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Image of Rorotoko interview Elspeth Probyn

Rorotoko – Interview with Elspeth Probyn

By Eating the Ocean, Latest News, News

In a nutshell …

My book explores how we eat the ocean, in many ways, every day, sometimes without knowing it. Of course we know when we consciously eat fish – battered, breaded, grilled, steamed, or raw – and when we tongue delicious health-sustaining oysters, or partake of steaming bowls of relatively sustainable mussels. What we may not be aware of is that 25% of the global ocean catch disappears into fish oil and fishmeal. In this form fish turn up in supermarket white bread fortified with omega 3, cosmetic products, pet food, and become food for farmed fish.

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Image of sea scape Gena Wirth

Sea SCAPE – Q&A with Gena Wirth

By Conference, Latest News
Q&A with Gena Wirth from SCAPE Studio, New York. Gena will be a guest speaker at the Sustaining the Seas conference (11th-13th Dec).

Q: What’s the most exciting project you are working on now and why?

A: We have a number of exciting projects in the works at SCAPE, but a project that has captured my attention recently has been a new community park project along the waterfront of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. This site is contaminated with PCBs, a legacy of its former industrial use, but has been identified by Perth Amboy residents as a space with potential for transformation and cleanup. We are working with the city and the remediation engineers to integrate remediation and design into a new topography – one that caps contamination while creating more unique and diverse park experiences. There are number of opportunities in this project to remove contaminated materials from the flood zone and catalyze the expansion of a dynamic coastal ecosystem. We’re proposing to move the contaminated material upland, out of the floodable area, and cap it with an impermeable cap that also acts as a skate park for teens. It’s an urban project that will unlock a variety of new park experiences for neighbors of all ages – but it’s also a performative park that stabilizes and cleans a contaminated site, improves water quality, and introduces new coastal ecosystems.

Gena Wirth, Design Principal SCAPE.

Q: You are a landscape architect but many of your projects at Scape now focus on seascapes/ harbours, can you tell us about how you got to this point?

A: One of the first projects I worked on at SCAPE was a museum proposal called Oyster-tecture. Since then I’ve been hooked on the coastal and underwater landscape – it’s a huge part of our ecosystem but design analysis often stops at the waterline, which is an arbitrary delineation. The underwater environment is challenging – the more projects we advance that truly engage with the subtidal world, the clearer the regulatory and technical challenges become. Over my time at SCAPE I’ve worked on projects that advocate for regulatory change, better policy and planning around the waterfront, and enhanced design for ecosystem performance in the water. One of the largest projects we have right now that examines coastal issues and ecological design in the 21st century is called Living Breakwaters, a funded project for the South Shore of Staten Island that mitigates erosion and wave action in coastal neighborhoods, while planning for oyster reef restoration and juvenile fish habitat creation.

Q: Perhaps there should be a new degree: seascape architecture?

A: I’m not sure about this! You certainly need to build a whole new vocabulary and understanding of the underwater world to even begin to engage or design in these areas, however I think this capacity is there with designers and landscape architects to address these spaces. What we need are better partnership and better bridges to other disciplines – ecologists, marine biologists, artists, coastal engineers – to think creatively and holistically about these environments.

Q: How do you typically approach a design challenge?  And what skills in addition to being a landscape architect do you need?

A: I think one of the most important skill sets that designers bring is the process of critical thinking early on in a project. So much of our landscape – underwater and above water – is defined by default. By regulation, by routine. There is so much opportunity to advance change when you bring a group of committed and talented professionals from diverse disciplines together at the beginning of a project and ask provocative questions, and develop creative pathways to implementation. All of our most progressive projects start like this – with creative and interdisciplinary brainstorming sessions with other disciplines and community members. But this type of collaboration can’t simply stop there – that communication and intense collaboration needs to extend through the design process. Often this makes these project exhausting, more complex, and sometimes more expensive up front – but lead to vastly better (and often more economical) results in the long term.

Q: Could you expand on Scape’s “ultimate goal of connecting people to their immediate environment and creating dynamic and adaptive landscapes of the future”, in relation to the Live Breakwater project or the conceptual Oyster-tecture design?

A: Both of our projects, Living Breakwaters and Oyster-tecture, aim to positively transform the underwater ecological environment of NY harbor and build infrastructure that reduces risk in waterfront neighborhoods. Designing for future sea level rise and storm surge is an inherently unpredictable exercise. Science is informing this process, and while the trends are clear, many typical coastal protection projects put a great deal of faith in designing to a particular elevation or a particular flood control level that might change over time depending on the pace of climate change. Infrastructure also tends to stick around– so what the best available science states in 2017 might not be as accurate in 2050 or 2100. Because of this, Living Breakwaters and Oyster-tecture both aim to create living infrastructure, infrastructure that can grow along with the threats of sea level rise and intensifying storms. We also aim to create living infrastructure that won’t fail catastrophically – both projects propose systems that don’t keep the water out, rather they reduce risk and water threats without eliminating them completely. For example – Living Breakwaters attenuate waves whether sea level rises 2” or 60” inches in the next 50 years – if sea levels rise 60” they will just attenuate waves to a lesser degree. Unlike a levee system, which draws a line between land and water and has the potential of catastrophic breakage or failure, our projects propose to blur the lines between land and water, and invest in systems that improve everyday recreational and ecological performance while also reducing risk in a major storm.

