Eating Sustainable Seafood

January 4, 2010

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We've always thought of the seas as holding limitless reserves of fish. Recently, however, the World Health Organization has reported that fishing areas worldwide have apparently reached their maximum potential, with the majority of stocks now close to fully exploited. We've always thought of the seas as holding limitless reserves of fish. Recently, however, the World Health Organization has reported that fishing areas worldwide have apparently reached their maximum potential, with the majority of stocks now close to fully exploited. Meanwhile, consumption of fish is increasing.  Food contributor David Hammond has the story.

Americans don't like people telling us what to do, so we sometimes bristle when the eco-inclined admonish us to avoid eating the foods we like. I like sushi, and with my vinegary rice I usually had a little bluefin tuna. Not any more. Now, I'm trying to make seafood choices based on how the fish is harvested, how sustainable it is. Kassia Perpich is the Sustainable Seafood Coordinator at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

PERPICH: At Shedd, when we discuss sustainable seafood, we typically highlight five main issues. First is overfishing, you know whether or not we're taking too many fish out of the ocean at any one given time. Second is by-catch, which is the industry term that refers to all the fish you unintentionally catch when you're out fishing for something else. Third, we discuss habitat considerations; some types of fishing gear unfortunately are detrimental to the environment. Fourth, we highlight aqua culture, fish farming, it can be a great alternative to relieve pressure on the wild stocks, but unfortunately not all fish farms are created equally and some do have an adverse environmental impact…. Fifth and finally, we talk about illegal fishing, under-regulated fishing, unreported fishing, illegal activity that's going on that undermines the efforts of regulatory authorities to maintain a sustainable fishery.

Because a fish's sustainable status may vary by season and region, choosing the right fish to eat is not always easy. Fortunately, there are some general guidelines.

PERPICH: In the United States, it's estimated that about 40% of our fisheries are currently being over-fished. Now, globally, that number is much higher, 70-80% are overfished. And the reason for this is that the United States tends to have more stringent environmental regulations in place, so a very, very general rule of thumb when choosing fish, often times domestic product is typically more sustainable than imported.

To educate consumers, the Shedd and Monterrey Bay Aquariums publish a wallet card that color codes seafood based on sustainability: green (best choices), yellow (good alternatives) and red (avoid). So, what are some of the fish we should avoid if we want our children and grandchildren to have fish to eat? Well, you might not want to hear the list, because it includes many of our favorites: Mahi mahi, grouper, red snapper, imported shrimp, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and… bluefin tuna.

ambi: Naha Restaurant

At Chicago's Naha restaurant, James Beard Award-winning chef Carrie Nahabedian has long championed sustainable seafood, crafting menus that avoid endangered – though popular – species. As you might suspect, the more popular a fish is, the more likely it's going to be overfished.

NAHABEDIAN: Orange roughy burst onto the scene and it became an affordable choice for Americans and for people all over the world. And that fish hasn't been able to reproduce fast enough. I've never served Chilean sea bass, but I'm not going to condemn someone who does use it, I'm just going to say to them, just make sure you know where it's coming from, because twenty years ago when that fish came on the scene, they were a monster, Patagonian toothfish, it was a monster and everybody loved it. It's white, it's buttery, you can do no wrong with it, you can leave it in the oven for two days and it's still going to be fantastic, but the chefs noticed that within six months, the fish were getting smaller and smaller. I don't use bluefin tuna, but there's an incredible amount of individuals who use bluefin tuna, and you're just seeing, if you look at the Japanese in Tokyo at the fish market you'll see that every day they're auctioning off thousands of bluefin tuna, and that's great, but know that those fish are getting smaller and smaller.

Because conscious chefs like Nahabedian understand that increasingly smaller fish may be a warning sign of diminishing stocks, they're in a good position to educate their seafood-loving customers. But do customers care, do they know enough to make the right selections?
 
NAHABEDIAN: Our clientele is extremely knowledgeable about food…It's very important for our clientele if the fish was sustainably raised, if it was wild caught, and if it was wild caught with sustainable guidelines in place, whether from the state or the federal government. So, I think the consumer has become much more knowledgeable… 

Shaw's Steve LaHaie is a managing partner at Shaw's Crab House. He's worked with the Shedd's Right Bite program to develop a sustainable seafood menu for his guests. On this special menu – available upon request – selections are color coded with green and yellow to help increase his customer's knowledge about which fish are best to eat. But, again, do customers care?

