The Future of Meat — and the future of Meatpaper

August 23, 2013

image by Marie Assénat
Meatpaper Twenty — the Future of Meat issue — will start shipping next week. It will also be our last issue. We are so grateful you have joined us!

It is with mixed feelings that we announce our final issue. It has been an amazing, inspiring, seven-year journey. We may reappear in another form at some point, but our plans are still coalescing. Our back issue store will remain open so you can supplement your Meatpaper libraries. If you are a current subscriber, you will be hearing from us about your subscription.

As we were contemplating the final issue, we thought it would be appropriate to leave you with the future.

We invited a few of our favorite thinkers — Bruce German, Michael Pollan, Hank Shaw, Charles Mann, Kara Nielsen, Kirk Lombard, and more — to gaze into a crystal ball with us and talk about the future of meat. We asked some of our favorite illustrators and contributors to give us their own meat futures.

What they gave us: Pumped-up cows. Bucolic chickens. Futures filled with fake meat, wild meat, tiny meat, trendy meat, lab meat, insect meat, utopian meat, business meat, moral meat, political meat, fantastical meat. We tried to cram it all in: utopia, dystopia, and everything in between.

Don’t miss this historic final issue! Order your copy of Meatpaper 20 and some back issues today.

Dear readers, subscribers, contributors, retailers, advertisers, event sponsors, and other Meatpaper enthusiasts: We thank you for all your support over the years, and for being a part of this lively and timely conversation.

About Meatpaper:

Meatpaper, an independent quarterly print journal covering art and ideas about meat, launched in 2007. Neither promoting nor condemning carnivorism, Meatpaper was founded in response to the recent groundswell of interest in the ethics, aesthetics, and cultural significance of meat. Meatpaper articles are from many different angles: reported journalism, profiles of people who spend their lives working with meat, anthropology, personal narrative, coverage of artists who use meat as subject or material, and poetry. Each issue features original art, photography, and editorial illustrations.

All cultures have customs and taboos associated with the eating of animals, and our belief has been that examining these attitudes toward meat in an unbiased forum can illuminate larger cultural issues. We have been deeply committed to independent journalism. Meatpaper came into being not to prescribe dietary choices, but to facilitate one of the more important conversations of our time.

Meatpaper has received numerous honors, including awards from San Francisco magazine, Library Journal, and Print, as well as several Utne Independent Press Award nominations. Meatpaper has appeared in exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Cooper-Hewitt, and other institutions.

Meatpaper Twenty — the Future of Meat issue — is also the last issue. It will arrive at stores and in subscribers’ hands in late August and early September.

Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized

You are invited to a Fishue celebration

February 6, 2013

Please note: the Fishue Party has sold out. Thank you for your enthusiastic response! Due to the size of the venue, there will not be tickets available at the door.

Please join us at Ramen Shop for a celebration of Meatpaper Issue 19, the Fishue! We have gathered an incredible group of chefs from Ramen Shop, Chez Panisse, ICHI Sushi, Fish, and more to feed you. We look forward to seeing you at this very special event.

Meatpaper’s Fishue party and fundraiser
Food, drink, and demonstrations

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
7 pm – 10 pm

Ramen Shop
5812 College Avenue, Oakland, CA

Sam White, Jerry Jaksich, Rayneil De Guzman (Ramen Shop)
Jerome Waag (Chez Panisse)
Susan Kim & Andrew Pimlott (KimPim) and Julie Kahn
Tim Archuleta (ICHI Sushi)
Doug Bernstein (Fish)

21st Amendment Brewery
Trumer Pils
Scribe Winery

Music by The Barbary Ghosts

Seafood generously provided by TwoXSea

Paper fish art by Anandamayi Arnold

Purchase tickets here

Author: | Filed under: Meatpaper events, News from Meatpaper HQ

Mortal Coil

December 12, 2012

by Galen Rogers
photos by Joe Edgar
A web-only supplement to Meatpaper Issue 19, the Fishue

After three months of living and apprenticing with a musician in Bamako, Mali, my American friend Joe and I ventured out of the dry country, our sights set on the Ghanaian coast, dreaming of the Atlantic. A trip that could have taken 24 hours ended up taking a week: attempted hijacking, kidney infection, and a party that went long into the night waylaid our itinerary.

The day after our arrival, walking along the beach in Cape Coast and enjoying the cool air of the early morning, I saw in the distance a dozen men in a line perpendicular to the shore, pulling on a thick rope that stretched taut far over the surface of the ocean and disappeared into the gray haze of the horizon. As I got closer I began to hear their song – a short repeated figure under layers of improvised harmony – and I saw the rhythm of their feet, digging in unison into the sand as they inched away from the water. One by one, the man at the back of the line handed his portion of rope to the human anchor of the operation, an old man sitting on a slowly growing coil, and returned to the front of the line to grasp the rope again. Standing close by, I strained my eyes to see what the line was attached to but each segment emerged from the mist exactly like the one before, and as I listened each harmony led inexorably to the next one in a steady string of resolutions. The momentum of the music, more than the weight of the men’s bodies, seemed to draw the rope out of the mist.

A short exchange of greetings with the men resulted, like most greetings I had experienced in Africa, in something unexpected. Within seconds of meeting them I found my hands on the rope, my friend and I absorbed into the human machine. I paused just long enough to get permission to turn on my digital recorder, and then I wrapped both hands around the rope. It was quivering, alive with so much tension that it hurt to touch, but my dignity as a traveler was on the line so I braced myself against the ground and started to pull. I was met with such inconceivable resistance that I began to wonder if I had just sentenced myself to a Sisyphean fate, pulling the full weight of the Atlantic on an infinite rope. But instead of letting go I started to sing along. I reveled in the feeling of inclusion, in the ways this simple task had erased cultural difference. I was in line with the men – physically, rhythmically, and harmonically – and I held onto the moment as tightly as I could even though my hands begged me to let go.

Half an hour later the rope, song, and waves were all unchanged, but my hands were raw, my back sore, my patience thin, and my ego shrunk. My friend and I abandoned the labor, disappointed by our comparable lack of stamina, and returned to our outsider comforts. The men weren’t surprised, giving brief acknowledgement as we walked away. Their focus remained on each other and the point where the rope disappeared in the mist.

