- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

ST. AUBIN, Normandy, France — “La mer est vide” (the sea is empty), warns fisherman Denis Dufour. We have just walked along the modest front of St. Aubin sur Mer, a tiny port on the English Channel, a coast that has long been famous for its fish. The scene resembles an impressionist painting. The glittering sea is full of bathers but not, apparently, of fish.

By coincidence, the cover story of a leading news magazine is devoted to the same subject: the decline of wild fish. The United Nations estimates that more than 75 percent of global fish stocks are depleted in some way. Their place is being taken by farmed fish, an industry that is only 30 years old. Already in the United States about half the fish we eat is raised, and some authorities believe that in 25 years wild fish, like wild game, will be a rarity.

Mr. Dufour’s career as a fisherman clearly reflects this ominous trend. He began in the mid-1960s, at age 14, rowing the boat while the skipper fished. “It was hard,” he says, “but easy, too. The sea was full of fish. We would catch cod of 15 pounds, sometimes dozens, but now you’re lucky to have one or two of five pounds.”

The boats were heavy, made of wood, and had to be dragged with a windlass across the cobbles each day. “They were shaped like a banana, a bow at each end,” he says, “copied from the dories that went to Newfoundland for the cod, packed upside down on the mother ship like salad bowls. They were wonderful in a high sea, but even so, we never went more than a mile or two from shore.”

The first breakthrough came in the 1970s with outboard motors, which were hazardous since they cut out easily, but they were the passport to deeper waters farther from shore, and thus more fish.

The three or four fishermen of St. Aubin became known, and a little crowd would assemble to buy their catch, still flapping in the bottom of the boats. Soon a dozen boats were operating, but after a few years the supply of fish dwindled again from overfishing.

The next development was aluminum boats double the size of the old wooden dories, with two powerful outboards for safety and a tiny cabin 3 feet across that was little more than a windbreak.

These boats can handle up to 20 miles of net suspended from buoys that sweep the ocean bed. (The channel is shallow, rarely more than 75 feet deep.) At first these new boats produced a bounty, but now Mr. Dufour maintains that the sea has been swept clean. “Sometimes there is not a single cod, and we’re fishing tiny fish. We’re destroying the nursery,” he says.

That’s also true, of course, of the world-renowned Dover sole. A mature fish runs up to 2 pounds and yields four delectable fillets. The local fish market that morning was a sorry sight, with a few frail fillets taken from baby sole weighing less than a pound, and some half-pound infants on the bone. “The French won’t buy these, not at more than $7 a pound for skin and bone,” snorts the fish man. “They know better. We have to send them to Italy.”

Clearly fish farming could be the answer to supplying our tables. Cod and halibut may be the next candidates joining salmon, sea bass and freshwater fish such as catfish and tilapia. But will they ever compare in quality with their wild counterparts? Personally, I think not. I had almost forgotten the lean intensity of fresh wild salmon until I tasted a piece the other day. Mr. Dufour agrees. “Consider what you are eating with farmed fish — mostly fish meal and flour,” he says.

Many species of wild fish are already a luxury, and I fear that we are the last generation that will be able to enjoy them. Wild fish will become like wild game, a curiosity.

Mr. Dufour has a knowing look on this face when he says: “We have too much sophisticated equipment. Fish don’t have a chance. We are destroying the sea.” He is right.

La marmite Dieppoise (Fish stew with cod, shrimp and mussels)

This stew resembles a chowder, a typical Norman recipe that is a full meal when served with a sliced baguette. Any well-flavored white fish such as mahi mahi or red snapper can substitute for cod.

2 tablespoons butter

1 large fennel bulb (about 12 ounces), sliced

1 onion, chopped

Salt, white pepper

4 large, firm potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes

Large pinch saffron threads

1 cup fish stock or water

1 bay leaf

2 pounds mussels

1 pound cod fillets, skinned and cut in 1½-inch pieces

2 cups milk

8 ounces cooked, peeled medium shrimp

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Melt butter in a saucepan and add fennel, onion and salt and pepper to taste. Saute gently, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are translucent but not starting to brown, 7 to 10 minutes.

Spread potatoes over the fennel. Mix saffron with fish stock or water and pour over potatoes. Add bay leaf, cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are almost tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, clean mussels thoroughly.

Spread cod over potatoes and add milk. Stir to mix ingredients and spread color of the saffron. Add mussels, cover tightly with the lid and simmer until the fish is just tender when flaked with a fork and mussels have opened, 5 to 7 minutes. Note that milk should simmer, not boil, or it may curdle.

Add shrimp, cream and parsley and bring just to the boil. Discard bay leaf, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve stew from the casserole or in individual bowls. Makes 4 servings.


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