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Fins and Scales Are Not All That Make Seafood Kosher

This summer, while interning at Hazon, I have been working on a supplement to the Hazon Food Guide on kosher, sustainable fish. Prior to this project, my experience with fish had largely been enjoying the delicious lox and bagels at Kiddush without considering where that fish came from. Sure, I knew to look for cans of tuna that said “dolphin friendly” but I certainly did not invest nearly as much time thinking about the origin of my fish as I did thinking about whether my kosher chicken or beef was organic and locally raised. After all, our sages deemed fish parve, right?

Oh how my view of creatures with fins and scales has forever changed with the help of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund. Fish are the last group of wild animals that are hunted for mass consumption. As the worldwide demand for fish has increased, overfishing has made it impossible for wild fish populations to keep up with the demand.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, it is estimated that 90% of large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and cod have been depleted. Aha, I might have said, some of those fish are not kosher and, therefore, I am not contributing to this problem. But unfortunately far more animals than those intended are killed as a result of bycatch, the fish and other sea life that are killed by fishing methods like trawls, dredges, longlining, purse seining and gillnetting. For example, my certified kosher tuna likely was caught using longlining, a process where fisherman lay long fishing lines (up to 50 miles) in the water that are baited with many hooks spaced at intervals from one another. In addition to catching tuna, this process also kills countless threatened or endangered species such as sharks, sea turtles and sea birds.

Aquaculture, the process of farming fish, has become a necessary tool for keeping up with our fish-hungry appetites. Today, nearly 50% of the fish that we consume comes from farms, a process that sounds better than eating wild fish, yet often is equally problematic. The diet of many fish, like salmon, consists of other fish, usually caught in the wild. On average, it takes over three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. Like any other confined animal feeding operation, aquaculture causes pollution, and threatens the ecosystems and wild fish populations near the fish farms.

I am struck by how often fish is on my mind and how frequently I have been putting it on my plate. I often find myself thinking about Jewish values such as lo tashchit, a prohibition against being wasteful, and tza’ar ba’alei chayim, avoiding animal cruelty. I wonder if our sages were living in our world, one where most fish come from an unethical practice such as longlining or an unsustainable fish farm, would they call this fish kosher? I would like to think that they wouldn’t.

Last week my boyfriend and I went out to dinner at a sushi restaurant. As I looked at the menu, that only a month ago would have looked so delicious to me, I had a hard time finding a dinner option that wouldn’t feel like treyf given the kind of fate that this animal, and many more unintended animals had met. I decided to use some of the knowledge I have gained to make an educated dinner choice. I asked my boyfriend if he had the Seafood Watch pocket guide and, of course, as a good environmental lawyer, he did. We looked through the guide for fish deemed “best choice” recommendations and then we asked the waiter to find out where the fish was caught. As I enjoyed my wild Alaskan salmon roll, I thought about Rabbi Shimon’s teaching in Pirke Avot 3:3. He states that “when three have eaten at one table and have not spoken words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten sacrifices of the dead… yet when three have eaten at a table and spoken words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the table of God.” Though I’m sure Rabbi Shimon never tasted a sushi roll or needed to consult a pocket guide to determine what fish was the most sustainable option, I would like to think that he would have been proud of the dialogue that happened at our table. For it certainly felt like we were at a table filled with the Divine presence as we tried to determine how to live holy lives through the food we were putting on our plates and into our bodies.

Amanda Schanfield is a second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has participated in many wonderful Hazon programs including the NY ride, the food conference, and helping to start a Hazon CSA in Denver.

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