After walking up and down the beach, we returned to the same spot several hours later. Now four ropes were emerging from the waves, each one connected to tightly coiled, blue netting, a dozen men pulling on each line. The beach was crowded, and the music had become faster, bordering on frantic. A big splash announced the arrival of a gigantic, shimmering mass of fish, wrenched to the surface by the men on the shore. The fish threw off water and sunlight as they struggled against the net that bound them together. Some of the men advanced into the water, crossing their ropes to close the net as the others pulled it onto the beach. Fish of all varieties pressed against each other. My friend and I joined the fishermen as they stood in a circle around the fish, considering their catch, pointing out certain specimens to each other and picking up the larger fish through the net in order to inspect both sides. I marveled at the bounty of the ocean and at how the men’s work was simultaneously efficient and beautiful, practical and abstract. Their work song repeated endlessly in my mind. “This isn’t a very big catch,” the man next to me said as he turned away from the pile of fish.

Here is an audio clip from that day.
Listen carefully at the end of the recording. While I was in West Africa, people I encountered commonly used one proper noun to create mutual understanding.

Cincopa WordPress plugin


GALEN ROGERS is an intern at Meatpaper, an employee at Olivier’s Butchery, and an avid consumer of West African music.

A web-only supplement to Meatpaper Issue Nineteen, the Fishue

Food and Light: The uses of whale

December 6, 2012

story by Heather Smith
illustration by Yutaka Houlette
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

IN 2011, JAPAN KILLED 266 MINKE WHALES and one fin whale during hunting season in the Antarctic. It had hoped for 900, but whaling boats were followed by antiwhaling boats. The antiwhaling boats threw ropes into the whaling boats’ propellers. The whaling boats shot at the antiwhaling boats with a water cannon that it had purchased especially for this situation. The antiwhaling boats responded by hurling stink bombs onto the decks of the whaling boats. This, understandably, took up some valuable whaling time. The water cannon helped a little, the Fisheries Agency of Japan reported. The previous year’s haul was only 172.

In 1918, a group of prominent Americans sat down to a meal of whale, coffee, and gingerbread at the Museum of Natural History. The federal food administrator, a man named Arthur Williams, told a reporter covering the story for the New York Times that it was as delicious a morsel as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly hope for. Other guests described it as tasting like pot roast.

It’s grotesque, Ishmael says, “that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the Museum of Natural History, told the assembled guests that he had “ascertained from reliable sources” that 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat could be supplied annually to the United States of America at 12.5 cents a pound — a lot of meat in an era when chicken was seen as a special-occasion food and a lot of Americans still ate squirrel. Seraphin Millon, head chef at Delmonico’s, then proceeded to describe “nearly a dozen” ways of cooking whale. “It could be done up as a stew,” the New York Times article stated. “It could be curried and served on toast. It could be made into a ‘Deep Sea Pie,’ as delicious as any pot pie that was ever invented.”

In 1851, Moby Dick was published, two years before the “golden age” of American whaling reached its peak, and just a few decades before its irretrievable decline. The book was a chatty, at times journalistic exegesis of the whaling industry — Melville felt that whaling had never been written about as it was actually lived — as a business, as a job, as a floating office that you could rarely escape.

And so he wrote about everything, including the edibility of whale. “Only the most unprejudiced of men nowadays partake of cooked whales,” the book’s narrator, Ishmael, confides, just a few paragraphs after Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, demands that a subordinate climb down the side of the hull and cut him a bedtime steak out of the whale killed that afternoon.

According to Ishmael, when you’re working on a whaling boat, eating whale is inevitable. As blubber is rendered into whale oil in kettles mounted on the ship deck, shipmen will dip their biscuits into them to pass the night watch. But Stubb, Ishmael continues, is an oddity. It’s grotesque, he says, “that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

Those 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat mentioned at the Natural History Museum were excess from a new technology: the ability to distill fuel from petroleum. At first the ability to refine oil from petroleum seemed like an unexpected gift to the whales — whale oil had been the fuel that lit and lubricated the Industrial Revolution, converting whales from large curiosities into great sentient oil deposits that made or broke the fortunes of the investors who sent ships out to tangle with them.

By 1910, just a few decades after the crash in whale oil, fishing vessels began to be outfitted with diesel engines. Whaling was profitable again — not because whale was valuable, but because now boats could move as quickly as they did. Instead of being converted into light, this time whales were transmuted into margarine and pet food.

Those early decades of the 1900s were also the early years of whale science. The Museum of Natural History itself dispatched researchers, and those researchers found themselves, as whale scientists of this era inevitably did, in Grytviken, the major whaling camp of the Antarctic. At Grytviken the sea ran literally blood-red. It cured the white paint on a ship’s hull to a dull yellow. One scientist wrote home apologizing for his inability to make oceanographic observations during this part of the voyage, due to the ship’s being surrounded with “hot glue water, entrails, and various discharges.”

Steam winches dragged whales on shore to be butchered by men in nail-studded boots who climbed them “like mountaineers, cutting steps up the flesh as footholds,” wrote D. Graham Burnett years later in his history The Sounding of the Whale. The shores of Grytviken were lined with macerated bone. Half-dismembered whale carcasses floated in the bay like abandoned ships. “What penalty,” another scientist confided, years later, “I used to wonder, would the gods in due time inflict for such a sacrilege?”

In 1986 the global International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling, except for subsistence use by groups like the Inuit. Japan and Norway continued whaling on the grounds that they were not whaling but conducting scientific research on how many whales there were so that they could tell when would be time to start whaling again, on the grounds that they were whaling nations and very sentimental about it, and finally because other nations were hypocrites inexplicably attached to whales but perfectly happy eating the last of everything else in the ocean. Maseuku Komatsu, a senior official in the Japanese Fishing Industry, described minke whales as “a cockroach in the oceans. There are too many and the speed of swimming is so quick.”

Whaling today is more an idea than a business. Both Japan and Norway subsidize their whaling industries. In 2011 the amount of frozen whale that Japan had stockpiled was 6,000 tons, up from 1,500 tons in 1997 and 4,000 tons in 2005. School lunch programs, the historic dumping ground for subsidized meat, proved problematic. In 2007, tests run by a local assemblyman in a rural whaling town revealed that whale sold at the local supermarket contained 10 times the maximum recommended levels of methyl mercury — he used the tests as grounds to ban whale from the school cafeteria. Two centuries of industry had made whale inedible in another way. Whales live for a long time — in the modern era those who wish to avoid bioaccumulated toxins feed their children meat from the short-lived.

A generational shift was happening, and young Japanese were proving to be not that into eating whale. “We have to think about new ways to market whale meat,” a spokesperson for the Institute for Cetacean Research told a reporter for Agence France-Presse.

Whaling today is more an idea than a business.

Meanwhile, whales are shifting their migration routes off the coast of California. They now take more direct paths to Baja California and have discarded the circuitous ones that were adopted, scientists have theorized, by whalers who once lurked and waited for them along the coastline.

It’s a tough business being useful to someone else’s livelihood, or dinner. One story of how whales returned to the oceans in the first place has to do with their avoiding being eaten. The whale’s oldest terrestrial ancestor, the long-extinct Indohyus, was a small deerlike creature that, the story goes, had the ability to escape predators by diving underwater and holding its breath for long periods of time.

