Last summer when I was in Nova Scotia, I wrote about how startled I was to struggle, in the local supermarket, to find anything but frozen fish with origin stamps of China and Southeast Asia. The fresh fish offerings were meager, taking up just a small portion of the case allotted to them, and besides the lobsters, only the ocean trout and small haddock filets were wild caught.
Last week, in a Puerto Rican supermarket, I had an unhappy feeling of déjà vu as I searched in vain for any locally caught seafood at all. There was no fresh fish counter there, just a case of packaged frozen filets and shellfish, every one of them with their label pointing to China or India.
When I asked the locals about whether it was possible to get fresh fish on the island, they shook their heads. “Maybe if you meet the fishing boats at the dock, they might sell you something,” one man told me. “But it all goes to the restaurants and resorts.”
Other than crabs, there were few sea creatures to be seen on the beach, either. One morning we watched a local man with snorkel gear and a fishing spear go back and forth in front of the beach collecting lobsters—undoubtedly illegally.
The only coral we saw was bleached and dead.
The amount of plastic garbage on the beach and in the coastal waters was depressing.
And although there was some bird life, it was thin, even in the beautiful coastal land designated as a “national wildlife refuge”: a single frigate bird, a couple of pelicans, a handful of herons and sandpipers.
What frightens me is how quickly we normalize whatever situation we live in.
It’s normal now to live on an island surrounded by magnificent turquoise waters and not be able to find fresh local seafood to eat.
It’s normal to buy water in plastic bottles and throw them casually away, without any clue of what happens to them once they’re deposited on the curb for the garbage men to pick up, and it’s normal to find those bottles washing up at the beach.
It’s normal to return to the U.S. and find, in the local gourmet food store, a big gleaming fresh fish counter, with huge slabs of “sustainably farmed” salmon, leaner wild-caught Alaskan salmon ($25 a pound!), swordfish steaks, flounder filets, sea bass from Chile, fresh shellfish of every description.
Here in the heart of Empire, it’s normal to remain ignorant of the fact that this kind of abundance is rare, and carefully manufactured.
And when those who can afford that $25 a pound fish go abroad, they travel in bubbles of luxury that keep them cushioned in the comfortable delusion that all is well.
After all, in the restaurants at the resorts, there’s fresh salmon on the menu. Never mind that it arrived on this Caribbean island packed in ice, on a flight from a fish farm in New Brunswick, New Zealand, or Scotland.
It’s normal, now, to feel sad but resigned to the fact that fish and seafood is becoming a rarity.
As omnivorous human beings, we have other choices. No seafood available? Eat chicken then, or vegetables.
But what about the shorebirds and the ocean food chains that have evolved in tight symbiosis over millions of years?
Try telling a pelican or a seal to go eat some chicken.
They’re starving because the fish their parents and grandparents caught so easily have been trawled up by factory fish vessels, frozen in plastic pouches and sent around the world on ice.
This is the new normal.
I am not resigned, and I will never get used to it.