Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Fish Story

Standing in front of the fish cooler at the grocery store, I found myself stumped as to what kind of fish would be best for my family’s health and the planet’s. I don’t buy fish that often. I’ll confess that I don’t like fish. I realize it’s the uber-healthy protein, but I physically gag at the smell and can’t bring myself to eat it. I hold my parents partially responsible for this quirk because as a child we spent two weeks each year fishing in Nags Head and the rest of the year fighting over how much of that fish I had to choke down in order to earn dessert or at least be excused from the table. As a parent, I can’t be angry because heaven knows I’m giving my own kids their share of hang ups, but I do wish I could eat fish.

Shellfish are another story entirely. Shrimp is my all-time favorite food, but I rarely get to cook it because my hubby is allergic. Seems like some kind of divine punishment for my fish problem. His allergy developed after I’d already married him, otherwise it might have been a negotiating chip (just kidding honey). We have worked out a compromise since my boys love fish and my daughter is repelled by it. A few times a month we have “fish” for dinner. Nick cooks the fish for the boys and I steam the shrimp for the girls (my daughter won’t eat it any other way).

A Time cover article recently highlighted the problem of unsustainable fishing. We are catching and eating (or wasting) more than is being replenished and like so many other precious resources on this earth, we are in danger of destroying our fish supply. In response to this threat, a new type of “fishing” has developed in the form of “aquaculture” but for all its promises, much like big agribusiness it creates even bigger problems than it solves.

- It takes two pounds or more of “fish” to make one pound of fish. Fish eat other fish, and when they are raised altogether on "farms" their food must be made by catching other fish. Seems like simple math will tell you this isn’t “sustainable” in the long run.

-          When large numbers of fish are raised in concentrated areas, disease is always a threat. To counter this fish “farmers” treat their fish with antibiotics just like cow and chicken farmers do. The excess antibiotics and other drugs are released into the water and affect aquatic life and water supply.

- Farmed fish are treated with drugs not necessary for wild fish. For example, farmed salmon must be injected with a dye to give them that pretty pink color because unlike their wild cousins, they don’t consume krill to give them a natural pink color. (the dye used for this – canthaxanthin – has been shown to adversely effect sight when consumed in large quantities.)

- Fish farms pollute the oceans. The vast quantities of waste – both from the fish and the uneaten food – fill the ocean floor and affect the life around them. I know it only takes about a week of our little beta fish’s leftover fish food (and poop) to contaminate our tank (the fish farmer is generous with his servings and the cleaning service is intermittent at best), so imagine what hundreds of thousands of salmon are capable of.

- Fish farms endanger the sea life around them. Other creatures get caught in the nets. Farmed fish escape and compete with the native fish for food and also spread disease.

- Did you know that fish can get lice? Fish can get lice just like any large number of living beings crammed in to too small space! Treating this lice introduces pesticides to the water supply and exposes other water life to lice. A few years back we had a lice outbreak amongst our children - the work and poison necessary to eradicate it from two heads nearly leveled me. I can't imagine 100,000 lice infested fish. Ick.

- Farmed fish aren’t as good for you as wild fish (according to FDA studies). Wild salmon have 20% higher protein and 20% lower fat content than farm-raised salmon

- Just like small farmers, small fishing operations are losing their livelihood to larger scale fish farms.

Of course wild-caught fish can have their share of problems.

- Because they must be harvested far and wide, they cost more.

- The availability of any species is inconsistent. If you’ve ever gone fishing, you know this personally.

- The number of fish is diminishing. If we keep fishing like we are, major populations of fish will be extinct by the mid-century.

- Many conventional fisherman harm the ocean inhabitants and the reefs with their nets and boats.

- Lots of fish, called “by-catch”, are inadventently caught and then thrown out because they aren’t the sought-after species (25% of each catch is by-catch).

- Many larger ocean fish are filled with mercury.

So this leads to the question – is there such a thing as sustainable aquaculture? The industry is still so new that lots of mistakes are being made as we figure this out. There are some “organic” fisheries trying to do the right thing, but not everyone knows what the right thing is.