Q: How can we care better for marine environments?

A: In urban environments one of the biggest challenges is remembering that our waterways are ecosystems and should be designed and considered as such! In New York City there are so many hurdles to engaging the ecology of the water. For centuries we’ve treated the water and the harbor as a site of dumping, of waste disposal, of shipping and logistics, and of commerce- which has really reduced ecosystem diversity and compromised maritime habitat. Even today, our combined sewer system overflows into the harbor after major rain events and dredging and shipping activity disturb the seafloor constantly. We need to deal with these urban realities, but also recognize that urban underwater habitat is also highly valuable, and in many cases, has the potential to co-exist with our urban processes of shipping and navigation and industrial activity. This requires clever design thinking and interdisciplinary thinking. Major harbor dredgers and shippers should be brainstorming with ecologists on how to avoid disrupting critical fish migration routes and breeding seasons. Waterfront landowners should be reconstructing water edges not to simply retain or floodproof their parcels, but to improve transitional habitat along the edge. Regulators need to get more creative to incentive and allow new forms of edge modification that improve ecological function and build habitat and allow more access to the waterfront. We need to consider our city’s underwater residents (shellfish, finfish, invertebrates) in our ecological planning and policies to design and improve urban ecosystems of the future. All of these things can only happen with creative conversation and interdisciplinary exchange.

See SCAPE studio for more information on projects and Gena Wirth.

Image of following kingfish part 1

Following Kingfish Part I

By Case Studies, Category 1, Latest News
Notes from the field: ethnographic encounters following Kingfish at Sydney Fish Market.

Through the Sustainable Fish Lab research at the Sydney Fish Market, we plan to follow many fish on their way to becoming food. Our aim is to uncover the complex socio-cultural, environmental, economic, political and personal layers of harvesting, trading, regulating, and eating fish.

The Auction

Our following of kingfish begins on the auction floor at 8am on March 22nd 2017. Our knowledgeable tour guide, Alex, had just shared with us numerous fish facts on several of the hundred or so species traded that morning – tips on how to read a fish for freshness, and why obscure and cheap species often taste better.

As the auction came to an end Tony Wearne (fishmonger and buyer for seafood traders Nicholas Seafood and Peters) called me over to view his morning’s purchase.

We walked passed ‘wheelers’, men who were readying boxes of fish to take off the auction floor. “Here he is” said Tony, indicating to a styrofoam box labelled yellowtail kingfish. Tony began to explain the provenance of the catch:

This is one of my fishermen … he’s a young 28 year old kid, and his the keenest young fisherman … basically what he has is a small electric boat and he goes out on his own, he launches it in Baddow Bay, just near Terrigal there, he goes out and he catches basically bonito, mostly, kingfish… He’s found a little spot … Yeah, so, he pulls up there and gets these [showing me the fish] and he brain spikes them and he pulls them in.

Tony searches for the mark of the brain spike, a method he says is the most humane way to kill fish, using the Japanese ikejime method. It just makes the quality amazing, says Tony, and “you can just see how beautiful [the fish are]”.

Tony has a wealth of knowledge and something of an intuition when it comes to spotting a good fish. He has learned the trade over the last twelve years, starting in his hometown of Newcastle (Australia). “I spent two years … just scaling fish before I even picked up a knife”, Tony told me, after which time he became skilled at filleting fish, travelled overseas, and worked in various fish markets, including a brief period at the famous Billingsgate fish market. “Back then I was just a filleter. I was learning a lot still but that was a great experience. I was just filleting”.

Like many people in the industry with whom we have spoken, the trade got under his skin and he stayed, relinquishing his plans to become a teacher. So, on return to Sydney he came to Sydney Fish Markets and stayed.

A Changing Industry

Now an experienced buyer, Tony works with top end restaurants, mainly in the Sydney CBD and east, including his flagship restaurant Saint Peter in Paddington. He tends to work with chefs who, he says, favour local, wild caught and sustainable fish and are more experimental.

Tony has noticed a change in restaurants and the way they approach seafood:

Even in this last year, ah, initially there was a big push towards sustainability but now there’s also a big push towards using more obscure things, bycatches and things. Things that we’ve never thought of … are becoming quite popular in restaurants. And there’s certain chefs that are kind of leading the charge in that way.

Education about the nature of fish and fishing is essential to these changes, suggests Tony:

I deal with a lot of chefs and … they need to be versatile and they need to understand that … everything is obviously determined by all those factors – the weather, the price of petrol, the moon cycles and things like that. They need to be able to roll with the punches, if they put something on their menu that they can’t get, they need to be able to swap and change it or whatever. And people need to understand that, that’s the changing nature of the seafood industry. Every day you might have something one day and the next day it may not be there.

Tony is confident that chefs and customers are being a lot more experimental and adventurous. “They’re trying to find, you know, different ways, different forms of fish”, he says.