At the time, underwater must have felt like a pretty safe place to be. By the time Indohyus had fully changed into the unmolested master of the briny deep, the only resemblance between the two lay in the delicate bones of the ear. But it worked. For millions of years after, they were diner more often than dinner.

Now they are something in between predator and prey: hunted but rarely eaten. Six thousand tons of uneaten whale says that cetaceans have found themselves once again in an age when they are useless. The trick this time will be parlaying inedibility into safety. 

HEATHER SMITH writes about art, science, bugs, and democracy. She is currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

YUTAKA HOULETTE remembers eating whale as a child in Japan and thinking it was too rubbery. He is an illustrator living in Oakland. You can see more of his work at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

The Cliff: A tale of night smelt

December 6, 2012

story by Kirk Lombard
illustration by Gideon Chase
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen


I SUPPOSE IT WAS INEVITABLE that someone who spends as much time fishing in, and pontificating about, the ocean as I do would begin to grow weary of it. But over time I began to see it not as the benign, uncaring (if at times generous) giant it had always been but as an angry, hostile, and sadistic monster to whom I owed my untiring devotion. I imagine people often feel this way about their day jobs — which is why I decided to make a living off the sea in the first place. For seven and a half years I worked as the Department of Fish and Game catch monitor for the Bay Area and now make a living conducting coastal walking tours and tidepooling seminars through my business Seaforager. In addition I am the author of the Monkeyface News, a blog devoted to the pursuit and capture of nonmainstream fishes, and have long been both a recreational and commercial fisherman, providing seafood to several select buyers in San Francisco. In any event, despite all this, I suddenly found myself shunning the ocean, avoiding it, embracing a more civic, land-based life: going to museums, writing books, shuffling through the streets, reading the classics (yes, even that).

Then one evening I looked up and saw the moon in its last quarter. Damn … I thought, didn’t I used to fish these moons for a tiny, sparkling, cucumber-scented fish called the night smelt? Didn’t I go to great lengths to catch them? Didn’t I once think, despite their small size, that they were the greatest of all fishes?

But as I mulled these questions in my salt-logged 45-year-old brain, I remembered the deadlines, and the bad back, and the holes in the waders, and the long drive to the smelt grounds, and the pounding surf, and the cold hazy windy misery of that weird south breeze … and then of course there was the cliff.

There was simply no avoiding the fact that the night smelt, if they were even running, were running along that stretch of beach whose only shoreward approach includes an agonizing, death-defying, back-wrenching climb down (and then up) a sandy escarpment known to fishermen simply as the cliff.

“Oh Christ, I’m just too old for the fuckin’ cliff,” I said aloud … but even as I spoke, I found myself moving instinctively toward the old truck, found my hands fumbling for the keys, found the door swinging open — and then I was on the highway as the sun descended, flying oceanward to the smelt grounds.

Smelt 101 .a

Most Bay Area residents who know anything at all about fish will know, or I should say think they know, what a smelt is. This is because two of the most commonly caught species in San Francisco Bay are the jacksmelt and its cousin the topsmelt. However, despite the names, neither of these is a true smelt. Jacks and tops belong to the silverside family, Atherinopsidae (which includes grunion and flying fish). True smelts belong to the Osmeridae. This may seem like arcane cladistics, but there is a huge difference between the local silversides and true smelts. Jacksmelt are notoriously dirty fish, with sticky, nasty scales and black stuff in their guts. Not to mention the worms. Anyone who has cleaned a jacksmelt has probably experienced this firsthand. If you haven’t, take my word for it: Jacksmelt are one of the wormiest fish in the ocean. In contrast, true smelts, like night smelt and surf smelt, are clean, sparkling, scaleless, and utterly delicious. They do not live long enough to acculumulate toxins and, lacking the thick scales of the jacksmelt clan, are extremely easy to clean (in fact, night smelt, the smaller of the two, are usually served whole as “fries with eyes”).

Other true smelts in California include the endangered eulachon, delta, and longfin smelts. All of the osmerids require cold, clean water and will often be the first thing to go if an ecosystem is compromised. Eulachon (or candlefish), for instance, were until the 1970s one of the most populous fishes in the Klamath River (by biomass during their spawning runs). Today they are virtually extirpated in California. Delta and longfin smelts have similarly declined. Night smelt and surf smelt stocks, however, seem to be faring quite well. Surf smelt have long been one of the most popularly soughtafter sport fish in Northern California. Both species were extremely important to coastal Indian tribes.

Smelt 201.b

As far as catching them goes, surf smelt are caught by means of Hawaiian casting net, night smelt by A-frame dip net. The A-frame is one of the oldest fishing technologies in California, having been used by native tribes to catch smelt and salmon (in a sentimental attempt to honor these ancient hunter-gatherers, I actually carved a bunch of pseudo-Amerindian pictograms on my A-frame). An A-frame net consists of two slanted side pieces and a cross beam. The side pieces are six feet long and the bottom of the net is approximately six feet across. The net is strung between the two sides and dipped into oncoming waves. The reason A-frames are used on night smelt and throw nets on surf smelt is that, first, the mesh size on throw nets is too big for night smelt (they get gilled) but perfect for surf smelt. And second, A-frames are far easier to deal with in the dark than throw nets.

Good Sand

Anyway, as I drove, I tried to remind myself of the beauty of these fish. How magical a night smelt spawn can be: seals in the foam, fish washing up on the beach, the moon’s reflection painted on the surface of the ocean, the wind, the waves, yada yada. Yet despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince myself that this was anything but a lame attempt to justify a ridiculous expenditure of energy and time and money. And in the end, pulling up at the parking lot, I was already looking for excuses to bail: The wind was too strong, the shore break too rough, the swell too big, and the smelt unlikely to run.

Standing atop the cliff, I looked down. Three fishermen on the beach. Two local bass pluggers and one of the surf smelt regulars. Not a fish between the three of them. Four seals in the surf zone. The universal fish finder, aka a Caspian tern, was hovering over the swash. Obviously the tern was keeping these guys on the beach — all three of them were staring at it, hoping it would spot something for them. Still two hours till sunset.

One hour later the tern was gone and the seals were lying on their backs staring up at the clouds. In harbor seal body language this translates as: We’re done for the day; there’s nothing here worth chasing. Then that awful south wind started to pick up. “I can’t believe I drove all the way down here for this, again!” I yelled. But my voice, buffetted by the wind, came out sounding puny and ridiculous — even more puny and ridiculous than it usually sounds in comparisonwith the wind and the roar of the waves.

