Thirty years from now, if a host of new and starry-eyed predictions by food technologists and the seafood industry comes true, you're likely to put some money into a vending machine and extract a ready-to-heat fish dinner. Driving home, you might warm up the meal in your car's microwave oven and dine on the spot. That should be safe enough if your entree happens to be seafood-on-a-stick; and don't worry about drips, because the product will carry its own sauce on the inside. How will it taste? Like anything you want it to. According to the seafood industry's crystal ball, products developed from, say, perch or pollack could have the flavor of salmon or lobster. Or, for that matter, a cheeseburger.
These predictions come at a time when Americans are eating more fish than ever: nearly 16 pounds per person in 1989, up from 12 pounds in 1980. But that's pretty skimpy compared with our consumption of beef (68 pounds) and chicken (65 pounds). Hence the seafood industry's new goal - "20 by 2000," or 20 pounds of fish per person by the year 2000. No controversy there: fish is one of the most virtuous protein sources imaginable. Most kinds of seafood have fewer than 150 calories and 100 milligrams of cholesterol in a 3 1/2-ounce serving; fish are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease. While our favorite species tend to be pricey, there are often good buys available on less familiar fish, such as shark or hake. But the industry has a far more grandiose ambition than simply getting us to squeeze some lemon over a nice piece of sole more often. What we could be witnessing in the next few years is a speeded-up version of the last half century of American farming, this time in the realm of fish. Perch-on-a-stick may well show up on every street corner, but old-fashioned fresh fish is slated to become what the industry calls a "memory" food, as rarefied as a fuzzy ripe peach or a free-range chicken.
Leading the way to the future is the hightech aquaculture industry, barely two decades old but already an important supplier of numerous species including three on the seafood best-seller list: shrimp, salmon and catfish. "We're taking a business that used to depend on minutiae - spot changes from day to day, no assurance of quality, sporadic supplies - and making it more like poultry and beef," says Jon Stamell, marketing consultant for the Norwegian Salmon Marketing Council, which represents Norway's $1.35 billion farm-raised salmon business. "This is a whole new thing for seafood."
The Norwegians, pioneers in the use of sophisticated fish-farming techniques, produce salmon from stocks that have been genetically manipulated so the fish will grow more quickly than they do in the wild, withstand disease better and provide consistent texture, color and fat distribution. Similar techniques enable North American fish farms to raise Atlantic salmon in the Pacific. Designer trout are being bred in Idaho, where the Clear Springs Trout Co. produces female trout - favored for their appearance and texture among other genetic attributes - so efficiently that males are all but obsolete. (The "fathers" are female trout that have been fed testosterone. They produce sperm, but it carries only X chromosomes, and the offspring are all female). Even sturgeon, a species with a pedigree that goes back to the ice age, has been domesticated. Sierra AquaFarms in California grows sturgeon in tanks, indoors, under constant monitoring by computers. The water is continuously filtered, and the fish are fed by robots.
"We're moving to industrialized fishing, just the way we moved to corporate agriculture in the 1940s," says Robert Clark, a food historian and editor of The Journal of Gastronomy. "Proponents say we'll have the fish year-round, and they'll be cheaper. But they'll be like winter tomatoes."
One reason the future looks bright for aquaculture is that Americans are happy with the relative blandness of farmed fish. "If it's white and has no flavor, everyone will love it," says Norman Stavis, president of North Coast Seafoods in Boston, a distributor. Every year Americans catch some of the world's greatest fish - Northwest wild salmon - and sell it to such appreciative fish eaters as the Japanese, importing for our own dinner tables the mild-tasting salmon farmed in Norway and elsewhere. Even in the heavily overfished waters off the East Coast, there are plenty of fish in the sea; they just don't appeal to most Americans. "We have enormous stocks of mackerel, herring, dogfish, whiting and squid," says Barbara Stevenson, owner of two fishing boats in Portland, Maine. "They're cheap. There's no demand."
