By Noel Bielaczyc
Each year sometime in March, as the waters of the Gulf of Maine begin to warm, an amazing migration takes place. Shoals of fishers, processors, distributors, retailers, sales people, chefs, and seafood enthusiasts congregate in the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center to exchange business cards and miniature crab cakes in the hopes of forging partnerships and relationships in the seafood industry. As a fishmonger and Gastronomy student, the International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS) offers an irresistible mixture of food culture, global economics, fisheries policy, and limitless free samples of seafood in all forms.
The first impression one gets when entering the exhibition hall of the Seafood Show is total madness… And of course the overwhelming smell of cooked seafood. The enormous scale and diversity of exhibitors is astounding, and the accompanying crowds heave and swell through the maze of booths. Bags are provided for the reams of brochures, pamphlets, knick-knacks, and business cards, which even a choosy visitor will amass.
The Seafood Show is somewhat of a reflection of seafood consumption in American with a preponderance of exhibitors featuring farm-raised tilapia, salmon, and shrimp. Processed oven-ready products, the species they contain, and equipment to manufacture them, are by far the most common feature at the show. If you squint hard enough though, many smaller exhibitors begin to appear, some doing very interesting things.
One example is Schafer Fisheries in Thomson Illinois. They deal exclusively with freshwater fish from rivers and lakes of the upper Midwest, and have developed a market for the invasive Asian carp, which have proliferated in those waterways. While Americans universally thumb their noses at these species, a brisk export trade in Asian carp, buffalo fish and sheephead, makes this a lucrative fishery and important source of protein. Several other small fisheries were also looking to market underutilized marine products like sea cucumber, dogfish, and sea urchin, particularly in the face of reduced quotas on traditional species like cod.
The New England Aquarium’s (NEAq) booth focused on their Sustainable Seafood Programs and offered a variety of educational materials including their Seafood Choice Guide, which lists only best choices for both wild and farm raised species for a simplified set of guidelines that avoids the finger-pointing of “worst choice” recommendations. In addition to educational programs at the aquarium, NEAg partners with local chefs and restaurants to host Blue Plate Dinner events. Each meal highlights seasonal, sustainable and often underappreciated varieties of seafood from our local waters, like scup (porgy), surf clams, squid, and sardines.
A number other products caught my eye while exploring the booths. The most intriguing was small, vacuum packs of dried marine phytoplankton. Hand harvested from the pristine Veta La Palma Parque in Spain, this green powder is composed of millions of microscopic organisms that live suspended in the water column. It does seem ironic that the movement to eat further down on the food chain has literally reached the bottom-most trophic level in the ocean. Regardless, the briny, “ocean-like” flavor of plankton is highly regarded by chefs, who happily pay the premium price for this strange product.
The obligatory sampling of countless forms of seafood yielded a few highs and many lows. My favorite may have been the unadorned but delicious Jonah crab leg, which was neatly scored along key joints. Also very noteworthy were the smoked bay scallops from Ducktrap River of Maine and a single cold slice of raw geoduck from a Korean shellfish company. Among the various fried fish nuggets and deli cups of chowder, the least appealing thing to cross my lips was a cube of smoked sturgeon from a Chinese caviar company that was the temperature and texture of a greasy popsicle.
Looking beyond the giant plush polar bears, the custom “barracuda” chopper, and the “mermaid” models, the International Seafood Show is fascinating glimpse into the global seafood industry. This year’s show illustrated the huge (and expanding) importance of aquaculture as well as a growing awareness of issues related to sustainability. For anyone interested in food policy, media, business, or seafood in general, the IBSS is an eye-opening and stimulating experience. For information on next years show, visit http://www.bostonseafood.com.
Noel Bielaczyc is a first year Gastronomy MLA student and the spring 2013 editor of the Gastronomy at BU blog. He is also a fishmonger and scientific illustrator.