Since 1989, Bill Dugan has been running one of two freestanding fish markets in Chicago.
The Fishguy Market aims to provide fresh seafood to the surrounding community, with selections changing almost every day. Dugan said he’s built a sizable consumer following over the years, while also supplying top chefs and restaurants around Chicago. Sourcing from trusted providers and selling fish during their respective seasons ensures variety and quality, he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I carried, over the course of the year, well over 200 different types of species of fish,” Dugan said. “Whereas [at] a supermarket fish counter during the course of the year, talking fish, you’d maybe see half a dozen.”
Grocery stores tend to provide a limited selection of fish, Dugan said, and Americans tend to consume more meat than seafood. A 2019 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found Americans over consume unprocessed red meat, while less than 15% eat recommended amounts of seafood. The trend of underconsumption is especially applicable to the inland Midwest and inland Great Lakes regions, which, according to a 2020 study in MDPI’s Nutrients journal, have the lowest rates of seafood consumption in the United States.
Dugan didn’t always sell fish in the Midwest. After moving to San Francisco in his late teens, the Boston native built a name for himself by being the first to fly fresh seafood and shellfish in from the East Coast to fill gaps in California’s market. He went on to supply fish to some of the nation’s top chefs, including former White House chef René Verdon.
After selling his first couple of operations, Dugan spent some time conceptualizing restaurants for Nordstrom, and ultimately moved to the Midwest to continue his work in a development in Oak Brook, Illinois.
“I really fell in love with the people,” Dugan said. “People here are just very warm and engaging and they’re nice … they just struck me as more down to earth.”
Modern technology allowed Dugan to secure various seafood products within Chicago and supply them to chefs around the area. After some debate, he finished his work with Nordstrom and opened up his current company, where he has been selling to both restaurants and everyday consumers for about 34 years. But at the center of his career is a longstanding passion for fish.
“Fish mongering is all I’ve ever done,” Dugan said. “Working with the best chefs in the world, being curious and wanting to learn about different things, and finally, loving to eat good food. It’s kept me compelled.”
In the midst of the overwhelmingly negative reputation of seafood in the Midwest, however, the freshness and quality of Dugan’s fish seem to be an exception. Gene Kato, executive chef of Michelin Star Japanese restaurant Momotaro, said he’s heard many people question the quality of seafood in the region throughout his career in Chicago.
“There’ll be a lot of chefs that’ll come in to Chicago from the West Coast, LA or wherever, and they’re like, ‘Oh, Chicago doesn’t have great fish — sushi restaurants there don’t have great fish,” Kato said.
Kato initially came to the Midwest riding a wave of opportunity. As a Japanese American raised in North Carolina, he gravitated toward cooking at a young age to connect with his culture. He came to Chicago to open a sake bar and then launched a series of Japanese restaurants in cities including Las Vegas and New York City.
Seafood is a key player in Japanese cuisine, especially since the country is surrounded by water. Working in the restaurant industry further provided him with an appreciation for each decision behind a piece of fish, Kato said.
Kato ultimately ended up back in Chicago to head Momotaro’s kitchen, and hopes to leave a legacy in Chicago for Japanese food. His efforts also extend beyond his personal cooking, as he mentors young chefs in older crafts as well.
“I was always fighting to come back to Chicago,” Kato said. “If you go to a city like Chicago, you’re forced to move at a certain rate —, there’s an expectation of work level. I like working with people that are always pushing to achieve the next goal, the next standard.”
Due to its global status as a prominent city, Chicago is largely an exception to the norm in the Midwest. With much of the region being landlocked, logistics and costs of transportation have historically limited access to fresh seafood.
In recent years, however, modern transportation has rapidly changed the seafood scene in the area. Dugan and Kato both say they now can import the same types of seafood available on either coast and receive high quality products packaged live.
There are also local efforts in the Midwest to cultivate seafood products through aquaculture — or seafood farming — and aquaponics, a food production system where nutrient rich water created from harvesting seafood then feeds hydroponically produced plants. Karlanea Brown, the co-owner of RDM Aquaculture, a shrimp farm in Indiana, said locally grown seafood ensures consumers get an even better product, with the added bonus of transparency.
Cultivating seafood locally ensures farmers can regulate the process and reduce potential toxins. Local farming also allows for smoother and more sustainable transportation, reducing carbon emissions.
