If you have enjoyed a succulent charcoal-grilled sea bass (lavraki in Greek, branzino in Italian, bar or loup de mer in French), or a sea bream (tsipoura in Greek, orata in Italian, daurade in French) in any part of the Mediterranean, in northern Europe or in the United States, you have had a first-hand experience of how wonderfully tasty they can be. More than half of these delicious grilled, head-on fish that Greek, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants all over the world serve, come from the shores of the Aegean.
When you order a whole charcoal-grilled fish your waiter will probably inform you that it is imported from Italy, France, or generally from the Mediterranean; but may have left out a crucial detail. Neither the sea bass nor the sea bream are pelagic or ‘wild’ fish. They are the products of one of the many fish farms that dot the Mediterranean shores. Greece has about 340 such fish farms, and supplies about 58% of the bream and bass that the world consumes.
The well publicized problems of fresh-water farming, especially that of salmon, has put off many Europeans and Americans. Yet farming in the deep blue Mediterranean sea is a completely different story. Not long ago, Greeks used to shun all ‘cultivated’ and frozen fish, dismissing them as ‘ tasteless’. People proudly swore they could detect blinded, if the fish served was frozen or farmed. But that was long ago, when there were lots of pelagic and only a few farmed fish on the market. Now a “don't-ask-don’t-tell” attitude is the norm, as most of the sea bass and bream we get are farmed; and they are wonderful. One would think that those farmed fish are cheaper, but in fact they cost exactly as much as any grade A ‘wild’ fish. Greek fish farms export most of their production, and I read recently that the revenue from farmed fish is rising fast, almost reaching that of olive oil, Greece’s main export product.
The whole rhetoric about pelagic versus farmed fish is obsolete and pointless. It is like saying that you should have wild boar instead of pork; or wild turkey or deer instead of chicken, turkey, or beef. Greeks consume about 50 pounds of fish and seafood per capita each year, roughly the same as Italians, less than Spaniards, but more than the French. With fish consumption rising in northern Europe and the United States, the already over-fished Mediterranean can’t keep up with the increasing demand, and farming the seas is the only option. As long as the EU and international regulations about feed and pollution for the booming aquaculture industry are met, we, the conscientious consumers who care about taste, but also about the health and sustainability of our land and sea, should stop mumbling useless complaints.