Vegetarian fish are being cultivated. One very sustainable fish hails from Austrailia, the barramundi (nick-named “sustainable sea bass”), are vegetarian and seem to do well growing in fish farms. But most people have never heard of this fish. Marketing will be necessary to convince people that a nice poached barramundi is a gourmet meal. Tilapia is another species that is adaptable to sustainable fish farming and somewhat wider known. So if you’re going to choke down some fish and these issues are nagging at your conscience, look for these two.

You can also get a little guidance from the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit, global organization that certifies seafood as sustainable. Through careful investigation, they determine which suppliers are practicing sustainable aquaculture or fishing and mark their products accordingly (with a bright blue “fish forever” seal from the MSC). MSC has produced a video about sustainable fishing.

As far as the toxins, the only way to avoid them is to steer clear of the long-living, carnivorous ocean-caught fish like salmon, tuna, swordfish, and shark.

There are several guides for making choices about which fish to buy. Monterray Bay Aquarium has an exhaustive guide that is modified for areas all over the US. also has a helpful general guide for choosing sustainable fish. If you buy and eat a lot of fish, you might want to make a copy of their handy little chart to keep in your wallet.

So now you see why I was stumped. When I started to read about all this I was overwhelmed by all the issues that are as deep and wide as the ocean. I still can’t determine if farm-raised or wild-caught shrimp is best. (suppose it depends on how they were farm raised) I’m guessing that as these issues gain traction, the fishing industry will find its footing and educate us all (in the name of profit)– we’ll just have to be sure we understand what they’re talking about before the fish stop biting.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Us Versus The Ants; No More Mr. Nice Guy

We’ve been invaded. There are teeny-tiny ants all over my counters and running up and down the cabinets and walls in my kitchen. Now, I’m not afraid of bugs. I lived on the Eastern Shore and I understand what a serious bug problem is, but this has gotten out of hand. In the beginning there were only a handful and I merrily squished them with my pinky finger (told you I’m not freaked out by bugs). But either my careless murders were reported back to the starship and reinforcements have been sent in, or word got out that we have crummy counters. Either way, we have been swarmed by these tiny ants that seem to be in hurry to get somewhere at all times.

This morning I watched them as they scurried over the counter, up the walls, across the cabinets and along the backsplash. They aren’t carrying anything. They aren’t even really stopping to inspect the chunk of hard pretzel that lies ignored on the counter (don’t worry, Mom’ll get that!). So what is there point? And besides the obvious – oh-ants-are-disgusting – are they harming anyone?

I looked on the internet. The consensus seems to be that ants aren’t really going to hurt you, they’re just yucky. Sure they carry a few germs around on their itty-bitty feet, but not any more than you are exposed to floating in the air. One writer even pointed out that ants can be a good thing – cleaning up crumbs you miss. Hmm. I liked that idea until I arrived back in the kitchen to see them coating my cutting board. Enough.

A recent guest to our house advised we go to “the Depot” and buy some serious poison. He even told us what kind worked best and explained that all you need to do is spray the entire outside bottom edge of your house. Right. Ring my house in industrial poison. Got it.

Back to the internet for some green guidance. Once armed, I set to work on the kitchen and by the time the kids were up things looked a little different on the counter. Granted there were still a few ants stumbling around in confused circles (all their regular trade routes had been cluttered with baking soda, chalk, vinegar, and/or lemons. So we’ll see what happens. I’m fairly pleased with the results so far.

As I fixed my lunch, I occasionally grabbed the vinegar spray bottle (my regular house cleaner) to douse unsuspecting ants. My oldest son watched me and chuckled when I told him I’d just firebombed the happy little ant with acid. Lately he’s in to reading horror, so this is right up his ally. I’m going to put him on the job soon.

Thinking about what our well-meaning friend had said about the outer edges of the house, I did a quick perimeter check and sure enough there seemed to be a mass of ants rallying around the porch door. I quick upended a bottle of lemon juice all along that edge and by early afternoon – no ants! I explained to my son that one was more like a nuclear attack. Another chuckle. So much for his peace-loving mama. I feel the same way about the bunny who seems to be dodging my lazy cats and avoiding my not-so-bright dog on its way to eating all of my French filet green beans. Doubt vinegar or lemon juice will do the trick on that one.

