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Editorial: America’s frightening fish story

America has a big seafood problem on its hands. In New Hampshire, there’s a solution well within reach.

In its 2012 “Fisheries of the United States” statistical snapshot, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reported that U.S. commercial fisheries landed 9.6 billion pounds of seafood. That same year, Americans consumed 4.5 billion pounds of seafood.

Even after subtracting the 20 percent of the catch that is used for products such as pet food and fish meal, that’s still about 3 billion pounds of seafood left over for export after the average American eats his or her 14.4 annual pounds of fish and shellfish.

Here’s where things get strange.

A study in the September edition of the journal Marine Policy said that about 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and about a third of that is caught illegally. That amounts to about $2 billion Americans spend each year to support worldwide illegal fishing, which greatly exacerbates the problem of overfishing. Marine Policy reports that “85 percent of all commercial stocks are now fished up to their biological limits or beyond.”

There’s another not-so-funny thing about all the fish and shellfish the United States imports. A chunk (the NOAA doesn’t know how much exactly) of that 90 percent is actually U.S.-caught seafood that is shipped overseas for processing before it is re-imported.

Like most areas of the American economy, imports and exports are more complicated than a simple list of numbers on two sides of a ledger, yet it’s easy to see that something needs to change.

It starts with consumers taking control, which is done most directly by supporting community-supported fisheries such as New Hampshire Community Seafood.

NHCS is a “boat to plate” enterprise that not only supports local fishermen but also exposes New Hampshire residents to the freshest, albeit somewhat obscure, of catches.

The top five consumed seafoods in the United States are shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, tilapia and pollock. A substantial portion of those American favorites is imported from Asia and South America.

You won’t find any of those well-traveled entrees at NHCS pickup locations. Instead, harvest shares include grey sole, white hake, monkfish and other species that rarely make appearances behind the supermarket glass.

Visit the NHCS website and you will find a brave new world of recipes and even meet the fishermen who catch your dinner for you. Good luck finding a biography of the person who netted the tilapia you blackened for that fish taco.

There’s also something to be said for thinking about butterfish and Acadian red fish the way Bertrand Russell thought about strawberries.

In The Conquest of Happiness, Russell wrote: “Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof either that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which each must live.”

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