A small flock of California gulls flapped past. Heading for their nightly roost. I sat back down in my truck and turned on the Giants game.

With Lincecum faltering and runners on the corners, I switched the radio off and turned on the audiobook I’d been listening to: an underappreciated actor named George Guidall reading The Odyssey in warm, somber tones. The fact that I had arrived at Book XXIV was evidence of how little fishing I’d done this summer. Anyway, Homer wasn’t getting it done, so I turned it off and watched the sunset. I’m always hoping to see that fleeting greenness everyone talks about, but again, staring right at it, waiting for it, focusing all my energies on it, I saw nothing — no greenness, no flash, just the slow and deliberate death of another day. A cold wind blew from the water. The two bass pluggers turned from the waves and trudged toward the cliff.

At this point I figured it was time to fondle my gear for a minute, even if I had no intention of fishing. My waders, Gus’ Discount rubber cheapos, looked like World War I army surplus equipment, cracked and slightly torn between the legs. The big question: to put the waders on pantless and risk embarrassment, or to keep the pants on and deal with a damp frozen crotch all night. The wind blew cold again. “Fuck it, I’m leaving,” I said aloud.

“Hey man,” said a voice behind me. “I see you got an A-frame in the truck. You going down there?”

It was the surf smelt fisherman. He had evidently climbed up the cliff while I was sitting in the truck. I stared at him for a while without answering. A tough, handsome, slightly salty and sand-smeared fisherman’s face stared back at me. I had harassed this guy maybe four times over the years when I worked for the Fish and Game Department. Did he remember me?

“Are you going for night smelt?” he asked again.

Here was the moment of truth. At the risk of being un-PC, I have to say it like it is. Had this fisherman not been Filipino, I might have answered no. But being that he was a Filipino fisherman, and that Filipino fishermen represent to me the very zenith of piscatorial wisdom, passion, and skill, especially where shore fishing is concerned, there was only one way I could answer the question.

“Yes, goddamn it, I’m going down there.”

The fisherman’s name was Angel. You can’t make this shit up. Angel, after skunking all day on surf smelt, was hoping he would run into someone who wanted to go for nighties (he’d left his A-frame at home). But the night smelt runs have been so miserable this year that he wasn’t expecting to find anyone. Until he saw a curious-looking A-frame with pseudo-Ohlone pictograms carved all over it, sitting in the back of the Ford Ranger next to his car in the lot.

“That’s a nice A-frame,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

Having now committed myself to this unhappy venture, I stepped into my predampened waders (with pants on, mind you — my friendship with Angel was too young to allow for butt-naked wader wearing); grabbed the A-frame, a bucket, and an abalone net bag (the accoutrements of smelt fishing); and, with Angel behind me, descended the cliff.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” I said.

“What?” said Angel.

“I dread this fucking cliff,” I said. “I see it in my nightmares.”

In seven minutes we were on the beach. My knees were fine. My back felt great. I looked toward the waves. Not a seal to be seen. All the relevant birds nestled down for the night somewhere. It was 8:39 p.m., 22 minutes till true dark. We carried the gear down to the shore and plopped it in the sand.

“This water looks awful,” I said.

Angel felt the sand with his feet. “Yeah, but the sandis good.”

As I mentioned above, night smelt and surf smelt require coarse-grained, loosely packed sand. If the sand grains are too small — like say, the sand grains at Ocean Beach — surf and night smelt cannot wiggle down to lay their eggs in the swash. I grabbed a handful of it and let it drip between my fingers. Angel, of course, was right. The sand was good. Perfect, in fact. But this was no time for optimism.

“Look, Angel, I gotta leave at 9:15, OK? I don’t want to be out here all night.”

“No problem,” said Angel. “It’s your gear, leave when you want.”

At 9:00 I handed Angel my A-frame. If I could get out of this evening without soaking my balls in freezing salt water, so much the better. There wasn’t a bird or a seal within miles. I could still see a faint suggestion of blue on the horizon. Still light enough for us to see each other clearly. Angel took the net, whipped it around, opened it, and slapped the crossbar in the slot — not unlike Odysseus with his bow against the suitors. Night smelt tremble as this man approaches, I thought.

Angel marched to the shore and dipped. Nothing. He dipped again. Nothing.

“Too light,” he said.

Despite the fact that Angel’s presence had given me a slight glimmer of hope, for the next 15 minutes I railed on and on about how many fruitless evenings I had spent in pursuit of night smelt. I roughly tabulated my gas expenditures, how much protein I had taken in versus effort (the predator’s equation). How much actual money I had made — or, I should say, lost. At the end of this diatribe, Angel laughed and said, “It’s 9:15. You still wanna leave?”

Another pivotal moment. “No. I’m staying.”

At 9:30, despite fog, total darkness, and lack of a headlamp, Angel said he saw seals about 100 feet down the beach.

“Where?” I said.

“Right there!”


A seal splashed in the foam. Another one rocketed through the swash. Angel dipped, but I couldn’t see if he got any fish. “They’re here,” he said. Suddenly the A-frame was back in my hands. I dipped. I pulled. I looked down.

There’s something about wresting fish from the roiling surf…

And then everything changed. The crushing sound of the waves was an orchestra of wonderment; the chilly wind wasn’t so much chilly as clean and fresh; I heard someone laughing and realized it was me. I had forgotten that, yes, despite the best predictions, recent failures, and a bad attitude, sometimes you get lucky and the fish just run.

There’s something about wresting fish from the roiling surf: the sparkle of the smelt as the sand filters out of the net, the feeling of them bumping into your feet, into the frame, into the net, the mist lingering over the sea at night, starlight, the rush of the waves all around you, the simple perfection of the A-frame, the foghorn, the cucumber scent of the bucket. Did I mention that they smell faintly of cucumbers?

In 30 minutes we scored about 10 pounds of night fish each. Small numbers, but enough for personal consumption — more than enough, in fact. We ascended the cliff in 8.5 minutes without breaking a sweat. Hillary in his prime could have done no better. Alone in the dark parking lot, we divvied up the catch, exchanging business cards and briefly deconstructing the night’s adventure. After a while, I climbed into my truck and said good-bye to my newest fishing buddy.

He smiled. “Hey Kirk,” he said. “The cliff wasn’t so bad,was it?”

“The cliff?” I said, “What cliff?” 

KIRK LOMBARD is a commercial fisherman, the writer of the fishing blog, and founder of Seaforager tours – a walking-tour business that educates people about fishing and foraging options along the Bay Area Coast. He also spent seven years working as one of the Department of Fish and Game’s catch monitors and owns the current state record for the largest monkeyface eel caught on hook and line.

