First-hand futility

I’m on record as having little in the way of ideological commitment to first-hand food. I hunt and fish, gather and garden because I find it interesting and constructive. I’ve discovered that it’s profoundly satisfying to eat food I’ve harvested myself, and so I do it. I’m not in it for sustainability or self-sufficiency or because I’m an enemy of Big Agriculture.

And a good thing, too, because I am often faced with reminders of how woefully inefficient harvesting your own food can be.

Today, we went to Ketcham Trap, the New Bedford marine supplier we buy our oystering equipment from. Our friend Les had told us that, the next time we went, we should visit a certain fishmarket down by the water. One of the wholesale fish places had opened a little retail outlet, and Les, who knows his fish, said the seafood was excellent and the prices were low.

We went, of course.

The Fisherman’s Market is part of Fleet Fisheries, an operator of fourteen commercial vessels owned by a first-generation Norwegian fisherman by the name of Lars Vinjerud II. Most of the fish sold in the market comes off one of those boats, and most of what they had looked fresh and appealing. A couple of kinds of fish (the pollack, the swordfish) looked a little tired, but they were the exception.

It was all unbelievably cheap.

They had scallop pieces, a product I’ve never even seen at retail. It’s the little chunks that are the byproduct of shucking, mostly from scallops that get broken in the process. They went for $3.95 a pound (sea scallops run at least $12. locally). Had I been in the mood to splurge, I could have gotten scallop chunks – the bigger broken pieces – for $6.35.

There were several other kinds of fish that tempted me, but I wanted to limit myself to two days of dinner. By the third day, what was fresh isn’t so much. They had whole fluke, and a nice big specimen with bright beady eyes was calling my name. It was $1.50 a pound.

I walked out with enough seafood for two generous meals, for which I paid the princely sum of $8.96,

I can’t bring myself to calculate the cost of trying to find those scallops and catch that fluke myself. There’s gas, for the truck and the boat.  There’s the truck, and there’s the boat. There’s the equipment for scalloping and bottom fishing. There are licenses. There is bait. $8.96 would pay for the ice we put in the cooler when we set out in the hopes of catching something.

And that’s just looking at the damage to my wallet. If we look at the environment, the story’s just as grim. Not only do we require more fossil fuel per fish, we undoubtedly pollute more per gallon of fossil fuel – especially if we take the big boat.

The sensible thing, clearly, is to let Lars Vinjerud II, with his modern fleet and his heavy equipment, do the fishing while the rest of us channel our energies into something we might be able to do more efficiently than he does. The advantage of lacking an ideological commitment, though, is that you don’t lock yourself into having to do the sensible thing. You can still fish for your dinner because you find it interesting, constructive, and profoundly satisfying.

Of course, it’s much less interesting, constructive, and satisfying when you come back empty-handed. Those are the times that you’re mighty glad that Lars Vinjerud II is a more efficient fisherman than you.

4 people are having a conversation about “First-hand futility

  1. I’m so surprised you didn’t know about the place. Its always my second stop on way back from Providence. The first is Sid Wainers.

  2. In some places, some people really do get their own food more efficiently and economically by hunting, fishing, and growing it themselves. As you point out though, for many of us that just ain’t the case.

    After three years of futile deer-hunting, that was one of my main objections to continuing: why the hell bother, if it’s this pitifully inefficient? Now, with some hunting success under my belt and a sense of the other meanings hunting carries for me, it makes sense to continue. But not for efficiency’s sake.

  3. Don’t beat yourself up over what you do. We all think it’s awesome. Yes, you can’t gather seafood as efficiently as a ga-jillion-dollar sea trawler, but do you don’t do the by-catch nor damage either.

    I read a thread once (on Slashdot of all places) that the notion of a “Garden of Eden” paradise-lost is really a story about how we went from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Sure we could have food more reliably through the winter, and brew beer. But we picked up a whole lot of extra toil in the process.

    Procuring your own food is worth the effort; I think.

  4. Amanda — I forgive you for not telling me.

    Tovar — The more I do this, and the more I’m in touch with other people who do this, the more I’m convinced that inefficiency is the norm. It’s inherent in small-scale operations, unless you can shoot deer out your backyard, catch fish from shore, or are blessed with particularly fertile soil. But I do it anyway. And you do, too. And we’ll keep doing it, but I think it behooves us to remember that we’re doing it in spite of its being inefficient.

    Kingsley — Damn right it’s worth the effort. That’s what keeps us all coming back. The moment I decide it isn’t, I’ll stop. Then I’ll have to blog about something else.

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