LAHAIE: We have it listed on our regular menu to ask for the sustainable menu and talks about our partnership with the Shedd. People do ask for it, uh, it's not, I didn't think it would be real big to start with. I think that it will get bigger and bigger…I asked one of the managers here tonight, and we're getting four or five people a week asking for it.

HAMMOND: How many people do you serve every week?

LAHAIE: Let's see, every week we serve, between the two rooms, about 7,000 people… So…four in 7,000 Shaw's customers express interest in their sustainable seafood menu.
 
It's a start, I guess, though it seems clear many people either don't know or don't care about whether the seafood they're enjoying for dinner will be around in forty years. I asked Perpich about this apparent consumer apathy, which was also reflected in a survey conducted by one of America's oldest market research companies. A Harris poll, a recent Harris poll found that 38% of the people polled were “very likely” to choose sustainable seafood. That's good, but that also means that 62% don't care. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that people don't feel that selecting the right seafood is critical?

PERPICH: I wouldn't necessarily say they don't think it's critical. They just might not be aware how big of an impact their seafood choices can have on the health of their oceans. So many times, when I'm lecturing at a culinary school or just chatting with a chef about his or her menu, and we get into the issues, they're often astounded or just amazed at how switching to a different fish can really make a difference.

Kendall College in Chicago was the first educational partner of the Shedd's Right Bite program. Chris Koetke is Kendall's Dean of the School of Culinary Arts, and part of the school's mission is to train chefs to manage their kitchens in ways that are efficient and environmentally sensitive.

KOETKE: When you teach students the reality, then eyes open, because these are facts, you can't avoid them. And as a chef, our students here are going to be chefs for hopefully the next ten, 20, 30 years. They have to be thinking about what that means, because if we destroy the oceans and we continue to go in that direction, you know what, as a chef, all of a sudden, the opportunity to serve all those fish that we're serving now, are either going to get super expensive or, quite frankly, they're just going to disappear.
 
Kendall's Chef Instructor Elaine Sikorski balances the need to raise awareness of sustainability with the need to make a profit in the notoriously risky restaurant business.

SIKORSKI: When you cook professionally, what you're concerned with is the fat content and the texture of the fish, so I think that there's still a good range of delicate to full fat fish that are sustainable choices. I think that our students are facing many more challenges than chefs of a couple of decades ago because they have to be much more concerned about so much more issues. I think the students are very concerned about sustainability and they make every effort to make good choices for the stewardship of the earth, but you know, part of being sustainable is being in business and that means you have to meet a price point as well because people who work for me also need to have jobs. Now, does that excuse blatant practices that are bad for the earth? Absolutely not. But price comes into play, as it does for the consumer at home. You can't just afford to buy anything, but I do think there's a wide range available.

So what fish does Sikorski train her student chefs to select?
 
SIKORSKI: I certainly feel good about US-raised catfish. I would certainly feel good about all the fish coming out of Alaska, because Alaska really works hard to manage its fisheries well. So you have Alaskan halibut, you have Alaskan cod (also known as Pacific cod), you have Alaskan salmon, all the salmons that are available to you there…generally US farm-raised fish is a pretty good bet, if you can know that it comes from the US.
 
Chefs in restaurants have to please a wide range of customers; caterers, on the other hand, have a more targeted audience. Cleetus Friedman of Chicago's City Provisions turns down business if his clients don't seem to care about sustainable seafood.

FRIEDMAN: If I have a client that says I want to serve salmon, this is the type of salmon we going to serve; it comes from this farm; this is the only salmon we're going to get. You want to get another salmon, get another caterer. You want to get a salmon that is on the Avoid list, or a salmon that isn't a sustainably raised salmon, that's fine. We are not your caterer. There's a right fit for our clients. Just as there's a right fit for us with our clients.
 
Melissa Graham, chef and founder of Monogramme Events and Catering, also takes a firm and principled stand on the issue of sustainability.

