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Where the halibut comes from

Mar 28, 2014 - By Chris Peck

There's a seafood crisis worldwide, even in Wyoming

As a kid my favorite dinner was halibut with home-fried potatoes.

My mom discovered halibut sometime in the 1950s, when frozen foods became all the rage in Riverton -- and the U.S.

She would slice up the potatoes and fry them in oil on the stovetop. The halibut was thawed and then baked. She served it with a wedge of lemon.

It all seemed so exotic.

The potatoes didn't have to come far, either grown on Riverview farm or trucked in from Idaho.

The halibut was another story.

In the early days of frozen foods, the halibut arrived frozen, trucked in maybe once a month.

My mother made an effort to get to the store early to bring home the brick of flaked white fish.

It's still a favorite.

Today halibut is far more common.

When you stop and think, it's a miracle of supply-chain food economics.

Halibut caught off the Northern Pacific coast on Monday. Quick frozen by noon. Shipped, flown and trucked to Riverton less than 48 hours later.

Halibut, shrimp, salmon, sea bass, crab, mahi mahi and swordfish. Basically available in the driest, least-populous state in the nation 12 months a year.

Yet with all that deliciousness comes a problem.

Ocean fish stocks are at all-time lows.

Big, commercial trawlers vacuum up schools of edible fish at rates that now overwhelm the ability of the fish to reproduce.

Since the 1950s, when my mother first served up frozen halibut steak to her family, the populations of the big fish -- tuna, marlin and the like -- have dropped by 90 percent, according to National Geographic.

Halibut aren't as endangered, but even they are declining fast because of the new fishing technology and the worldwide demand.

Something has to give, or this will be the last generation in Wyoming to have abundant seafood available on the table.

''We have to have a million-year mind about fish,'' said Cheryl Dahle, founder of the Future of Fish.

Dahle's business is to help the seafood industry respond creatively to the threat of fish extinction. She's not anti-fishing. But she adamantly believes that the huge fishing industry -- and the insatiable consumer market for fish -- both need to understand the threat.

Basically, the Future of Fish is working to put a bar code on every fish caught and sold.

That bar code will mean shoppers in Riverton and everywhere can know where the fish was caught, whether it is an endangered or declining species, and the fishing practices used by the company that harvested the fish.

At the same time, a bar code on every fish will make is easier for fisherman to value a fish. In other words, if you want to eat halibut in Wyoming in March you likely will have to pay a bit more when there aren't many fish being caught.

Already, grocers including Smith's and Safeway, are embracing sustainable fishing.

In recent years both Riverton grocers have taken some important ing steps to make sure that the halibut it sells in Riverton -- along with 19 other wild fish species -- are coming from sources that embrace sustainable fishing practices.

Today, about 54 percent of the most popular fish species sold in Smith 's stores are coming from suppliers who meet the Marine Stewardship Council's standards for sustainability.

Smith's intent is to keep pushing that number up so that those who catch and process fish around the world will know that Smith's wants to buy fish from those who adjust to the new realities of fish populations.

At Safeway, the goal is to have all the seafood sold in its stores "be responsibly caught or farmed, or from sources in a process making credible improvements by the end of 2015."

The rest of us need to do our part, too.

Get yourself one of those little fish sustainability cards that show which fish are most endangered. Don't eat those fish. Ask your grower not to stock those fish.

And when the grocer agrees, buy lots of fish that are sustainable.

And be sure to fry up some spuds to go with them.

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