Turning the Tide

As the fishing industry fights to save endangered species, restaurants are doing their part—and engaging diners—with sustainable seafood programs

For a moment, forget  the statistics, the scientific studies and the data on overfishing and depleted seafood populations. To understand where the sustainable seafood movement is heading, imagine instead the prospect of “extinct flavors.”

The most passionate chefs cannot fathom living without the taste of wild-caught salmon, bluefin sashimi or a simple beer-battered cod, so they’re turning the cause into a culinary crusade. It’s not just to conserve what already exists in our oceans, but to replenish what was there before.

A groundswell of restaurateurs, chefs and seafood advocates are on board, using a novel strategy that blends old-fashioned storytelling with newly established sourcing guidelines. So far, they’ve learned one indispensable truth: dramatic narratives may hold the greatest hope for instigating real change.

THE FISHERMAN AS HERO

“Some restaurants can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the peach that goes into your dessert: what farm it comes from, the name of the guy who picked it,” says Sheila Bowman, outreach manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “That information gets people excited. I’m not sure we’ve told those stories about seafood. But we are now, and it’s making a difference.”

Take Barton Seaver, former executive chef at Hook in Washington, D.C., and now a National Geographic fellow. Seaver is on a quest to help restaurants transform the way they brand their seafood programs, starting with changing the term “sustainable seafood” to “restorative seafood.” He believes the latter suggests that everyone—chefs, restaurant owners, customers and fishermen alike—can help lead a seafood renaissance.

In his favored narrative, the world’s small-scale fishermen are silent, unsung heroes, selling their catch—and their stories—directly to restaurants. But because that’s a challenging and limited approach, there’s a solution for everyone: choose seafood suppliers with an ecologically conscious story, one that describes how they catch or raise seafood.

“When we dip our hooks into the water, we don’t always know what we’re going to get,” Seaver says. “What we do bring up, however, can be a window for exploration, a way of introducing diners to new flavors.” 

At Sea Change in Minneapolis, James Beard Award-winning Chef Tim McKee prefers visual cues. He uses a wall-spanning blackboard to detail information on how his fish are caught, where they are sourced and, occasionally, the name of the vessel from which they are pulled. The results have been surprising—increasing sales of everything from farm-raised abalone to Arctic char.

“You can go to a farm and see animals grazing, but it’s a lot harder to observe a school of mackerel,” says McKee. “It’s really important have a strong relationship with seafood vendors, large and small.”

FISH LOCALLY, EAT SEASONABLY

The Tennessee Aquarium, in partnership with TV chef Alton Brown, has picked up on the importance of seafood diversity—which serves as the starting point for its new Serve & Protect program. It asks landlocked diners, like those in Tennessee, to consider local seafood options, such as catfish and rainbow trout, instead of overfished populations, like Chilean sea bass and monkfish.

The hook? Old-fashioned community pride. With a little historical context on the uniqueness of the regional fish, and how it’s only properly cooked by locals, a forgotten species becomes a local treasure.

In Miami, Chef Michael Reidt has made it policy to pull 85 percent of his seafood from a United Nations-protected region called Area 31, which stretches from the Western Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico and from the coast of the Carolinas to the northern tip of Brazil. Using geography as a guiding principle, he serves local seafood at his appropriately named Area 31, like 11 varieties of snapper and farm-raised red fish, as well as exotic choices, like paiche, an Amazonian freshwater fish. The latter allows him to build narratives around the importance of supporting sustainable-minded fishermen in Third World countries.

“Like anything else, it’s about educating your customers,” says Reidt. “And about using the best products available to you.”

MANY FISH IN THE SEA?

Larger-scale restaurants can turn to certifications programs, such as the Marine Stewardship Council(MSC) and Friend of the Sea (FOS) to learn about bringing sustainable seafood to life. Both programs have established sustainable seafood standards restaurants can adopt or use to create their own guidelines.

But as debate swells over how certification programs rate seafood, Wayne Samiere, founder of the Honolulu Fish Company, suggests restaurants look to suppliers for exotic alternatives to overfished standbys like cod and tuna.

A trained marine biologist, Samiere says suppliers are excellent resources for hard numbers on catch rates, which help operators determine which species are truly abundant. He only encourages fishing lesser-known species—moonfish and monchong, for example—which are plentiful and often cheaper than many endangered species.