There’s a whole push to using the whole fish, you know the whole nose to tail thing. So, using every part of the fish as well, which is really good. And I’ve noticed I’ve been getting more and more ah chefs that are quite happy with swapping and changing daily. You know and not actually setting a menu and demanding that kind of fish.

Trust in the Fishmonger

They [chefs] have to rely on their fishmonger in the end to tell them what’s in season, what’s available, what’s good quality etc. You know. If you demand a certain thing then you run the risk of your buyer trying to buy it and giving you a substandard product or you know… It’s just learning to basically trust your fishmonger I suppose. Because we’re in the right position to make the call, we’re on the auction floor every morning, we see what’s there… It’s basically having a good relationship with your fishmonger.

The role of the fishmonger and trust in the fishmonger are essential to changing restaurant practices.

…once upon a time the seafood industry lost a lot of trust … I’m talking fifteen twenty years ago. There were probably a few dodgy practices going on and since then there’s been this big push to labelling fish and knowing where it comes from and using sustainable fish and using Australian products and that sort of stuff. And I think now it’s gotten back to a point where, yeah, and people are trusting their fishmongers and are relying on them to give them the right information and the right products and that kind of stuff.

Trust also extends to the relationship between the fishmonger and the fisher. I asked Tony how easy it is to know the provenance of the fish?

I suppose I’ve just learned that through doing it for years… it’s from seeing their [fishermen’s] fish at the auction and thinking that’s a beautiful fish, this fisherman actually looks after his fish, and I go and track the fishermen down … I basically now know by looking at the box … where the actual fish is being caught, whether it’s in the local rivers here or down south, or the north coast and that… I suppose you get to know through doing it over and over again and asking questions … and you get to know certain species and certain quality fish comes from different areas, and so yeah you do learn.

Future followings

From his small boat, the young kingfish fisherman, lands the fish and loads it onto a truck, which passes by his house four times a week on route to Sydney Fish Market. The truck comes down the coast from Coffs Harbour and for $2 a box fishers can load their catch aboard to make its way to Sydney Fish Market by midnight.

Tony’s kingfish was then bound for the Cottage Point Inn, a fine dining restaurant situated on the riverside at Cottage Point fifty minutes north of Sydney CBD.

Our next stop will be to visit the young fisherman on the Central Coast. We also plan to follow some imported fish to explore our industry’s relationship with foreign fisheries, bringing to question what defines local and exploring these issues beyond a niche restaurant market.

Image: Tony Wearne holding two mackerel. Unfortunately on the day the photo was taken there were no kingfish.

Excerpt | Queer fish: Eating ethnic affect

By Book excerpts, Latest News

The very term ‘ethnic’ has deep culinary resonances. It also vibrates with different affects. Charles Darwin’s discussion of disgust was, after all, triggered by his mediated contact with a ‘native’ via a morsel of meat. In the everyday of multicultural cities, food cultures speak of colonial violence, consumed now with pleasure. While the tendency for mainstream white culture has been to celebrate and reify ‘authentic ethnic food’ as a self-congratulatory indicator of tolerance, there is of course a darker side. Departing from the usual mode of analysing the cultural semiotics of cuisines, in this chapter I focus on the materiality of the thing that is eaten. In other words, I shift attention to how ‘ethnicity’ is transferred from a socially defined category of human to the objects eaten: from ‘exotic’ fish, stag penises, to cheese described by some Chinese as ‘the mucous discharge of some old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy.’ Across several ethnographic vignettes I examine closely the food objects that are differentially considered as delicious or disgusting. As Ash Amin argues, increasingly we are brought together across ethnicities in our everyday living, or what he calls ‘conviviality’. Analysing different scenes of eating—of sharing what is deemed edible by whom—I see commensality and conviviality as practices in progress that are fuelled by hope, the hope of being together that will change a collective and individual present and future.

Read an excerpt by Elspeth Probyn in Visuality, Emotions and Minority Culture, pp.27-44

Sustainable fish lab - image of tuna swimming

Eating the Ocean out Dec 6 2016

By Eating the Ocean, Latest News

Professor Elspeth Probyn’s new book, Eating the Ocean, will be released 6 December 2016.  An early review by Philip Hoare in Times Higher Education says:

Elspeth Probyn wants to eat the ocean. I want to eat her book. It is one of the most profound works I have read on the sea, and the issues with which it presents us, in the 21st century, not least because it dares to digress and move into territories that other writers and academics have hitherto neglected.

Confronting the notion that our future consumption of the ocean’s resources may end with us eating “jellyfish and chips”, Probyn takes apart the polarised politics of seafood. It is ironic that “enlightened” consumers turn to fish for reasons of ethics or health, when in fact its harvest is one of the most problematic that we humans engage in. Eating local, responsibly sourced fish sounds wonderful, but Probyn shows how this is at best “drenched in condescension”, and “fork-waving” advice, as disseminated in the media. And at worst, it is a drastically simplified and often class- and even race-based “choice”.

You can read the introduction here, and order it online.

Order early and get a discount here: Eating the Ocean discount code