Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sustainable Seafood--Really?

Here's a dilemma:

On Monday I attended what by any measure was a lavish seafood dinner at BlackSalt restaurant here in the District of Columbia. Owners Jeff and Barbara Black also own Blacks and Addie's restaurants in Bethesda, as well as Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, MD. They've made a name for themselves with their way with fish and happen to be longtime customers of our farmer friend Brett. I figure anyone who supports Brett's idea of kales and collards and mustard greens is channeling some healthy karma.

This particular seafood dinner was sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. The AIWF arranges quite a lot of dinners with local chefs, giving members a chance to explore some of the latest culinary innovations occurring around town. Most of these events I do not attend, but I was intrigued by the idea of a dinner focused on seafood and deeply curious to see how the chef navigated around all the sustainability issues weighing on the seafood industry.

I arrived with friend Larry and right off we were greeted by one of the organizers whose first words were something like, "and all the fish is sustainable, of course." It could not have been more aptly scripted, especially since the Monterey Bay Aquarium just hosted its marathon sustainability conference. The air seemed heavy with "sustainability" concerns.

So imagine my reaction when the very lengthy menu arrived (six courses in all, some with multiple choices--and yes, there was foie gras, too). Monfisk. Red snapper. Big eye tuna. I wasn't sure whether to run or put a bag over my head. Were they really claiming these as "sustainable" fish?

I imagined myself calling the Seafood Watch program for a remote advisory, but I don't carry an electronic device. So I ate, drank wine, joined a very lively food chat, then ate and drank some more. I have a fuzzy recollection of Larry dropping me off later at my door.

It wasn't until this morning that I went online to check the Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute listings for these particular fish. This is what I found:

Red snapper, or in this case "beeliner" snapper or "vermillion" snapper. You really have to know your snappers, because there are so many of them with different names from different parts of the world. The BlackSalt menu reads, "Carolina Beeliner Snapper, Pequillo Pepper-Medjool Date Gastrique." I'm not even sure what that all means. It was tasty, but about this particular fish, Seafood Watch says "AVOID," with this explanation: "Vermilion snapper populations in the U.S. are at low levels due to overfishing."

The Blue Ocean Institute also posts a big red "NO" next to snapper. "Much remains unknown about the impacts of fisheries on snapper populations because management and monitoring is poor to nonexistent. Nonetheless, clear signs indicate that many snapper species are declining."

Monkfish. I've always liked monkfish. They call it the poor man's lobster. Black Salt served monkfish cheeks, something I had never tried before. But I knew I was in troubled waters here. Sure enough, Seafood Watch gives monkfish another big "AVOID," saying, "monkfish populations are thought to be recovering, but concerns remain due to the types of gear used to catch this fish."

Blue Ocean Institute gives a warning sign for monkfish, also because of fishing gear impacts and management issues.

Big Eye Tuna. Tuna is another area where you really have to know which of the many different varieties are in play and whether it is caught in nets, on hooks or with poles--more information than most consumers have time to absorb or sort through. About "big eye," Seafood Watch discusses no less than three different kinds. Apparently "big eye" tuna is okay--"Good Alternative"--if it is caught trolling or with a pole or a hand line. But this fish is something to "AVOID" if its caught using the longline method.

Blue Ocean Institute provides lots of information about tuna and the impacts of various tuna harvesting methods, but does not specifically mention "big eye" tuna.

So which "big eye" was the one I ate?

Who knows?

On its website, BlackSalt bills itself as "Washington’s premier seafood restaurant," saying it is "wholly committed to the sustainability of fish and shellfish stocks worldwide. We constantly strive to source our products from companies and individuals who are like minded," it says. "Through conscientious consumption and education we can all work to protect the invaluable resources that are provided to us by the sea."

The website even directs customers to Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. "To learn more about sustainable aquaculture and harvesting practices," it says, "please visit one of these affiliate web sites." And there are the links.

So what gives? How do I square what was on the menu Monday with what Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute are telling me when I get home?

What I take away from all this is a big headache. Frankly, I think my friends at the American Institute of Wine and Food need to bone up a little more on seafood sustainability. I'm also a little disappointed that Black Salt does not provide diners like me lots more information about the particular fish it serves, especially in terms of the sustainability questions raised by organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. With so much complicated information abounding, wouldn't a little reassurance right on the menu be appropriate? Or, in the case of entertaining a group like AIWF, perhaps the chef could pay a visit to the tasting room for a little chat?

Who knows, maybe everything I ate at BlackSalt on Monday was sustainably harvested and I just don't know it. But it's so disappointing that nobody at this level of the food service industry seems to be on the same page or talking the same language around seafood. With our oceans in critical condition, that's grounds for being sad and confused.


MamaBird said...

Great post. I have been in that situation before (and next time if you have a phone you can text for info -

But I totally agree, at an amazing seafood place like that, the onus should not be on the customer. You shouldn't have to go to Hook to have people care about sustainability in a real way. Great post.

Joanna said...

