So, I've known a lot of fish in my life. I've loved only two. That first one, it was more like a passionate affair. It was a beautiful fish: flavorful, textured, meaty, a bestseller on the menu. What a fish. (Laughter) Even better, it was farm-raised to the supposed highest standards of sustainability. So you could feel good about selling it.
I was in a relationship with this beauty for several months. One day, the head of the company called and asked if I'd speak at an event about the farm's sustainability. "Absolutely," I said. Here was a company trying to solve what's become this unimaginable problem for us chefs: How do we keep fish on our menus? For the past 50 years, we've been fishing the seas like we clear-cut forests. It's hard to overstate the destruction. Ninety percent of large fish, the ones we love -- the tunas, the halibuts, the salmons, swordfish -- they've collapsed. There's almost nothing left. So, for better or for worse, aquaculture, fish farming, is going to be a part of our future. A lot of arguments against it: Fish farms pollute -- most of them do anyway -- and they're inefficient. Take tuna, a major drawback. It's got a feed conversion ratio of 15 to one. That means it takes fifteen pounds of wild fish to get you one pound of farm tuna. Not very sustainable. It doesn't taste very good either. So here, finally, was a company trying to do it right. I wanted to support them. The day before the event, I called the head of P.R. for the company. Let's call him Don. "Don," I said, "just to get the facts straight, you guys are famous for farming so far out to sea, you don't pollute." "That's right," he said. "We're so far out, the waste from our fish gets distributed, not concentrated." And then he added, "We're basically a world unto ourselves. That feed conversion ratio? 2.5 to one," he said. "Best in the business." 2.5 to one, great. "2.5 what? What are you feeding?" "Sustainable proteins," he said. "Great," I said. Got off the phone. And that night, I was lying in bed, and I thought: What the hell is a sustainable protein? (Laughter)
So the next day, just before the event, I called Don. I said, "Don, what are some examples of sustainable proteins?" He said he didn't know. He would ask around. Well, I got on the phone with a few people in the company; no one could give me a straight answer until finally, I got on the phone with the head biologist. Let's call him Don too. (Laughter)
"Don," I said, "what are some examples of sustainable proteins?" Well, he mentioned some algaes and some fish meals, and then he said chicken pellets. I said, "Chicken pellets?" He said, "Yeah, feathers, skin, bone meal, scraps, dried and processed into feed." I said, "What percentage of your feed is chicken?" Thinking, you know, two percent.
"Well, it's about 30 percent," he said. I said, "Don, what's sustainable about feeding chicken to fish?" (Laughter)
There was a long pause on the line, and he said, "There's just too much chicken in the world." (Laughter)
I fell out of love with this fish. (Laughter) No, not because I'm some self-righteous, goody-two shoes foodie. I actually am. (Laughter) No, I actually fell out of love with this fish because, I swear to God, after that conversation, the fish tasted like chicken. (Laughter)
This second fish, it's a different kind of love story. It's the romantic kind, the kind where the more you get to know your fish, you love the fish. I first ate it at a restaurant in southern Spain. A journalist friend had been talking about this fish for a long time. She kind of set us up. (Laughter) It came to the table a bright, almost shimmering, white color. The chef had overcooked it. Like twice over. Amazingly, it was still delicious.
Who can make a fish taste good after it's been overcooked? I can't, but this guy can. Let's call him Miguel -- actually his name is Miguel. (Laughter) And no, he didn't cook the fish, and he's not a chef, at least in the way that you and I understand it. He's a biologist at Veta La Palma. It's a fish farm in the southwestern corner of Spain. It's at the tip of the Guadalquivir river. Until the 1980s, the farm was in the hands of the Argentinians. They raised beef cattle on what was essentially wetlands. They did it by draining the land. They built this intricate series of canals, and they pushed water off the land and out into the river. Well, they couldn't make it work, not economically. And ecologically, it was a disaster. It killed like 90 percent of the birds, which, for this place, is a lot of birds. And so in 1982, a Spanish company with an environmental conscience purchased the land.
What did they do? They reversed the flow of water. They literally flipped the switch. Instead of pushing water out, they used the channels to pull water back in. They flooded the canals. They created a 27,000-acre fish farm -- bass, mullet, shrimp, eel -- and in the process, Miguel and this company completely reversed the ecological destruction. The farm's incredible. I mean, you've never seen anything like this. You stare out at a horizon that is a million miles away, and all you see are flooded canals and this thick, rich marshland.
I was there not long ago with Miguel. He's an amazing guy, like three parts Charles Darwin and one part Crocodile Dundee. (Laughter) Okay? There we are slogging through the wetlands, and I'm panting and sweating, got mud up to my knees, and Miguel's calmly conducting a biology lecture. Here, he's pointing out a rare Black-shouldered Kite. Now, he's mentioning the mineral needs of phytoplankton. And here, here he sees a grouping pattern that reminds him of the Tanzanian Giraffe.
It turns out, Miguel spent the better part of his career in the Mikumi National Park in Africa. I asked him how he became such an expert on fish.
He said, "Fish? I didn't know anything about fish. I'm an expert in relationships." And then he's off, launching into more talk about rare birds and algaes and strange aquatic plants. And don't get me wrong, that was really fascinating, you know, the biotic community unplugged, kind of thing. It's great, but I was in love. And my head was swooning over that overcooked piece of delicious fish I had the night before. So I interrupted him. I said, "Miguel, what makes your fish taste so good?" He pointed at the algae.
"I know, dude, the algae, the phytoplankton, the relationships: It's amazing. But what are your fish eating? What's the feed conversion ratio?" Well, he goes on to tell me it's such a rich system that the fish are eating what they'd be eating in the wild. The plant biomass, the phytoplankton, the zooplankton, it's what feeds the fish. The system is so healthy, it's totally self-renewing. There is no feed. Ever heard of a farm that doesn't feed its animals? Later that day, I was driving around this property with Miguel, and I asked him, I said, "For a place that seems so natural, unlike like any farm I'd ever been at, how do you measure success?" At that moment, it was as if a film director called for a set change. And we rounded the corner and saw the most amazing sight: thousands and thousands of pink flamingos, a literal pink carpet for as far as you could see.
"That's success," he said. "Look at their bellies, pink. They're feasting." Feasting? I was totally confused.
I said, "Miguel, aren't they feasting on your fish?" (Laughter)