Just in case you have an ant problem too, here are some of the suggestions from the internet site Green Eco Services.

I’ve noted the ones I’ve tried and the results.

1. Keep a small spray bottle handy, and spray the ants with a bit of soapy water. (haven’t tried this one, seemed too kind, but in the interest of cleaning up all the vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda scattered all over my kitchen, it will be my final attack)

2. Set out cucumber peels or slices in the kitchen or at the ants’ point of entry. Many ants have a natural aversion to cucumber. Bitter cucumbers work best. (couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice any of my fresh cucumbers that just ripened this week)

3. Leave a few tea bags of mint tea near areas where the ants seem most active. Dry, crushed mint leaves or cloves also work as ant deterrents. (this seems like it might be a good maintenance plan – I’m going to pick some mint today)

4. Trace the ant column back to their point of entry. Set any of the following items at the entry area in a small line, which ants will not cross: cayenne pepper, citrus oil (can be soaked into a piece of string), lemon juice, cinnamon or coffee grounds. (lemon juice seems to really work the best, but I also scattered lemon slices on the counter, in the cabinets, and around the sink)

5. Mix a half teaspoon each of honey, borox, and aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet, etc.), in small bottles. Place bottles on their sides, with lids off, in areas of most ant activity. Ants will carry the bait back to their colonies. Important: use indoors only; must be kept away from pets and children. (don’t own any aspartame and can’t bring myself to support the sale of unhealthy chemicals in any form, so I haven’t tried this one. Plus, there are way too many pets and children roaming the premises that cannot be kept away from)

6. Leave a small, low wattage night light on for a few nights in the area of most ant activity. The change in light can disrupt and discourage their foraging patterns. (yeah, right.)

7. Ants on the deck? Slip a few cut up cloves of garlic between the cracks. (Nice. And then who wants to sit on the deck with me and breath in the sent of rotting garlic?)

8. Liquid peppermint soap, diluted in a squirt bottle will kill them. It will also prevent them from coming back. (where do you buy liquid peppermint soap?? Sounds divine. I’d like to have some for my smelly kids.)

9. Citrasolve works wonderfully! Just mop or wipe with it and spread it around at entry point. ants will die in house, and won’t come back in again. (if the ants die in your house they aren’t going anywhere are they? Haven’t seen this in my stores)

10. Ring your house with used coffee grounds and other acidic natural byproducts. (I think this is what I did by dousing the porch in lemon juice – worked great so far)

11. Spray bottle with vinegar works too. (Yes! And it’s great fun too!)

12. Dr. Bronners peppermint soap (and do what with it exactly?)

13. Try Boric Acid. It’s natural, safe and it works. (I’d try this, but don’t have any on hand)

14. Peppermint oil–a few drops in a spray bottle of water. (same as boric acid)

15. Pouring lemon juice around areas ants frequent (seems to work but is kind of messy and sticky)

16. Baking soda can deter ants – pour a solid line in areas of activity and they won’t cross it. (this seems to be working! Added bonus that it soaks up bad smells – always a good thing)

17. A puree blend of orange peel and water can be applied to an area to discourage ants from crossing. (too much work and mess and more stickiness)

18. Baby powder stopped them dead in their tracks. (no longer have babies or baby powder, but I might be tempted to try the powder just to remember)

19. Use a piece of chalk to draw a line over trails – again, the ants won’t cross it. Chalk also has the advantage of being able to be used on vertical surfaces (I tried this and the ants just laughed)

20. We up here in Alaska work a lot with carpenter ants. I use the original Listerine the brown one. Full strength and we spray it in there tracks and this kills them. I also find that they do not like the peppermint castile soap. (Now carpenter ants are scary – I’d definitely give this a try if that’s what I was dealing with. Those guys are big enough to carry away a small cat!)

21. Several readers have had success with using powdered yeast. The ants usually disappear within one day! (not sure what “powdered” yeast is, but I’m not wasting my good yeast on ants)

Good luck with your own ant attack. Let me know what works!