GIDEON CHASE is a painter and illustrator living in San Francisco. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009. See more of his work at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

From Boat to Table: Talking about seafood sustainability with Kenny Belov

December 6, 2012

interview by Viola Tontolo
photo by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen


SINCE WE STARTED WORKING ON THE FISHUE, one name has continually come up in conversation. All the roads of sustainable seafood in the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems, lead to Kenny Belov. Belov was born Innokenty Belov in Moscow, Russia, in 1976, and moved to the United States at the age of five. An avid fisherman, mushroom hunter, and former professional photographer, Belov co-founded the sustainable seafood restaurant Fish in Sausalito, California, in 2004. Belov’s passion for the ocean has led him from fishing boats to restaurant kitchens, from aquaculture farms to warehouses, and from Seafood Watch to seeking the truth behind seafood labeling. Belov co-owns TwoXSea, a retail company specializing in traceable, honestly sourced seafood; MacFarland Springs, a sustainable trout farm in California’s Lassen County; and a wholesale seafood company in Alaska. Meatpaper met with Belov and his daughter Isabella, aged seven, at the TwoXSea headquarters at San Francisco’s Pier 45.

Tell me about your personal journey. You were doing photography before, and now you run four fish-related businesses. What led you to where you are now?
I was always obsessed with fishing. In high school I moved to Florida and fell in love with saltwater fishing. I found myself in the Bay Area in ’96 and started fishing here on the sportfishing boats. In those days we were able to keep 15 rock cod, three ling cod. We were fishing in very, very deep water — 400 feet, 300 feet — and the fish were all coming up dead (when you bring them up from that depth, their swim bladders come out, so they are mostly dead). If the fish were not some magical size they just got discarded. The captain was OK with that because what kept the boat full the next day were the reports that were in the newspapers: how many pounds of fish the previous day’s trip caught. It was all based on the trophy. A handful of hours into the trip you would just look and see a sea of floaters. A couple of years later that entire area — Cordell Bank — was closed for rockfish.

For me being out on the water was what I went out for; a fish was a bonus. I found myself wanting to work on these boats, and I finally got a job on a boat out of Berkeley. I didn’t last long because I was trying to convince the customers to keep stuff, and I was basically telling them the story that I just told you: Hey, you just killed this fish, it’s perfectly good, let me fillet it for you. That didn’t go over so well because the captain didn’t make money off of keeping small fish and reporting light catches.

Fast-forward a few years: Two of my dear friends were getting ready to open this restaurant in Sausalito called Fish, and they said, “Hey, do you want to join in this project?” And after many sleepless nights my wife and I decided we were both still young enough that if we fell on our asses we could still get up. I had no restaurant experience. All I knew was how to cut fish, how to catch fish, and how to talk about local fish and my passion for fish.

What was your role in the restaurant?
At that point I was just the fish buyer and the fishmonger. Then on January 1 of 2006, the original owner offered me to buy into the restaurant and I accepted. Now it’s just the two of us — my partner, Bill Foss, and myself. Bill has been equally as passionate and dedicated to fixing this problem.

We were one of the first restaurants that the Monterey Bay Aquarium said was a sustainable seafood restaurant. At that point we were following their rules to a T. But we were serving things that they recommended but that I disagreed with, so now we have pulled them off of our menu. I believe that the Monterey Bay Aquarium could be much stricter and make it a lot more challenging for chefs to really save the oceans; instead they make it really easy for chefs to write menus and deplete the oceans. They allow certain things that I believe should really be red-listed.

It sounds like there is a problem with labeling and categorizing — even when you buy green-listed fish, it might not be what you think you have.
Absolutely. There are also certain vessels and certain gear types within fisheries that are OK, but then the bulk of those fish are not caught with that gear type, yet somehow we all have it on our menus or in our retail cases.

At what point did you go past the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s recommendations and start to think about it in your own terms?
In 2006–2007, I bought a commercial fishing boat, and I started fishing a lot for the restaurant. When I saw the practices firsthand, I thought, “I can’t support that.” And I started getting really fed up with what people were saying was sustainable aquaculture. So in 2008, we decided we were going to start tinkering with a vegetarian-feed idea for farmed fish. Bill, my partner, got a list of every licensed aquaculture facility and we started calling them: “Hey, we’ve got this idea, will you listen to us?” Most of the conversations went something like: “Will we make more money?” “Probably not.” “Will the fish grow faster?” “Probably not.” “No thanks.” Except for one person, David MacFarland, who picked up the phone and said, “I never thought about it. Sure — come on up.” We drove up to his farm in Lassen County, California, in January 2009 and got snowed in. David said, “Why, I don’t get it, what’s the big deal [about the diet]?” and I asked, “What’s your conversion rate?” He said, “It’s about two and a quarter to one.”

What’s a conversion rate?
Feed in versus fish out — two and a quarter pounds to onepound. For every two pounds of feed you get one pound of fish. So I asked, “What’s the true conversion ratio?” and he said, “What do you mean?” and I said, “Well, you are feeding them a pellet and you are talking about conversion ratio from your pellet that you bought. But what did it take to make that pellet?” And he said, “I have no idea.”

We are depleting the world’s oceans of anchovies and sardines to make trout, to make salmon, to make the fish that we as a society think are sexier on the plate.

To make a typical pellet, you take a wet fish, meaning a wet sardine or a wet anchovy, and you dry it, you add bone meal, feather meal, chicken by-products, all sorts of other fillers. You compress it from six or eight pounds to make one pound of fish. We are depleting the world’s oceans of anchovies and sardines to make trout, to make salmon, to make the fish that we as a society think are sexier on the plate. The rest of the world has no problem with eating sardines and anchovies — it’s just this country that has a problem.

So David was interested. He offered us a pen of fish and said, “You buy these fish, you can feed them whatever you want. If they all die, I’m still OK, and you’ve got a bunch of dead fish.” My partner contacted Dr. Rick Barrows, from the USDA’s fish research lab [Agricultural Research Service]. He is kind of like the guru of aqua feeds, and Rick was saying, “It’s not the ingredient list, all you are concerned about are the nutrients.” Trout don’t normally eat sardines, anchovies, and chicken by-products. Let’s make a diet more natural to the trout.

What is a diet more natural to the trout?
Some insects, and algae. So we took two strains of algae, and at that point we had 3% fish oil still left in, and no chicken by-products. That diet was working really well. But I wanted the fish oil out, too. We finally supplemented the fish oil with flax oil, and it worked super well, so we got rid of all animal products. Two algae, flax, flax oil. When we tested the fish, the omega-3s came back higher than wild salmon; omega-6s were nonexistent; PCBs and mercury were nonexistent. We started to get calls from the OB/ GYN community going, “This is the fish we need to be recommending, especially to moms!” and we said, “Wait a minute, you can’t do that because we don’t have enough of this fish.” If you make a statement like that in some sort of a medical journal that there’s this magical creature out there, it’s not scalable.