Many chefs prefer farmed fish because it's always available and it's likely to arrive at the kitchen in good condition. "We get farmed striped sea bass that has been harvested and shipped the same day," says Nancy Abrams, marketing and culinary director at the Chicago Fish House, a distributor. "You can't find a fresher product."
But people who love fish and eat a lot of it tend to insist on nature's own. "Texture is the biggest difference," says Wayne Ludvigsen, chef at Ray's Boathouse, one of Seattle's best seafood restaurants. "There's very little muscle in farm-raised fish. They really don't do anything but lie on the bottom and chow." Even people in the aquaculture business will admit - off the record - that they prefer wild fish. "I'll take troll-caught king salmon from the Pacific Northwest any day," says one.
Aquaculture now provides about 10 percent of the fish we consume, and the percentage is expected to grow quickly. "Supplies of wild stocks are declining, and demand is up," says Robert Fetzer, a financial consultant to the seafood industry. "There is no way besides aquaculture to make up that difference." But the oceans aren't empty yet. Analysts think that with stronger controls over boats and fishermen, such overfished species as cod, haddock and flounder might return to abundance within a decade. "Some say we should cut fishing by 50 percent," says George Nardi, program director for the New England Fisheries Development Association, a trade organization. "Then a lot of fishermen would go out of business. Can we get together and work out a more reasonable percentage?" Fishermen, who treasure their independence, have resisted pressure to cut back; but they too see the need for better management of ocean resources. "Stocks are rebuilding, and scientists are concerned about shepherding them through until they have a chance to spawn," says Stevenson. "So are we."
Critics have pointed out that aquaculture too puts stresses on the environment. Fish farmers treat disease, which is very common in tightly packed fish pens, by adding antibiotics to the feed - a cure that may engender more disease, in the form of resistant bacteria, if the antibiotic gets into the water in high enough concentrations. "The amounts used are very small, but putting controls on them is called for," says William Hershberger, an aquaculture specialist at the University of Washington. "There are no legal limits."
Perhaps the biggest environmental threat in aquaculture is posed by the ones that get away. Farmed fish do escape their pens; if they interbreed with wild stocks, eventually wild fish will lose the unique genetic characteristics that help them survive in nature. The offspring of escaped salmon now outnumber native salmon in some Norwegian waters. It's also possible that escapees will adapt to the wild environment, reproduce and eventually compete with native stocks for survival in a particular ecological niche. "That would be a danger to wild stocks," says Hershberger. "The best long-term solution would be to sterilize farmed fish. We're working on it."
For shoppers, the chief question about fish isn't whether it was raised by nature or computers, but whether it's any good. Every cookbook and food columnist on the planet, it seems, has weighed in with the same advice: buy impeccably fresh fish and you'll never go wrong. Sure, but over here in the real world, that wisdom leaves a lot of people eating hot dogs. It's a rare neighborhood that's blessed with a good fishmonger; and although a few supermarket chains have greatly improved their fish departments in recent years, most are still not equipped to provide the gentle handling, speedy distribution and constant low temperatures necessary for this fragile product. "I've worked in retail, and I've seen fish that was delivered four hours earlier sitting around, not refrigerated," says an executive in the seafood industry. A slightly over-the-hill fillet won't make you sick, but it won't encourage you to buy fish again soon, either. Many seafood experts urge consumers to complain to the management when they get poor fish - and to smell before buying. "The nose knows," says Stavis. "If it smells like fish, it's not fresh."
Right now the dream of the seafood business is to create and sell more "value-added" fish: a fillet prepared with Cajun spices, for example, packaged and sold frozen. The products may turn out to be perfectly yummy, but where oh where is that simple, glistening piece of fish that need only be broiled a few minutes to give you one of the best and easiest dinners ever? Simplicity is hard to market, but people are hungry for it. Legal Sea Foods, a chain of seven beloved fish restaurants in the Boston area, sells about 150,000 pounds of fish every week - farmed and wild, imported and domestic. You can get seafood quesadillas, seafood diavolo, seafood glazed or spiced or slathered with garlic butter, and the lines out front sometimes stretch for blocks. What's the most popular item on the menu? Broiled scrod. And it always has been.