore exactly. They are frozen solid. Their pectoral fins have been cut off, leaving a pair of huge handholds on their sides.  Capable, bored-looking old men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths run the fish through bandsaws, cutting the frozen meat, nose to tail, into wedges and planks, which stay rigid. Some still have skin, fins, and spines attached.

Full disclosure: fish hell, to me, was awesome. It was the most fun I had in Japan. I got blood on my boots. I ate ramen standing on the street with the capable bored-looking old men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. I ate perfect cubes of fatty tuna. I got out of  “lost in translation” angst-core mode and got a little goofy. This all happened at about 6 AM on a blisteringly cold late-December day in the largest fish market in the world, while tens of millions of dollars’ worth of fish were changing hands on the auction floor not a hundred yards away. Eerie calm and contained chaos and everyone trying to pretend that they weren’t having a great time because they were up against realness. Especially me.

And I guess that’s what I grapple about now. I would take a job there if you offered me. I would get strong and competent, good at driving tiny carts around tight corners, good at flensing and hacking tuna-bodies into manageable pieces. I would develop sixth and seventh senses, and never fall down on the job, or get cut on the bandsaw, and I would throw and catch the necessities of the job effortlessly. Tsujiki seems to allow states of grace to coalesce around, in and through it. It has the sublime rhythmic efficacy of an organ, a heart pumping fish through a vast network into every tiny corner of Tokyo. And for that reason I found it intensely beautiful.

But in another sense Tsukiji is emblematic of a deeply problematic relationship with the ocean. I read a phenomenal book this winter, Paul Greenberg’s “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food”, which complicated the excitement I felt for Tsujiki. It’s not as simple as “oh, killing fish is cruel, this is a murder-market, I will abstain.” I don’t think that. I think that any place so foundational to the life of a city is above that kind of reductive thinking.  In providing a solution to the problem “distribute 2000 tons of fish to 13 million people”, Tsukiji has outpaced moral indictment by several orders of magnitude. My problem is one of trophic levels and efficiencies. I’d like to dig into them with reference to the frozen, finless tuna.

In Four Fish, Paul Greenberg engages in a sustained investigation of the way we extract nourishment from the ocean. The subtitle of the book is telling: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Greenberg astutely points out that we have never really progressed past a hunter-gatherer relationship with sea life. We are able to catch more fish in less time now, but we have yet to meaningfully domesticate, or even steward the sea life on which we most depend: tuna, salmon, cod, or bass.

Tuna are especially problematic in this regard. Tuna are apex predators who expend enormous energy to make catches. This is responsible for their fatty red flesh. But the same feature that makes them delicious also makes them a highly inefficient source of protein: Greenberg’s going estimate is that a tuna must eat 50 pounds of smaller fish in order to gain a pound themselves. In a sense, the frozen tuna blocks at Tsujiki are frozen chunks of lion meat: the culmination of a food chain. It is telling that the French phrase for seafood is fruits-du-mer: the fruits of the sea. We have historically underestimated the trophic level of seafood, because the processes that generate it are obscure to us. But we cannot continue to hunt and gather sea-protein as we have: it becomes clearer with every diminishing catch that our needs demand an extractive relationship with the ocean that is no longer sustainable.

Tsukiji’s impressiveness, then, stems not from its correctness but its efficiency. And the discord between how well Tsukiji does its work and how bad that work really is gets at a problem I’ve been trying to mull for a while now: why is industrial food able to monopolize the quality of efficiency? Conventional industrial food production points to an illusion of efficiency: it claims that it is able to get the most food to the most people with the least waste. A common thread of opposition to re-localized or de-industrialized food production revolves around a perceived loss of efficiency, and attendant food shortage.

But Tsujiki, properly understood, teaches us a more important lesson: the efficiency of industrial food is not absolute efficiency. It is an efficient fulfillment of a desire built on habit and preference that does not inherently account for the future. Tsukiji shows us that the processing, sale, and distribution of fish can be centralized and optimized in exciting and authentic ways, ways that speak to Japan’s history and culture as well as the lives and livelihoods of those who work the market. But that efficiency is more reason to ensure that the fish entering the market are harvested in an attentive rather than extractive relationship with the ocean.

We need to reinvest the efficiencies of distribution into maintaining efficient production: rebuilding aquatic ecosystems, pioneering oceanic farming and ranching techniques, protecting baseline genetic diversity, distributing our impact among species that can endure it, and aiming for greater trophic efficiency than the tuna’s abysmal 50-to-1.

We cannot see or predict the ocean nearly as readily as the land. This has meant that we pay less attention to it, that we consider ourselves subject to, not responsible for, the mysteries of the deep. Our impact, however, has long outstripped this mindset, and we have acquired industrial strength on the ocean without the corresponding advance in care or attention. There is a competence and a grace to be found here as a species. The sublime power and mystery of the sea is a reason to approach it with reverence and humility, not to excuse ourselves from our responsibility to act cooperatively with it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.