GRAHAM: I say, if you like seafood, and you want to see it continue and be able to eat it ten years from now or 15 years from now, you're really going to have to change your eating habits...bluefin is a particularly strong issue because if we make a statement in the market to say, We're not going to buy something that's overfished, and we really want to look into something different, whether it be smaller fish, and only eat bluefin occasionally when we know how it's been caught and that it's been sustainably managed, then you're going to be able to enjoy bluefin ten years from now, fifteen years from now because at this point, it's not going to happen.

Saving the oceans by voting with our seafood-buying dollars sounds like a reasonable plan, but it's a hard sell, telling people to avoid eating fish today so that years from now the fish will still be around – even if many of us won't be. But what if the case could be made that sustainable seafood actually tastes better? I discussed this possibility with Dirk Fucik of Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop on Clybourn in Chicago. Every fish Fucik sells is labeled with an indication of its sustainability, and sometimes even where and how it was caught.
 
FUCIK: As time has passed, the people appreciate the fish better, and I, as a supplier/retailer, am willing to pay more money to have a better fish than to have one that's been beat up. You know, if I get it for cheap and it's crap, then what's the point in that? So the better the fish is handled, the better the fish tastes and the better quality all around.

Okay, maybe, now we're on to something. Being careful about the fish we eat is not only good for the future of fish, but sustainable seafood may even taste better than conventionally harvested seafood because it's handled so carefully all along the supply chain. That will make the idea of eating sustainable more palatable to consumers because…well, it appeals to our hedonism. Shaw's LaHaie agrees.

HAMMOND: Do you think that sustainable seafood tastes better?

LAHAIE: I'm going to say Yes. And, I think Shaw's has always been about quality and buying the best stuff. And what I'm finding is the best quality stuff is handled better, it's fished better, and most likely there's a probability that it's going to be sustainable over something that is less expensive or is not as good a quality…For instance, we wanted line caught salmon, wild salmon. Why? Because when it's caught in nets it bruises, the quality of it isn't so good, and that sort of thing. Well, it's also better for the environment to do the long-line versus the net-caught fish because the net-caught fish drags everything at the bottom, lot of bycatch with it, and that sort of thing. So, our preference has always been long-line fish, even before sustainable was the big buzzword. It turns out that that is the most sustainable fish as well, so I think that what we buy first and foremost is taste, that it's going to be good quality, the best-tasting fish that we can buy. The fact that it's sustainable is even one step better, I guess, and I find that they go hand in hand.

When you help yourself to responsibly harvested fish, you're helping our oceans stay alive…and heck, this sustainable seafood might even taste better. It is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel better about eating fish. Still, eating ethically can be challenging, as I found out at dinner last Friday night.

So, my wife and I just stopped into a new Oak Park restaurant on Oak Park Ave. It's called Sen Sushi Bar. I just asked the server which raw selections were from sustainable fish, and she looked at me like I was the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Still, I brought my Right Bite card from the Shedd; I'm going to supplement it with the Central US Guide from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and I've got a Blue Ocean Institute sushi wallet card with me, so I figure I'm set.

So… Looking at the menu, I spot a few items I know I'm NOT going to order: there's red snapper, that's always a red flag; it's unsustainable on every list I've ever seen. And there's no telling whether the salmon that's listed here is from the Pacific (which would be good) or from the Atlantic (which would be bad). I see a few options I know are okay: there's farmed U.S. tilapia, that's great, Alaskan King Crab (it's the most expensive nigiri on the menu at $3.95 per piece, but I'm trying to be sustainable here), and squid, which the Shedd lists as a good alternative, not the best choice but still totally acceptable. Also mackerel, which isn't mentioned on either the Shedd card or the Monterrey Bay card, but the Blue Ocean Institute says it's generally sustainable…plus, we like it, so I'm going to get it. mmm, mackerel is really kind, kind of oily, funky fish, full of flavor.

It's it easy ordering sustainable seafood at this particular sushi joint? Ehh, wasn't that tough, and I have added good feeling of knowing that I'm not contributing to the further devastation of our oceans. Plus, I got to believe, that because I left the wallet card with our server, who knows, they might actually might reengineer their menu someday to make it more sustainable seafood friendly. Of course that is about as uncertain as the future of our seafood.