“[Our shrimp is] nothing like you’re ever gonna purchase in a grocery store, is nothing like what you’re gonna find in a restaurant,” Karlanea Brown said. “Even the ocean-caught stuff isn’t as good as what we have.”
Chefs, farmers and local organizations are invested in incorporating seafood into the Midwest diet. They’ve employed consumer education techniques, cooked up cultural cuisines and taken advantage of modern platforms like social media to popularize fish and shellfish in the region.
But it isn’t all smooth sailing. Within the seafood industry, stakeholders are debating how to approach this goal ethically, especially when it comes to juggling environmental sustainability with consumer demand.
“It’s a balancing act,” Kato said. “It’s not to say, ‘I don’t want to be the most sustainable Japanese chef and do the right thing.’ Of course I always try to do the right thing. But then I also have to make compromises to our clientele, and what the guests are going to understand and what they expect.”
Balancing quality and sustainability
The majority of seafood in the Midwest is imported, said Purdue Professor Paul Brown, who specializes in aquaculture and aquaponics. He and his students are researching the environmental impacts of importing food to the Midwest, and have found that the effect is “huge,” particularly in food miles, which are a measure of a food product’s carbon footprint.
“For example, most of the marine shrimp of the world is produced in the tropics — India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, various countries — and they are flown here,” Paul Brown said. “That’s an awful lot of fuel that has to be used to get them to our U.S. market.”
Most of the world’s fisheries are producing at maximum sustainable yield, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Paul Brown said most people who study food production see current patterns as unsustainable, and will drain the planet of key resources like fresh water.
Some seafood farmers, however, are finding creative ways to preserve both quality and sustainability. Food demand will only increase, however, and the UN projects aquaculture as the only way to meet future seafood demands.
In the U.S., the field is still emerging.
Karlanea Brown never saw her future in rural Indiana — and certainly not as a shrimp farmer. She obtained a degree in fashion during college and wanted to work in New York City.
But after marrying a hog farmer, she moved onto a farm in Fowler, Indiana. When hog prices bottomed out in the early 1990s, her husband proposed they start raising shrimp. While she thought the practice was already common, the farm turned out to be the third of its kind in the entire country, meaning they had to figure out every part of the aquaculture process by themselves. They lost about one million shrimp during their first year, and almost another million during their second year.
Now, Karlanea Brown said they’ve raised their survival rates from 30% up to 70-90%. Their current system uses a heterotrophic bacteria recirculation system to recirculate water in swimming pool tanks, and the farm grows post larvae shrimp out for 150 days before selling.
Although Karlanea Brown said she wanted nothing to do with the initiative at first, she joined in to help her husband as he struggled with water testing. The testing process is crucial because shrimp are temperamental, and a slight change in factors like pH or temperature can instantly kill many. But she said she found a love for farming, and has worked on the farm almost every day since.
“I would have never thought in a million years, ‘this is my passion,’” Karlanea Brown said. “[Now] I get out there. I’m the first person here every day. I work seven days a week.”
Karlanea Brown said the remoteness of the farm hasn’t stopped people from coming to purchase her shrimp. Her average customer makes a two-hour drive to get the product.
The loyalty of Karlanea Brown’s community allowed her to transition her business to a primarily retail-based model.
“Most of our business is through word of mouth, and that’s the best business you can ever get,” Karlanea Brown said. “I always love it when somebody will come in and they’ll say, ‘Oh, we had dinner at so-and-so’s the other day and so we had to come and get your shrimp.’
For Karlanea Brown, there’s a noticeable taste difference in her shrimp. She said she couldn’t believe shrimp could taste, in her words, “plain.”
“There’s no fishiness to it, there’s no grittiness to it, there’s no smell when you cook it other than whatever seasonings you’re using. The meat is firmer — it’s not squishy or slimy,” Karlanea Brown said. “It is just the best shrimp you’ll ever have.”
For others who purchase from local Midwest farms, it’s not just about taste. Paul Brown said locavorism, or the primary consumption of locally cultivated goods, is starting to become an important consideration for many consumers because they know where the seafood is sourced.
“When people want things, they want to know where it’s been produced,” Paul Brown said. “They want [the item] to not have been frozen or stored or had chemicals sprayed on top.”
When food comes from local sources, there are opportunities to cut down on carbon emissions, both in production and transport. Many local suppliers can recycle their water, all while providing fresher supplies to people, Paul Brown said.
You want to see said freshness in the shrimp market, Karlanea Brown said. In the U.S., she said 96% of shrimp comes from imports, while only 2% is ultimately inspected. Of the 2% inspected, 60% of shrimp is rejected. The presence of toxins, antibiotics and hormones in imported modern seafood is common, she added, and “absolutely disgusting.”
In her travels to see other shrimp farms abroad, Karlanea Brown said she’s come across farmers harvesting shrimp in pools directly impacted by gas leaks or feeding shrimp with animal feces. One farmer told her he could sell anything to America, because “they eat everything,” a comment she said has always stuck with her.
“If you can get local-grown, farm-raised seafood, you know that farmer, it’s their livelihood and they’re going to take care of that animal,” Karlanea Brown said. “Farmers work very hard to make sure we give a product that the people want.”
The case for importation
Kato’s a little more skeptical about using farmed seafood. Though he acknowledges the product may be more sustainable, he said managing every aspect of production feels robotic and too controlled.
It’s unrealistic to expect that we, as humans, would maintain a great quality of life if we only ate one specially curated feed like farmed seafood, Kato said. We’re shaped by our surroundings and what we choose to consume. Individual wild fish also undergo these experiences, which he said adds uniqueness to each product.
“The product [produced in farms] is consistent,” Kato said. “But you don’t have the hardship for the fish of what nature causes, to build the muscle within the fish, and all these unique characteristics of what makes that fish special … We want nature to speak for the product that we use.”
Nonetheless, Kato acknowledges the environmental concerns of importing seafood. For Kato, the choice is not always an easy one to make, and he tries to stay environmentally-friendly when possible, sourcing fish like the nearly-extinct Bluefin tuna from a sustainable farm. But he has a list of priorities he has to meet to ensure his customers are happy, and getting the best product from the best source is most important to him.
He brings in fish embodying “the best characteristics.” For example, he looks to source salmon from colder arctic waters, because the fish tends to have more fat, adding an umami to the raw dishes he serves restaurant guests.
The other half of Kato’s case for importation comes because the suppliers he works with can meet his standards for consistent, quality product. Japanese fishmongers have had thousands of years to perfect techniques important for raw fish quality, including the preparation method known as ikejime, which Kato said allows him to preserve the texture of products like sashimi.
Ikejime dictates how rigor mortis starts in fish. If fishmongers kill fish improperly, the process starts too quickly and fish can quickly become soft and mushy, Kato said. He also considers other factors that might impact the quality of fish, including ice bruising or how delicately fish are transported.
“The level of craftsmanship and care in the product — it’s very different,” Kato said. “I’m not saying America doesn’t have fishmongers [at] that kind of level – there are for sure – but they’re hard to find. And for me, it’s not consistent enough because I have to feed 300, 350 people every day. In order for me to be able to put it on the menu, I have to depend that they can get that [constant] supply.”
Dugan also tries to strike a fine balance, spotlighting local fish and selling most imported fish only when they’re in season. Unlike with traditional produce, seasons for fish aren’t climate dependent. Instead, they’re determined by a variety of factors, including when they’re most abundant, breeding seasons or government regulations.
Product available in season is often more sustainable, Dugan said. Governments determine when to open seasons for fishing, relying on scientific expertise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from patterns local fishermen notice.
“When it’s available in season, you’re gonna be getting it at its peak,” Dugan said. “You’re gonna be getting it at its best price.”
By working with small outlets around the world and only within season, Dugan said he’s able to maintain a pretty sustainable business model. Though he’s not immune to producing pollution, he said he feels good about his purchasing decisions and transportation methods. He tries to keep most operations going on trucks, and avoids artificial freezing techniques to cut down on emissions.
Kato also tries to incorporate seasonal items when possible, but said staying in season isn’t always a luxury he can maintain. Unlike Dugan’s smaller operation, Kato said he has to meet popular demand, and one of the bigger challenges of catering Japanese food to an American market is that customers expect certain goods year round.
This means there are certain items on his menu he needs to source year round, which does sacrifice some sustainability.
“In order to keep this restaurant going, I have to make tough decisions,” Kato said. “It’s unfortunate that you have to make those calls to be able to keep a business afloat.”
Concerns around the nature of farmed seafood are not new, and there’s quite a bit of misinformation surrounding aquaculture and aquaponics, Paul Brown said. Many people have conducted bacterial contamination evaluations and ensured the safety behind these products, but he said negative stigma may also stem from a fear of new things. The Food and Drug Administration also plays a role in ensuring domestic seafood is safe to consume.
“People didn’t grow up eating fish and fresh vegetables and fruits out of an aquaponics system,” Paul Brown said. “It’s strange [to us]. We would rather have it flown in from California.”
That’s where consumer education comes into play. There are regional initiatives aiming to provide information about locally sourced fish, including the Eat Midwest Fish program supported by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
Amy Shambach, the organization’s aquaculture marketing outreach associate, said many people want to support local businesses and prioritize adding value to their communities. Through her work, Shambach tries to help make seafood knowledge more available in the Midwest. Part of her education helps assure consumers fish is safe to consume, a concern perpetuated by a “negative news cycle” over the years.
This line of thinking emerged from old studies conducted decades ago, which indicated there may be unsafe levels of mercury present in both wild caught and farm raised fish. Shambach said people fail to realize industries have since evolved and made changes to feed in order to make their fish safe to consume. The FDA has also developed new advisories to inform consumers of safe fish consumption practices.
But consumer education isn’t just about providing evidence against misinformation. After engaging in conversations with local farmers, Shambach said the team at Eat Midwest Fish also identified a need to teach people about where to shop for seafood and how to prepare it.
In order to provide a comprehensive scope of education, Shambach uses different modes of learning through Eat Midwest Fish to offer something for everyone. The site provides a local fish finder tool, recipes and video demonstrations to teach people about how to locate and prepare their local fish. But they also have started creating varied media content for consumers as well, spotlighting local aquaculture efforts.
“We wanted to tell stories in as many ways as we could for different audiences,” Shambach said.
One of Karlanea Brown’s favorite things to teach customers is how they should be cooking their shrimp. She sells her shrimp with the heads on to preserve freshness, and her biggest tip is for people to leave the heads on. The technique adds a sweetness to the meat, she said.
“I’ve had ladies go screaming out the door when they saw the heads on [my shrimp],” Karlanea Brown said. “I always say, ‘If it really bothers you, cook two of them with the head on, cut the head off of the rest of them.’ And they will cook those two then they’ll come back and say, ‘We wish we’d left the head on.’”
A sea of uncertainty
The path forward isn’t optimistic, Kato said. He’s spoken with various chefs in the restaurant industry who share concerns about losing key ingredients. Fish like Bluefin tuna and wild Madai, staples in Japanese cuisine, are just some species bordering extinction.
Kato tells his 11-year-old son to appreciate the flavors of different fish he’s able to try, because he’s unsure about what the future might hold.
In preparation for this new reality, Kato said he’s also trying to move future restaurant conceptions away from centering on raw fish.
“The natural environment is not in a good place,” Kato said. “[Certain seafood] is gonna be unavailable. It’s kind of scary … there’s definitely going to be some issues in the near future.”
Paul Brown said he hopes aquaculture will start to make a steady rise in coming years. He wants people to understand the practice is safe, and will also help keep wild fishing sustainable for a longer period of time.
Otherwise, he agrees the current model is not going to stay good for long.
“We have to see some kinds of changes to our food production system or we’re simply going to have some very serious problems,” Paul Brown said. “We can’t continue doing it the way we’ve been doing it.”
But these seafood lovers are actively working to make systems more sustainable, in whatever ways they can. They’ve brought seafood to the Midwest, and will continue to try and keep its presence in the region.
For now, Karlanea Brown is looking to make the most out of her personal platform. She recycles her water and uses biodegradable containers when she sends her shrimp away with her customers. She even takes the shrimp that jump out of the tank and resells them as fish bait.
“I’m a big believer that the ocean’s dying and we’re the ones killing her off,” Karlanea Brown said. “If we keep over harvesting her, she’s not gonna be able to survive. That’s my true belief in this and that’s why I’m very proud of what I do. I’m very passionate about it.”