And then everybody goes and buys that fish, and it’s not
sustainable anymore.

Exactly. Until we can get a thousand farms to convert to a vegetarian diet, don’t go making some sort of statement like that, because we can barely produce enough fish for the immediate Bay Area.

Aquaculture is not going to go away, but intelligent aquaculture is the only way that aquaculture can sustain us as a population because current aquaculture is a fuse and it’s going to go off. When we deplete the resource to feed the fish that we are farming, this false low price of seafood — farmed salmon at $4 a pound — it’s going to spike, and people are going to ask what happened.

Can we sustain all aquaculture operations on a more sustainable diet?
I think that you can sustain sturgeon, catfish, trout, tilapia, striped bass, and that’s about it.

At what point did you take over the operation at MacFarland Springs?
We bought it effective January 1 of this year. We produce about 170,000 pounds out of that one facility, if we’re running at maximum capacity.

The farm has been there for a long time. How does it impact the local hydrology, and what do you do with waste products? There are things other than feed that are part of the sustainability of an operation like that.
Absolutely. The water is streaming out of the side of a mountain. There are six raceways [fish runs]: three tiers, two on each side, and at the very bottom there’s a settling pond. All the waste settles in that pond. Then we pump it, and it goes into the meadow where David’s horses are. It makes a super-lush meadow. Everything runs on one little hydroelectric generator, and that runs the whole facility. No feeding machines — everything is hand-fed. It’s a very primitive operation, not a large-scale, automated facility.

Is this the only fish farm that is actually sustainable?
We have approached numerous people about using our diet and letting us do what we did with David. A lot of it is kind of back to where we started this conversation. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has given a lot of aquaculture the green light, so if you are already at the top, there is absolutely no incentive, so why would you change if you already make money and you are profitable? Because this feed costs us about $1.50 a pound, while conventional feed costs about 50 cents.

If there were more farms requesting the same kind of feed it would probably impact the price…
Absolutely. If we could get more farms using algae-based diets it would bring the price of algae down, which is where the real big part of the cost is.

What is sustainable seafood? What are the things that you need to consider, both for wild and farmed fish, to call it sustainable?
For wild I believe that we need to give wild fisheries time to recover from our demand on food, meaning that we fish them in season, and then we allow them to recover out of season, and we use only sustainable gear. The gear should not take any by-catch that cannot be released unharmed. A trawl that’s fishing for California rockfish is killing everything between point A and point B. If we use sustainable gear methods, sustainable management of fisheries — meaning that we close them and open them for the best recovery rate of those fish, allowing them to spawn, allowing the areas to be closed for fishing when the spawning is happening — we can make sure the fishery stays healthy and abundant and supplies us with our demand for food.

Aquaculture has got to be shore-based, medication-free, pollution-free — and the feed is the critical issue. If you have anything with a conversion rate of two-to-one you are already backwards. If you are two-to-one on something that is growing in the ocean, or eating hormone-fed chicken by-products, what have we really accomplished?

You say that you can’t trust most distributors and a lot of restaurants to carry truly sustainable products. What’s your advice to the average consumer?
My family and I do a lot of mushroom picking. When we first started, we learned one mushroom. After months of picking one, we learned another one. Then as the years went on, we learned more and more and more, and now the kids go. I recommend the same thing with seafood. What’s your favorite fish? Learn as much as you possibly can about that one fishery. YouTube is actually a great resource for watching underwater footage of different fishing gears. You can just watch and make a decision for yourself. Go to places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and use that as a starting point. Do they say red, yellow, or green? OK, so your favorite fish is red — why? If it’s being caught with a certain gear, try to find anybody who catches it a different way. Is it possible to catch it a different way? Call the aquarium.

Here at TwoXSea, how do you make sure that what you are getting is what you think it is?
Because I only buy it from the boat. The supply chain is the problem. We all go to farmers’ markets. Likewise, if the wholesaler can buy directly from the fisherman, or if the restaurant can buy from the wholesaler that’s buying directly from the fisherman, then you have more of a localized menu.

So it sounds like as a consumer the best thing to do is to actually know your producer, to know which boat your fish comes from.
Sure. Know the restaurant you like to eat at, ask questions, and demand answers. If they claim it’s wild, don’t take that for an answer. Ask, “How do you know it’s wild? How does your producer know that it’s wild?” The best thing is vote with your fork, vote with your wallet. If chefs put something on the menu that doesn’t sell, they are going to stop putting it on the menu. 

VIOLA TONIOLO is an ecologist, writer, photographer, and mapmaker based in San Francisco. She was born and raised in Italy and hails from a food-obsessed family. She is happiest when her feet are on bare rock and her sights are set on something distant – preferably an iceberg, a seal, the ocean, or the next mountaintop.

Photographer JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru and raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

If I Were a Limpet: Isabella Rosellini’s Green Pornos

December 6, 2012

interview by Sasha Wizansky
photography by Jody Shapiro
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

IT’S NOT HARD TO FEEL DIFFERENTLY about whales after seeing Isabella Rossellini dressed as a male whale in a paper costume, penetrating a female whale puppet with a six-foot-long paper penis. In 2008, Rossellini began a series of Web films for the Sundance Channel called “Green Porno” to explore environmental themes by depicting a wide range of animal reproductive strategies. She demonstrated the mating behavior herself, in costumes made mostly of paper, on paper sets. Her theory was that the more you know about animals, the more you’ll be inspired to take care of them. Many of the films feature marine life, with Rossellini costumed variously as a barnacle, an anchovy in a school of anchovies, a molting shrimp, and a giant squid being fished from the ocean, among other creatures. Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro, who coproduced and codirected the films, kindly answered a few questions about the series.

Tell us about the low-fi look of the series. How did the sets and costumes for the Green Pornos come to be made of paper?
The Green Pornos were originally commissioned to be seen on mobile platforms — meaning small screens. By doing some research, Isabella determined that simple color palettes, like the kind used by animators, seemed to read best. We had always thought that to make this new medium work, you had to create an original look for it and not just recycle content. Rick Gilbert, the producer and production designer, introduced Isabella to the artist Andy Byers, whose medium is paper. We realized we could control the look and aesthetic — and the budget — by making everything out of paper.

What was the most challenging mating behavior to communicate within the parameters of the art direction?
Well, I could tell you that the most humorous moment was yelling “Action” when Isabella was mating with the human-sized paper fly. And I do remember that dolphin sex was pretty tough … our penis puppeteers, operating offscreen and without a monitor, had a mighty difficult time directing the “member” to hit its mark.

