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Can 'Slow Fish' Help Save America's Small-Scale Fishermen?

Rock shrimp from Florida used to be considered too hard-shelled to be worthwhile as commercial seafood. A custom-made machine to crack and split them has made the sweet crustaceans a favorite for Orlando chef Jessica Tantalo, who prepared them as part of Slow Fish 2016 in New Orleans. i

Rock shrimp from Florida used to be considered too hard-shelled to be worthwhile as commercial seafood. A custom-made machine to crack and split them has made the sweet crustaceans a favorite for Orlando chef Jessica Tantalo, who prepared them as part of Slow Fish 2016 in New Orleans. Eve Troeh for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eve Troeh for NPR
Rock shrimp from Florida used to be considered too hard-shelled to be worthwhile as commercial seafood. A custom-made machine to crack and split them has made the sweet crustaceans a favorite for Orlando chef Jessica Tantalo, who prepared them as part of Slow Fish 2016 in New Orleans.

Rock shrimp from Florida used to be considered too hard-shelled to be worthwhile as commercial seafood. A custom-made machine to crack and split them has made the sweet crustaceans a favorite for Orlando chef Jessica Tantalo, who prepared them as part of Slow Fish 2016 in New Orleans.

Eve Troeh for NPR

You can't find a more intimate relationship between humans, food and nature than fishing, says Michele Mesmain, international coordinator of Slow Fish, a seafood spinoff of the Italy-based Slow Food movement. Think of all the thousands of boats at sea, catching wild creatures to haul back to shore and eat. "It's our last source of widely eaten, truly wild food," she says.

Held every odd-numbered year in Genoa, Slow Fish attracts about 50,000 chefs, fishers, scholars, activists and eaters to promote small-scale fishing, marine biodiversity, cooking and eating neglected seafood species. This year, organizers added a U.S. event — in New Orleans — to highlight fisheries in the Americas and threats to Louisiana's vanishing independent fishermen.

The New Orleans event was born last year when New Orleans Slow Food chair Gary Granata and Carmo restaurateurs Dana and Christina Honn presented in Genoa. Granata says he spoke about Louisiana's coast washing away due to erosion, "and Dana and Christina cooked Louisiana seafood in sauce piquant, and we said: 'Come to New Orleans!' "

They meant it. To fund Slow Fish 2016, the group held "Trash Fish Happy Hours," where customers could eat seafood — like porgy, small squid and whiting — that's normally considered unwanted bycatch. Though the New Orleans Slow Fish gathering came together as an "all-volunteer, DIY sort of thing," Granata says, it was far from unambitious. Alongside panel discussions about fisheries throughout the Americas, the hosts planned a full-on festival with a lineup of live, local music and chefs cooking Louisiana seafood, plus added delicacies from around North America.

Then the rain came.

Severe storm threats canceled the festival side of things and sent visiting chefs scrambling for what to do with the seafood they'd brought from hundreds of miles away.

Chef Drew Deckman preps a smoked river trout salad, with fish donated by Slow Fish 2016 participants from California.

Chef Drew Deckman preps a smoked river trout salad, with fish donated by Slow Fish 2016 participants from California. Eve Troeh for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eve Troeh for NPR

"But that's what fishermen do every day, is improvise," said chef Drew Deckman as he took cover in a makeshift kitchen under a tent and shucked the first of about 200-dozen oysters from his home in Baja, Mexico. He mixed a salad of smoked river trout from California and chopped its crispy, grilled skin to lay on top.

"Fishermen can't predict conditions," Deckman says. "It's an unfair and uneven playing field for them."

Lance Nacio nodded as he stood in tall, white rubber shrimp boots and slurped an oyster from the half shell. Owner and captain of Anna Marie Shrimp out of Montegut, La., he designed his 55-foot boat to weather deep seas, yet not so big that the upfront cost of fuel might outweigh the value of his catch — an equation that's failed to add up for many local fishers.

Fishing boat captain Tim Rider out of Saco, Maine, says smaller fishers are literally going under. "Just last night, a good friend of mine lost his boat. It sank off the coast of Hawaii." Rider says that happens more often, as independent commercial fishermen are forced to test the limits of their smaller vessels farther offshore, because closer waters are overfished.

Niaz Dorry of Gloucester, Mass., and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance was especially eager to eat lots of Louisiana shrimp. "I'm a big fan of shrimp, but I hardly ever eat it, because most of the shrimp we get are farmed, imported, pumped up with antibiotics and toxins — plus the destruction of the environment that goes along with that," she says. "So I'm excited to be in a place where wild shrimp is still a viable product."

It wasn't viable for Kevin Curole of Galliano, La., though. He says he sold his boat — named The Heavy Metal — to send his daughter to college. "I bled in that boat," he says, customizing it into his dream vessel. But with competition from aquaculture imports and the high price of diesel at the time, he couldn't make a living catching shrimp.

"I just basically sold it back to the bank. It was converted into an oil field tug boat," he says. Dozens of others have shared similar fates.

Now Curole fishes only for his family. After 20 years on a boat, his wife, Margaret Curole, has taken up advocacy work — first on the Louisiana Shrimp Board, then as a North American representative for fishers with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. What good does it do the Curoles, as former fishers, to share their story at an event like Slow Fish when they no longer make a living on the water?

Margaret answers: "To put a face to the fish. The more you can make people aware that there's a person behind what they're eating, then it gives them a different relationship to their food."

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