Friday, July 13, 2007

Red Snapper Again?

My wife and I found ourselves downtown at lunch and decided to check out a new Mexican restaurant, Oyamel.

Oyamel is the creation of international chef Jose Andres and the Proximo Group, so there are high expectations for it. We were impressed by the menu and the fresh tortilla chips. But I had to ask about the red snapper, which appears in the seviche as well as on the entree side.

As you know from a previous post here, red snapper is problematic. It has been overfished in the coastal U.S., the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. So I explained to the waiter that I am participating in the Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, wherein volunteers monitor the sustainability of seafood being offered at restaurants and retail outlets and let purveyors know how well they are doing on the sustainability index.

My wife couldn't help nudging me to let me know the waiter didn't care. "I can see by the look on his face," my wife said. But I pressed on. The waiter promised to find out where Oyamel's snapper came from, so we proceeded with lunch.

The second snapper situation couldn't come at a better time. For the last three days I've been involved in a small, on-line focus group arranged by a research firm analyzing the Seafood Watch program. Specifically, the group has been discussing the program's pocket guide, a wallet-sized card that shows which seafood the aquarium has rated "best," "good alternative" or "avoid." When you sign up with Seafood Watch you also get business cards that you can leave with seafood purveyors to let them know how well or badly they are doing.

I think it's safe to say the focus group agreed the pocket guide is a great tool for making sustainable seafood choices. The Seafood Watch website also is a trove of information on fisheries and ocean environmental issues. Some new ideas being bounced around include a system that would allow participants to use personal electronic devices to dial up the best seafood choices while they are standing at the seafood counter or while in their seat at the restaurant.

Still, as I've said before, wading into the seafood area looking for sustainable fish can be hazardous to your mental health. Red Snapper is a minefield (you never know if you are really getting "red" snapper and from where, exactly). Our waiter returned to the table and announced that the snapper at Oyamel "is farmed in the Carolinas," according to the executive chef.

Well, that didn't sound right to me. I'd never heard of farmed snapper before. I couldn't find anything matching that description in an internet search, so I sent an e-mail to Seafood Watch (time for a seafood hotline, maybe?)

I also e-mailed Oyamel with my concerns and received this gracious and professional reply from general manager Andy Hoyle.

"I'm sorry to inform you," Hoyle wrote, "that the snapper is not farmed raised, but caught off the coast of North Carolina during the summer run. We receive our snapper from Samuel and Sons out of Philadelphia. You can locate the company online and possibly receive more information about the snapper from them. If I can help you with anything else, please let me know."

I credit Oyamel with being sensitive to customer concerns, even though this doesn't resolve the question of red snapper sustainability. According to Seafood Watch, "red snapper" is to be avoided. I told Mr. Hoyle as much, and provided a link to the snapper page on the Seafood Watch website.

What he or the restaurant will do with the information is anybody's guess I suppose. It's not an easy job advocating for the world's oceans. But somebody has to do it, right?


Joanna said...

This sounds like a good initiative. Anything that makes the information more readily available ...

Our major food-buying priority is not to buy air-freighted food, and the labelling on this is POOR. As far as fish goes, it means that we stick to North Atlantic fish, and farmed fish (but farming is another minefield). So yesterday, in the supermarket, I am telling my 19 year old son that, no, he can't have the huge Madagascan prawns, we're sticking to the coldwater ones. "You mean we can't have the good ones?" There's a long way to go, a lot of education to do. And no more cod or red snapper to eat.

And, yes, the whole restaurant thing is a minefield ...


peter said...

You're amazing!

I want to go to fish restaurants and do what you just did, but if I tried it, no one would go anywhere with me anymore.

All I can do is try to make sure I eat fish that is on the 'best' or 'good alternatives' lists and shut my mouth.

Peter at The Ethicurean

Ed Bruske said...

Maybe not so much amazing, Peter, as determined. In our recent focus group, all 15 participants said they felt "confident" or "empowered" by the information provided by the Seafood Watch program. Even if you just carry a copy of the seafood list in your wallet and occasionally inquire of the wait staff, your concerns will filter up to the ownership. Eventually you get over the feeling of being the skunk at the party. And occasionally you get really good responses, as you see here from the management at Oyamel.

Anyone who wants to get the Seafood Watch pocket guide can go to