Sharing the toil of catching a particular fish is also important, says Chef Alan Fairhurst of family-owned Scoma’s in San Francisco. Diners may have more difficulty choosing seafood that’s been caught by unsustainable methods, such as bottom trawling, where a net is raked over the ocean floor, pulling up everything—the intended catch and otherwise—in its wake.

When Fairhurst recently featured sustainably caught swordfish as a special (harpooned the very moment he was calling his supplier), he recounted the story to his waiters, who passed it onto customers.

It was portioned small and priced higher than the other appetizers but sold out quickly. “Everyone who heard the story had to try it,” he says.

WATER WORLD—THE PROMISE OF OPEN-OCEAN AQUACULTURE

Take a seven-mile boat ride off the coast of Panama with Brian O’Hanlon, owner of  open-ocean aquaculture farm Open Blue and he’ll introduce his vision of sustainable, clean seafood production for the 21st century.

Dive 30 feet into pristine waters to find what looks like a giant circus tent. Inside, an imposing central pole rotates its Kevlar-like skin, similar to a bicycle wheel, as schools of blue cobia swim within its confines in the kind of clean, cool waters they’re supposed to thrive in.

O’Hanlon feeds them cobia fishmeal pellets that mimic their natural diet. He orders cobia eggs from the University of Miami, which thrive in Sea Station cages for more than a year after they hatch. The fish are then harvested with special stress-free pumps.

“Technology has come far enough that we can begin to move away from the coasts and into that vast open ocean,” says O’Hanlon. “I know our cages are just one piece of a bigger puzzle, but they certainly are a move in the right direction.”

THE RIPPLE EFFECT—THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD INITIATIVES

Seaver, who recently penned the restorative seafood cookbook, “For Cod and Country,” is optimistic. Oysters, for instance, are experiencing a renaissance on the East Coast. The bivalves, Seaver says, are as close to “perfect” as possible. They freely breed when properly farmed and clean the waterways where they live, helping replenish wild seafood that once populated the area. Farming them, he says, is like making a deposit on the future.

Fairhurst believes more restaurants are opting to serve seafood seasonally. This indicates the industry is grafting the “eat local, eat seasonal” tenets of the organic food movement onto seafood.

Some of the best news may come from a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service, indicating that overfishing is declining while the number of fisheries considered “rebuilt” is increasing. It’s evidence that the culinary crusade by restaurateurs, chefs, fishermen and distributors is impacting the future of the seas and our collective dinner tables.

Peter Gianopulos is a dining critic for Chicago magazine and adjunct journalism professor at Loyola University Chicago.

THE LURE

MAKING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD PROFITABLE

Smaller Portions. Don’t be afraid to serve 5-ounce portions or even cut an 8-ounce portion in half for two small plate servings.

Break It Down. Give staff a refresher on deboning fish and use remaining parts after filleting for soups, chowders and stock.

Go Local and Seasonal. Offering local freshwater fish provides a narrative and can save money. Order fish in season, when they are abundant and less expensive.

KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR SEAFOOD SUPPLIER

Where did the fish come from?
Well-managed fisheries can be found around the globe. But do your homework and make sure you’re buying from certified fisheries (MSC certified, for example) or from countries with strict catching guidelines.

How was the fish caught?
Some methods are more destructive to the ecosystem than others. Bottom trawls and dredges can damage the sea floor and trap unwanted by-catch while mid-water trawls have minimal impact on habitat. Line caught methods are also environmentally friendly and often yield better-quality, firmer filets.

What's the standard?
A certified fishery or a strict quota system should be the standard for purchasing.

SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD CHOICES

SOME FISH TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT SERVING, ACCORDING TO THE EXPERTS:

  • ALASKAN POLLOCK
  • ALASKAN HALIBUT
  • ARCTIC CHAR
  • U.S. BARRAMUDI
  • BASA
  • CATFISH
  • FARM-RAISED WHITE SHRIMP
  • FARM-RAISED SALMON
  • HADDOCK
  • MONCHONG OR WAHOO
  • LATIN AMERICA OR U.S. FARM-RAISED TILAPIA