For birthdays and other special occasions at work sometimes we will go to a restaurant near Little Five Points called Front Page News. They serve regular American fare with a little emphasis on New Orleans food. One item they have had for years is a grouper sandwich. Sometime last year it started to come out that most restaurants offering grouper on their menu weren’t really giving you grouper. This is because we have eaten almost all of the grouper in the ocean and it is very hard to get anymore. Groupers mature very slowly and a typical fish might be 40 years old. Fishing for grouper is completely unsustainable.
Anyway, I noticed on the menu of Front Page News that they now offered “Asian Grouper” which they said was not endangered like regular grouper. Really, I think they weren’t serving grouper at all and now they are trying to tell you what they really serve. I ordered some and thought it kind of tasted like tilapia, not as firm as grouper (which I don’t eat anymore).
I tried looking up asian grouper at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch. There is some grouper that you can get from Hawaii which is kind of close to Asia, but the menu says that what they are selling is “pangasius”. I looked this up on Wikipedia and found that there are a number of species of pangasius but all are catfish from rivers in Thailand and Vietnam. I remember reading about giant catfish in the Mekong River that would bring in tons of money to any farmer lucky enough to catch one. There was concern then that people were catching all of the giant catfish by stringing nets all the way across the river. Here’s an article from National Geographic saying they are critically endangered. Those are pangasius gigas. I certainly hope that’s not what I was eating. I kind of doubt it since they only catch a few of those per year.
I did some more searching and found out that most of the catfish that are cultivated in Thailand and Vietnam are pangasius hypophthalmus. There are problems with the imports from Vietnam where the water is very polluted and there is no regulation of what kind of chemicals are going in the water. This report found that several restaurants were selling this as grouper. There’s another subplot where US catfish farmers are all up in arms because their prices are being undercut by cheap Asian imports.
However the upside of this is that this species is absolutely sustainable since it is farmed, but don’t think you’re getting anything close to grouper when you order that at a restaurant.