(Plus check out his list of food-related links for autumn and beyond— Farming the Urban Sea, which Program Coordinator Zan Romanoff co-wrote, is right at the top!)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two big fish stories: Alaska’s King Salmon populations are diminishing every year— and no one knows why. Their decline threatens local economies which rely on the catch and the tourists who come to try their hand, as well as communities with traditional subsistence diets heavily dependent on a strong season. In better news, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program is working with fishermen, processing centers and chefs to get underfished species on menus in the northeast, giving strained populations a break and encouraging people to eat locally and sustainably from sea as well as land. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 Monday, June 25, 2012
‘Tis the season for seaside cookouts and beach reads, clams and mussels and pulpy paperbacks in quantity. We’d recommend Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Co. as a source of the former and Lucky Peach issue 4 for the latter. We’re longtime fans of Lucky Peach (especially since co-founders Peter Meehan and David Chang came speak at Yale this past spring), and this issue, which focuses on American food, features YSFP alum Nozlee Samadzadeh writing about the invasive species now making their homes in our country’s fields, lakes and streams. Of course she interviews another close friend of the Project, Chef Bun Lai, whose inventive recipes make use of the abundance of invasive Asian shore crabs in the waters near New Haven. Nozlee’s piece, like Bun’s cooking, offers an innovative way of looking at a seemingly insoluble problem— by recognizing that so-called invasive species are here to stay, and that integrating them into our vocabularies and diets might be the best way to handle their presence on our shores.

‘Tis the season for seaside cookouts and beach reads, clams and mussels and pulpy paperbacks in quantity. We’d recommend Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Co. as a source of the former and Lucky Peach issue 4 for the latter. We’re longtime fans of Lucky Peach (especially since co-founders Peter Meehan and David Chang came speak at Yale this past spring), and this issue, which focuses on American food, features YSFP alum Nozlee Samadzadeh writing about the invasive species now making their homes in our country’s fields, lakes and streams. Of course she interviews another close friend of the Project, Chef Bun Lai, whose inventive recipes make use of the abundance of invasive Asian shore crabs in the waters near New Haven. Nozlee’s piece, like Bun’s cooking, offers an innovative way of looking at a seemingly insoluble problem— by recognizing that so-called invasive species are here to stay, and that integrating them into our vocabularies and diets might be the best way to handle their presence on our shores.

Friday, September 16, 2011
Last Saturday I sat outside of Miya’s with Bren while members of his Community Supported Fishery program came to pick up their shares. It could have been a pretty tough series of encounters; there had been no August delivery, as heavy rainfall triggered state-mandated closure of his acres, and the September boxes contained only clams, since his oyster beds were still closed. There had been a disclaimer when we signed up for the program, letting us know that farming was unpredictable and there would be no refunds, but it had been easy to ignore with visions of freshly-caught, freshly-shucked oysters beckoning— now came the test of just how Community Supported the program really was.
And you know, everyone who came by was lovely. This was likely in part, Bren pointed out, because Irene was an understandable catastrophe that had affected all of us in one way and another; people were still in disaster-relief mode, eager to be helpful. But it was also a mark of the kind of economic and social community that CSFs and CSAs can build: Bren was not just an oysterman but also a businessman, and a neighbor whose livelihood was being threatened; the threat of a month without oysters was subsumed by the threat that the CSF might end entirely. We weren’t just dissatisfied consumers; we had become, in the language of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, co-producers, without whom the business of good food was impossible. I’ve explained CSAs countless times: farmers need money at the beginning of the season, and it’s far less risky when they don’t have to rely on the success of a single crop to make a living. Now I watched it in action: it was that money that I’d paid out in advance that would help keep Bren and Thimble Island Oysters going after nearly 80% of his beds had been wiped out. 
I’m always a little wary of the “co-producer” model— there’s so much more work to being part of the Food Movement, whatever that is, than buying things— but it is important, and I think expresses a particular piece of what this thing is for me and why I care about it. If I’m going to spend money on food anyway, I want it to go to Bren and men and women like him, people I know, people in my community, who literally and figuratively weather the same storms. It encourages me to be sympathetic to them; it reminds me that food is not produced in a vacuum. If I want someone else to grow my food— a difficult and risky business at the best of times— then I should know all of the costs, and be prepared to pay for the privilege. 
bunlai:

80% of the oysters of CT’s first Community Supported Fishery, Thimble Island Oyster, was wiped out by the Hurricane but our members will still be receiving clams in the interim; we are all trying to think of ways of helping oysterman Bren Smith rebuild in the aftermath.  The best way way we can help is by signing up for a 2012 CSF membership.  Help out and get the freshest seafood back in return!  http://www.etsy.com/listing/75395775/thimble-island-oyster-csf-share   The above photo is of Captain Ben Kerzner and I with seaweed that we had dived for on the grounds of Thimble Island Oyster.  The invasive seaweed, deliciously called Dead Man’s Fingers, is used as a soup base at Miya’s.

Last Saturday I sat outside of Miya’s with Bren while members of his Community Supported Fishery program came to pick up their shares. It could have been a pretty tough series of encounters; there had been no August delivery, as heavy rainfall triggered state-mandated closure of his acres, and the September boxes contained only clams, since his oyster beds were still closed. There had been a disclaimer when we signed up for the program, letting us know that farming was unpredictable and there would be no refunds, but it had been easy to ignore with visions of freshly-caught, freshly-shucked oysters beckoning— now came the test of just how Community Supported the program really was.

And you know, everyone who came by was lovely. This was likely in part, Bren pointed out, because Irene was an understandable catastrophe that had affected all of us in one way and another; people were still in disaster-relief mode, eager to be helpful. But it was also a mark of the kind of economic and social community that CSFs and CSAs can build: Bren was not just an oysterman but also a businessman, and a neighbor whose livelihood was being threatened; the threat of a month without oysters was subsumed by the threat that the CSF might end entirely. We weren’t just dissatisfied consumers; we had become, in the language of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, co-producers, without whom the business of good food was impossible. I’ve explained CSAs countless times: farmers need money at the beginning of the season, and it’s far less risky when they don’t have to rely on the success of a single crop to make a living. Now I watched it in action: it was that money that I’d paid out in advance that would help keep Bren and Thimble Island Oysters going after nearly 80% of his beds had been wiped out. 

I’m always a little wary of the “co-producer” model— there’s so much more work to being part of the Food Movement, whatever that is, than buying things— but it is important, and I think expresses a particular piece of what this thing is for me and why I care about it. If I’m going to spend money on food anyway, I want it to go to Bren and men and women like him, people I know, people in my community, who literally and figuratively weather the same storms. It encourages me to be sympathetic to them; it reminds me that food is not produced in a vacuum. If I want someone else to grow my food— a difficult and risky business at the best of times— then I should know all of the costs, and be prepared to pay for the privilege. 

bunlai:

80% of the oysters of CT’s first Community Supported Fishery, Thimble Island Oyster, was wiped out by the Hurricane but our members will still be receiving clams in the interim; we are all trying to think of ways of helping oysterman Bren Smith rebuild in the aftermath.  The best way way we can help is by signing up for a 2012 CSF membership.  Help out and get the freshest seafood back in return!  http://www.etsy.com/listing/75395775/thimble-island-oyster-csf-share   The above photo is of Captain Ben Kerzner and I with seaweed that we had dived for on the grounds of Thimble Island Oyster.  The invasive seaweed, deliciously called Dead Man’s Fingers, is used as a soup base at Miya’s.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

We’ve written a certain amount about sustainable seafood, so yesterday the YSFP crew went out with Bren Smith, of the Thimble Island Oyster Co., to try our hands at oystering and see firsthand what it takes to get those mollusks from sea to table.

Bren leases 60 acres of deep water near the Thimble Islands, which are located off the Connecticut coast in the Long Island Sound. The waters there are a natural spot for oyster beds in terms of salinity and temperature, but overfishing combined with environmental degradation mean that the native population died out long ago; now Bren brings in oyster cages to farm his crop. He fills them with tiny oyster spat and then lets them mature over a period of months, checking the cages regularly to clean off debris and remove starfish and other predators. The oysters help clean the water around them and absorb excess nitrogen that would otherwise cause algae-choked dead zones; the cages act as reef replacements, attracting tons of tiny creatures into a robust ecosystem. Bren guesses that the water around his cages has the best fishing for miles.

We certainly saw a variety of creatures while helping to haul and clean cages: the dreaded starfish were joined by various kinds of crabs, sea squirts, and the occasional blackfish. The work was intensely physical and we ended up filthy, covered in muck and saltwater. It was a good reminder of how tough sustainable farming can be on the folks who do it: “most days I have to crawl out of bed on all fours,” Bren told us as he wrangled a cage onto the deck, straining at the effort.

He’s a freelancer who works without health insurance, but he loves what he does and believes in it fiercely; he’s passionate about advocating for the ocean, finding a way to make it a working space for human farmers without destroying the homes of its multitude native species. His methods aren’t perfect, but they’re thoughtful and considered, and certainly smarter than any large-scale commercial operation out there. This Saturday brings another CSF delivery, and we’re all pretty impatient to taste the fruits of our labor (well, actually, the labor was still mostly Bren’s)— we’ll let you now what we end up making with the bounty next week!