Do you eat fish? Has your relationship to fish, insects, and other animals changed since you worked on Green Porno?
I do eat fish — and try to be as responsible as I can. I carry around one of those Seafood Watch wallet cards. And my relationship to nature has changed since making these Green Pornos — for instance, when swimming with giant squids, I now keep my eye out for their spermathecae.

What happened to the costumes and set pieces after the shoots?
Andy’s paper sculptures are incredibly detailed and should be considered works of art. A few years ago, the Toronto International Film Festival invited us to create a Green Porno installation at the Royal Ontario Museum using Andy’s pieces. We created a giant aquarium. Afterwards the pieces were added to the Toronto Film Festival’s Film permanent archive collection — so a few of his marine life creations will be stored forever! Unfortunately, though, most of the collection over the years has ended up in a paper recycling bin. The sculptures are extremely fragile and don’t always survive the filming process — especially when that involves mating.

What story from the set do you find yourself telling most often?
This didn’t happen on set — but once I was invited to Russia to show the Green Pornos. I needed to get a travel visa from the Russian Consulate, so I applied with the necessary documents, along with a letter of invitation from the festival. There was a bit of commotion once my application was reviewed; I was called to the consulate and asked to explain why I was heading to Moscow to show “pornos.” We always had to be careful with the “P” word.

Do you think the Green Pornos’ message about overfishing has resonated with viewers?
I’d like to think that Isabella’s incredibly creative, humorous, and nonpreachy tone has gotten a few messages across with these films. Seeing Isabella Rossellini caught in a net with by-catch definitely resonates.

“If I were a calamari, I would be a squid, and everyone would want to meet me. By luminescent effects, and by changing shape, I could communicate. I could say “Be careful.” I could say “I love you,” with my whole three hearts. I would give the most passionate 20-arm embrace. 20? 18. (Two are not arms, if you know what I mean.)”

quote from Bon Appetit — Squid (Green Porno Season 3)

SASHA WIZANSKY is the editor in chief and art director of Meatpaper.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Fake Fish: Selling snapper in the United States

December 6, 2012

by Maria Gould
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

Comparison of rockfish (L) and red snapper (R) fillets, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). 


What do Nile tilapia, white bass, and Pacific Ocean perch all have in common? All three fish have been used to simulate the look, feel, and taste of red snapper.

One of the most commonly counterfeited fish, red snapper is notorious for not always being what it seems. If you think you have eaten red snapper lately, it is highly likely you were actually eating another fish instead. In a recent study of Los Angeles–based restaurants and grocery stores, the nonprofit marine advocacy group Oceana determined through DNA tests that 100% of the items labeled as “red snapper” were, in fact, misidentified. Half of the items were found to be tilapia; others were types of bass, perch, pollock, sea bream, and rockfish.

Through a complicated angle in California law, red snapper–labeling regulations actually allow for greater latitude: the law permits 13 types of Pacific rockfish to be sold as “Pacific red snapper” within the state. On the national level, FDA regulations permit only the species Lutjanus campechanus to be marketed under the name “red snapper.” As long as the fish stays
inside California, however, this policy cannot be enforced even though the 13 rockfish legalized by the state are technically in violation of federal law.

Although Oceana’s sample in this particular case was relatively small, fish fraud is widespread around the country but notably difficult to police. There are various reasons why the fraud occurs in the first place, and the issue is certainly not confined to red snapper: Many of the most commonly mislabeled fish have ended up on the Monterey Seafood Watch’s “Avoid” list to offset the effects of overfishing.

DNA tests are crucial tools in determining the extent of mislabeling. According to Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner, it is otherwise nearly impossible to differentiate the real thing and its fraudulent counterpart: “Some experienced fish sellers can distinguish among different fresh
fish fillets by visuals alone. Some knowledgeable people can discriminate by the taste of certain fish, particularly those not sauced but rather simply prepared. But it is hard to tell for many or most people without genetic tests.”

If the difference is undetectable, though, what could be the harm in the replacement of one fish for another? Warner cites ciguatera (fish-borne poisoning commonly associated with reef fish) as one possible risk. Mislabeling also poses a challenge to pregnant women monitoring their fish intake, as different species are linked to different health outcomes. On a fundamental level, fraud raises the question about consumers’ rights to know what they are eating and where it comes from. As Warner writes, “If the vendor lies about the species, what other lies are they telling?”

MARIA GOULD is an editor at Meatpaper and has worked for the magazine in various capacities since Issue Zero.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

Are Salmon Salmon? An inquiry into color and aquaculture

December 6, 2012

by Maria Gould
illustration by Jessica Niello
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.


Salmon legs were everywhere this year. Bright colors dominated clothing retailers’ new lines, and pink-hued pants were especially popular among shoppers. The sartorial trend led this writer to wonder: Do other fish colors end up in fashion? What is so special about salmon?

It is not difficult to verify that other fish have yet to make it into the color mainstream, let alone color trends. Sardine-colored jeans or ballet flats, for instance, are unlikely to end up on the shelves of J.Crew or the Gap. Unlike the whims of fashion, salmon has a long history as a popular color. One dictionary of color places the first use of “salmon” in 1776. At a later point in time, Crayola unveiled a salmon crayon, in 1949. Salmon is used in academic regalia to accent gowns worn by graduates of public health or health science programs. Economics newspapers are sometimes called the “salmon press,” likely for the unique color of the Financial Times pages. This newspaper began printing on salmon-colored paper in 1893, supposedly to distinguish itself from the rival publication Financial News.

But are these salmon-colored things actually the same color as salmon the fish?

Wild salmon are pink from eating krill and other carotenoid-rich marine organisms; farmed salmon are fed a diet pumped with carotenoid additives in order to achieve the same color. Without the special food, the fish would be an unappetizing grey. Made of synthetic petrochemicals such as canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, the feed imbues the fish with its customer-friendly color. The hue of pink can be adjusted according to shades on a color chip, much like that obtained from a paint store. DSM Nutritional Products, whose “SalmoFan” offers a visual guide for fish color engineering, explains in its promotional materials that “With the developments in diet formulations, increased biological performance of fish and variations in market requirements for flesh colour, there remains a strong focus on the economic use of astaxanthin.” (The economic value of these artificial dyes is not limited to fish: canthaxanthin is a well-known ingredient in “tanning pills,” although its use has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)

We present you here with our own version of the salmon spectrum. Perhaps it will come in handy the next time you pick out a fish, or shop for a new pair of pants.

MARIA GOULD is an editor at Meatpaper and has worked for the magazine in various capacities since Issue Zero.

