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Greener Pastures: No more fishies: A first-hand account

Cassie Pence
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Cassie Pence.
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Everyone told me I didn’t miss much this mud season. In fact, everyone said I missed nothing. While winter pursued here, I was in sunny Greece.

Greece was warm, air clear, like the Vail Valley in the heart of July. We biked the mountains in the Peloponnese, and then we sailed the seas – my first experience traveling by wind power. The only thing missing from this postcard trip was the fish.

“There are no fishies,” declared our skipper, Antonis, a man who has sailed the Mediterranean since he was 40 days old. Bowing his head slightly, he added, “It’s a big problem.” The seas surrounding Greece, at least in the Peloponnese and the Cyclades where I was traveling, are eerily absent of “fishies.”

Before arriving, I had read about it in a tiny breakout box titled “Fishy Business” in the Lonely Planet. The author writes: “One of the most memorable culinary treats in Greece is a simply char-grilled whole fish, freshly plucked from the sea by local fisherman and ideally eaten by the seaside. These days, fish is a bit of a luxury, largely as a result of overfishing, and there’s certainly not enough fish caught locally to cater to millions of tourists each summer. The fish on your plate may well be from Senegal or a local fish farm. …”

Sort of a buzz kill on the plane ride there, but I wasn’t prepared for the actual experience.

Ports don’t smell like fish. The fishermen sit around smoking cigarettes, nets empty. You can dine seaside, water lapping a couple of feet away from your table, and ask about the fresh fish, but more often than not, your waiter responds, “No. No fresh fish.”

Octopus and squid are still hanging on the dock, draped over broomsticks stuck between two dining room chairs. I ate balsamic-marinated octopus, grilled calamari, fried calamari and grilled octopus. And fried little “fishies” (which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are a cat).

We did have one very special red snapper, grilled whole and served with lemon wedges. It was simple and perfect, and we paid for it, too. The price of fresh fish in Greece – regardless if it’s bought in a restaurant or directly from the fisherman himself – is at splurge status. It’s sad considering the county is surrounded by water.

Though the Lonely Planet warned of being duped into paying fresh-fish prices for frozen, I found that proud Greeks are surprisingly candid about the fish problem. Greeks are serious about food – serious about where it comes from, serious about how it’s prepared and serious about how fresh it is. As much as it hurts, Greeks will tell you whether it’s local, fresh or frozen. Even the menus in small “tavernas” list ingredient origin: sausage from Mani, cheese from Naxos, for example. In the U.S., this kind of honesty is usually reserved for upscale, trendy hot spots.

In an Associated Press story that ran late May, the European Unions said available evidence suggests two-thirds of Atlantic fish stocks and over 80 percent of Mediterranean stocks are overfished. Scientists have long called for drastic catch cuts, the story said, but governments have rarely heeded their advice for fear of losing political support in fishing communities. But according to EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki, around 30 to 40 percent of fishing fleets are not making enough money to keep going in the long term, anyway.

“Since there is no money, we cannot go on providing subsidies to support continued overfishing,” she said.

The EU’s goal is for stocks to have a sustainable base by 2015. That means fisherman have to stop or slow the only livelihood they have eve known. It also means illegal fishing must come to a halt.

Fishing – more specifically, sustainable fishing – is an extremely complicated subject. Was it really too many tourists that drove the overfishing in Greece? Was it the way the fishermen were catching the fish that made the stocks drop? Was there a lot of species waste involved? Are there just too many people who take eating fish everyday (or even once a week) for granted? Or, are there just too many people in general? I’m not sure.

Sustainable fishing is the toughest environmental balancing act yet. So in my mind, I’m going to simplify it. We, as in the human race, have had too much of a good thing – seafood – for far too long. It’s time to let fish repopulate. It’s time to find a different protein source. So as a personal practice, as much as I absolutely love seafood, I am trying to reserve eating “fishies” for truly special occasions. (Even if I can find a truly special occasion once a week.) Yes, it’s hard. I could eat salmon on the grill every night – an extremely gluttonous notion for someone who lives in a landlocked state. The simple act of realizing it’s gluttonous may be step one in saving the fishies.

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She and her husband, Captain Vacuum, own Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company. Contact her at cassie@organichousekeepers.com.


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