Maybe you overheard an unusually piscine conversation as you crossed the Yard. Maybe your roommate made a cryptic comment on the way to dinner. Maybe you’ve been tossing and turning at night, haunted by images of moderately-sized whitish fish. There’s a conversation going on at Harvard, and it’s all about swai. Below, you’ll find all the things you never wanted to know about this curious creature.
1. It’s an endangered species.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, years of aggressive overfishing have dramatically reduced populations of wild swai. While this may sound concerning, you can hold off on your guilt for now. The vast majority of swai on the market (including every squishy, catfishy white fillet ever served in a HUDS dining hall) is produced in large-scale farms, where populations are going strong.
2. It goes by a ridiculous number of different names.
Swai’s other names include Vietnamese catfish (though swai is not actually catfish), iridescent shark (it’s not shark, either), and basa (which is deceptive, since basa is actually a different species). It’s also marketed as tra, sutchi, and pangasius hypophthalmus. The reason for this abundance of titles is a little sinister: the sale of the fish under certain names has been wrought with scandal. It’s illegal to sell basa in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and sellers can no longer market it as “catfish,” formerly a common practice.
3. It’s environmentally controversial.
HUDS sources its swai from a company (North Coast Seafood) that buys exclusively from Vietnam. Many of these Vietnamese sources (including 5 of North Coast Seafood’s 9 suppliers) farm the fish directly in the Mekong Delta, a practice which adds 2 million metric tons of mud and waste to the water each year. In response to accusations made earlier this year, HUDS stated in a Facebook post that “You'll…read that there are companies with poor practices whose swai products are being embargoed by the FDA, but they are not companies with whom we do business.”
4. It might not be as clean as HUDS claims.
Rice farm runoff is a big problem in the Mekong Delta, resulting in E. coli levels much higher than the legal limit. Other surprising substances, such as antibiotics, have also been found in closely-related species such as basa farmed in the river. In fact, reports from the three external health and safety ranking systems employed by North Coast Seafood are ominous: one labels swai “Not Recommended” and another identifies “Some Concerns”.
5. It’s cheap.
Swai is one of the most affordable fish on the market, with a selling price of about $4/lb. To put that in perspective, that’s more than a block of frozen chum (~$3/lb) but less than a bag of fresh chum (~$5/lb). Of course, we’re sure the pricing has nothing to do with the fish’s presence on the menu.