JESSICA NIELLO is an Oakland-based painter, photographer, and ceramic artist.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

The Most Pristine Ocean: Monitoring fishing effects on the Ross Sea foodweb

December 6, 2012

story by Grant Ballard
photo by Viola Toniolo
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen


Lone adélie penguin seen from Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Adélie penguins rely on sea ice for survival. The Ross Sea will be the last place on Earth with sea ice.

THE CLIMB TO THE TOP of Pat’s Peak from the four-person U.S. Antarctic Program hut at Cape Crozier takes a fit person about 15 minutes, and a bit of motivation, particularly after dinner. It is a solitary, aggravating (due to loose talus), and sweaty-then-cold experience. The rocky, exposed summit is about 900 feet above sea level and offers otherworldly views: the Ross Ice Shelf stretching out to the east in an expanse of unbroken, inconceivable whiteness; Mount Terror rising 10,500 feet to the west, often with an exotic lenticular cloud hovering near it like a giant jellyfish. This is a climb I’ve committed to muscle memory after having done it hundreds of times over the past 16 years. I have been coming here with a small team of ecologists to study the Ross Sea food web. In a way it has turned out to be all about fish.

From the top of Pat’s Peak one can survey the nearby Ross Sea for birds, whales, and seals (hint: They all eat fish), using binoculars and a telescope. One evening, about 12 years ago, I was on Pat’s Peak relishing the absence of wind and marveling at how the sea and sky merged in an indistinct, leaden horizon. As always, there were thousands of penguins porpoising nearby, coming and going from their colony of about 150,000 pairs. My eye was drawn to a flock of about 75 penguins farther off that seemed a little odd — their spacing was more ordered, the flock more organized. Several seconds later I realized it was a pod of killer whales, but they were much farther away than I had initially thought and leaping from the water in a very synchronized way — something I had never seen before. These are the kinds of tricks that Antarctica plays on you: the brain is constantly challenged to reassess scale, numbers, and magnitudes, and to be unashamed of mistaking a 15-foot marine mammal for a 2-foot flightless bird. The fact that there were 75 killer whales nearby was not one of the things that surprised me.

The Ross Sea is the most pristine ocean on the planet. For most of the year it is covered by vast amounts of sea ice (frozen ocean), which makes it nearly inaccessible. This ice turned back several explorers before James Clark Ross first successfully sailed into it in 1841, making the Ross Sea the last major stretch of ocean to be discovered by humans. It continues to be a challenging place for sailors to this day: It’s the only place on earth where sea ice is growing in extent, and it’s home to legendary windstorms. It also hosts mind-boggling numbers of animals, particularly top predators such as whales, large fish, penguins, and other seabirds. It serves as a reminder of what much of the world’s oceans must have been like before humans came along,leading many to consider it a “natural laboratory.”

Hundreds of scientists have worked in the Ross Sea since it was first discovered. Recent studies show that despite being relatively small, the Ross Sea is responsible for 11% of all the atmospheric carbon sequestered by the world’s oceans. Carbon sequestration is a process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is captured, via photosynthesis and ocean circulation, and stored in deep marine sediments, thus helping to mitigate climate change. This is accomplished by ecosystem processes that are not yet fully understood and that may no longer be functioning in other, more degraded marine ecosystems.

Scientists are also fascinated by how species cope with the challenges of living in the harshest environment on earth. The animals that inhabit the Ross Sea have evolved special characteristics that enable them to deal with subfreezing ocean temperatures and to navigate around, through, and over the extensive sea ice. Several Antarctic fish species have antifreeze in their blood that enables them to survive in the 28.5°F water. Weddell seals can dive for over an hour, up to 2,400 feet, and then resurface to find that the ocean has frozen over; they then use their teeth to chew breathing holes through the new ice. Adélie penguins migrate thousands of kilometers to escape the Antarctic winter, often hitching rides on fast-moving ice floes. Emperor penguins have forgone the normal annual migration and instead make the crazy gamble of nesting on the frozen ocean in the darkness of midwinter, using their feet to protect their single egg (they are the only bird species that never needs to set foot on land). Ross Sea killer whales, which are the smallest killer whales in the world, feed exclusively on fish and can thus co-exist peacefully with the penguins and seals; in the Ross Sea their diet consists primarily of Antarctic toothfish, one of the species of “antifreeze fish,” known to be slow to reproduce and to grow larger than six feet and 300 pounds.

Since 1997 the toothfish have been targeted by fishing boats from New Zealand, South Korea, and several other countries, which are lured to these dangerous waters by the U.S. and European appetite for Chilean sea bass, which is the market name for Antarctic toothfish. Unfortunately for killer whales and Weddell seals, which also eat toothfish, these fish are very tasty to humans. The Ross Sea fishery is considered “exploratory” and is tightly regulated by CCAMLR (“cam-el-are,” the Committee for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). Even so, the fishery’s management plan would reduce the number of adult fish by half in the next 35 years. Scientists and environmentalists are alarmed, citing insufficient knowledge of the natural history of the species: Where does it breed? How frequently? How many are there? What eats them other than people? Just how dependent on toothfish are the killer whales and Weddell seals?

How will fishing of Antarctic toothfish affect killer whales and Weddell seals?

During our daily observations from Pat’s Peak it used to be common for us to see pods of 75 killer whales like the one described above. In recent years, however, I have not seen a single pod larger than 20 individuals, and the overall trend has been strongly negative, correlating exactly with the increased fishing pressure on Antarctic toothfish, their main food. CCAMLR estimates that the fishery has already reduced the numbers of toothfish in the region by about 20%, and it is now deliberating whether to move the fishing elsewhere and establish a marine reserve in the Ross Sea. It is a challenging prospect, due in no small part to the fact that the organization operates on a consensus basis — any one of the 25 member countries can block protection measures. Though CCAMLR’s mandate is different than most fisheries-management organizations’ because it specifically emphasizes the importance of conservation, in practice commercial interests have a strong influence. Recently I visited officials in Beijing to encourage their support for protection (the Chinese do not currently fish for toothfish), and their response sums it up pretty well: If there were no market for these fish, there would be no issue. While that is an oversimplification, it’s clear that consumers can, collectively, wield tremendous power in effecting change.

For more information about the effort to create a Marine Protected Area in the Ross Sea region, visit and


VIOLA TONIOLO is an ecologist, writer, photographer, and mapmaker based in San Francisco. She was born and raised in Italy and hails from a food-obsessed family. She is happiest when her feet are on bare rock and her sights are set on something distant – preferably an iceberg, a seal, the ocean, or the next mountaintop.

GRANT BALLARD is a chief science officer at PRBO Conservation Science in Petaluma, California. He works in both ecology and bioinformatics and currently leads several projects investigating, communicating, and mitigating the effects of large-scale environmental change on ecosystems in western North America and the Southern Ocean.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen