From tiny planktonic animals and filter feeders to the big fish in the sea – and everything in between – a healthy marine ecosystem is all about balance and diversity. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what we harvest from our local waters to eat factors into that equation, too.
“When you eat a diversity of local seafood species, particularly species that are really abundant in our ecosystems but haven’t received as much attention on menus, we’re allowing the ecosystems to maintain a more natural balance,” says Kate Masury, executive director of the aptly named Eating with the Ecosystem. Working with scientists, fishermen, and chefs across New England, the Wakefield-based nonprofit devises creative ways to sustain not only our wild seafood system, but also the people who depend on it.
This work takes the form of, for instance, a climate change initiative partnering with scientists to investigate the species moving into our region, and then taking that data to local seafood businesses to brainstorm ways of incorporating these shifts in species into their business models. It’s also cooking demonstrations highlighting regional catches, and citizen science projects sending seafood enthusiasts on the hunt for local species popping up in markets.
“We’re a pretty small organization, but we try to have a big impact,” says Masury, and the need has never been greater. “We’re seeing a lot of shifts in what our New England ecosystems look like over the years due to climate change and other factors, so we want to make sure those ecosystems are able to adapt.”
Our actions on land also trickle down into our marine ecosystems in the form of chemical fertilizers and harmful cleaning products – and choosing seafood from our waters not only closes the travel distance from food to plate, “but you’re also supporting your local community and the harvesters that brought that seafood to you,” says Masury.
And our own official state shellfish? “Quahogs are a great shellfish to celebrate,” says Masury. “Oysters, kelp, and wild shellfish like quahogs are all species that actually clean up our local waters. Kelp captures carbon and is a great tool for carbon sequestration; oysters and other bivalves filter feed and help clean up our water.” The more of these organisms we harvest from the ocean, the more we’re also putting back into it, contributing to a thriving ecosystem.
In practice, eating in harmony with the ecosystem’s natural diversity can be daunting to the uninitiated. “People can get bogged down by what species it is, and I think it’s important to not think about what fish or shellfish it is, but what are its culinary characteristics – is it a flaky white mild-flavored fish? A briny shellfish? Is it a stronger, more high-oil content fish? If you look at things that way, then you have a lot of options that are local that fit into those categories.”
By thinking outside the box, explains Masury, it creates markets for the underappreciated local species, which can then be fished in proportion to their natural abundances. “It gives the fishermen opportunities because then they have markets for the full variety of species that they’re allowed to catch.”
“When you eat local seafood, you have a greater incentive to care about the place that produced your food,” she continues. “A lot of times we don’t necessarily see what’s happening in the ocean and it can be more challenging to make that connection that healthy local ecosystems equal food production.”
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