There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when the only fish I ate were the fish I caught myself. Sportfishing was my passion. Back then, I’d have sooner driven a Hummer than bought a slab of commercially caught tuna. I ended up writing a book that encapsulated much of my thinking on the subject called Four Fish. It was then that I first met Sean Dimin.
At a reading of the book at a now-defunct bookstore in Brooklyn, Dimin introduced himself and told me he had come to hear me talk because he and his father had recently founded a small seafood company whose mission was to help save the sea, oddly enough, by fishing. The business was called Sea to Table, and their plan was to buy fish from actual fishermen and sell it directly to actual fish eaters. Simplicity incarnate.
If they could make it work, they would offer an alternative to a seafood distribution system in which a fish usually changes hands at least seven times between leaving the water and hitting the frying pan. I liked the idea. I believed then and still believe that shortening the seafood supply chain could help people who really want to know where their seafood comes from as much as it could help people who really wanted to catch fish sustainably and earn a decent living in the process.
Yesterday, eight years after my first encounter with Dimin, the Associated Press published a months-long investigation that links Sea to Table to seafood fraud stretching from Brooklyn to Micronesia. In the worst examples of the exposé, AP exhaustively documented a switcheroo in which foreign tuna of dubious origin was mislabeled and passed off to consumers as locally and sustainably caught. If the evidence is as rock-solid as it appears, it could mean the end of the Dimins’ business and a black mark on the quest to relocalize our seafood supply.
A little global context on the crazy, mixed-up world of the American fish market is in order before I continue. Sea to Table was launched as part of a reaction against much larger economic forces. In the postwar years, America became increasingly enmeshed in the murky global seafood market. From the 1980s to the present, fish markets and individual fishmongers went from controlling 65 percent of the seafood trade to holding on to just 11 percent. Supermarkets, meanwhile, went from selling 16 percent of our seafood to selling 86 percent. Today, even though the United States controls more ocean than any country on earth, as much as 90 percent of the fish we eat is imported.
It gets worse.