This is the problem generally with restaurants ... you just don't know what you're eating. I find I want to eat out less and less; and when I do, it often doesn't feel much like a treat, because a) I could make something better myself, and b) I don't want a choice between huge prawns flown in from the south seas and grain fed beef.

As you know, shopping is all; best cut out the middle man.

As ever, I'm grateful to you for up-to-date information about fish stocks


FoodieTots said...

I just read an interview the other day at French Laundry at Home with Black Salt's fishmonger, and he talked about the sustainability issue and what it means to him -- sourcing from certain fishermen who use safe equipment, etc. It's too bad they didn't have him talk at your dinner about the specific fish you were eating. Sounds delicious though.

Taresa said...

I'd love to hear their response to your questions...have you asked them?

Ed Bruske said...

MB, I find the info at Seafood Watch more comprehensive than that of Blue Oceans Institute. Usually I have to look at both before I feel satisfied.

Joanna, the long distance travel of seafood is another issue that doesn't seem to merit enough attention in the sustainability debate. For instance, we had oysters from Washington state at the dinner on Monday. That means they were flown 3,000 miles to land on our table. Is that really sustainable?

FT, thanks for the great link to the interview with Black Salt's fish guy. He really doesn't talk much about sustainability. His comment about getting farmed salmon from Scotland is interesting, because organic really isn't the issue with farmed salmon--it's the fact that you have to feed them three pounds of some other fish for every pound of salmon, that they pollute the waters around the farms, that they are apt to escape in large numbers during storms and mess with the wild salmon population. Up to 40 percent of the salmon harvested off Norway are escaped from fish farms.

Teresa, what I found most perplexing about this is that the same sustainability organizations that the restaurant links to on its website is telling consumers not to buy the fish the restaurant is selling. How can that not confuse people?

I haven't contacted Black Salt about this. But I have a feeling they will find out about the post and will send a response if they are so inclined.

Jane said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for the post. I'm thinking along the same lines as Taresa above. Since you do have concerns about the restaurant and what they're serving, it makes sense to me that you make your concerns known to them and give them a chance to respond. I'd love to hear what the Blacks have to say about all this.

Ed Bruske said...

Jane, thanks for those thoughts. I see the subject of my post as more diner's dilemma that condemnation of any particular restaurant. There are thousands of restaurants out there serving fish that would not pass muster at Seafood Watch or the Blue Ocean Institute. Why pick on just one? Nor was this a review of the restaurant by any means. But since I have two readers now who want a reaction from BlackSalt, I've sent a query to the restaurant group to see if the Blacks want to share their thoughts. We'll see what happens.
(Note: I also sent a link to the post to Monterey Bay Aquarium, but so far no response.)

saltygirl said...

Ed- thank you for your blog! i just stumbled upon it, and it's incredibly informative. I am a newbie blogger, also living in wdc, interested in many of the same issues you are.

I am often frustrated to go the handful of restaurants my husband and I frequent and find nothing that I feel great about eating on the menu.

Not to continue flaying specific restaurants, but Hanks Oyster Bar falls into that category-- although, to be fair, they don't advertise themselves as serving sustainable fish, as does say, Hook.

While I have your ear, any ideas about butterfish? I'm having trouble finding information about how this is fished.

Ed Bruske said...

SG, thanks for checking in. I'll be happy to post a link to your blog.

First, I guess you have to define butterfish. Common names of seafood are a complete mish-mash. But if you mean peprilus triacanthus, its a fairly small fish that is oval-shaped like a dinner platter but smaller, and lives all along the U.S. Atlantic coast. It's pretty much bycatch, meaning you don't go out in a boat looking for butterfish. But I noticed it (or something named butterfish and fitting the general description) at Whole Foods the otehr day. You're right, it's not covered by Seafood Watch. According the NOAA report I found on the web, the catch and total biomass are at records lows: (sorry, I still don't know how to insert a link in these comment boxes.)

I would sooner order squid or mussels, or maybe mackerel.

Kim said...

Interesting post, but I wonder why you didn't call the restaurant to ask them these questions? Any time I've eaten there and had questions about anything they sell or serve in the restaurant, they've been really open to talking about it. From what I know, they rely on a wide variety of information sources throughout the industry, not just reading one or two web sites. It sort of feels like you found out a friend had cancer so you went to only one web site to learn about it and then lectured him or her on what the proper protocols should be, instead of letting the experts do their job.

Ed Bruske said...

Kim, I completely respect your point of view. But I'm not an investigative reporter anymore. The impression I wanted to convey in this post was that of an average diner, unvarnished by any mitigating comments the restaurant might have to offer. The "couple of websites" you mentioned happen to be the recognized authorities in this field--Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute--and are the very same authorities cited by BlackSalt on its website. So I put it to BlackSalt and to Monterey Bay Aquarium and to Blue Ocean institute that this is a quandary when a diner walks into a "sustainable seafood" restaurant and finds on the menu species that the recognized authorities say diners should "avoid." It seems to me that a restaurant that is claiming to be "sustainable" and implies that it is somehow acting in concert with the authorities it lists on its website would not put its customers in a position of having to conduct an investigation before ordering a meal. What you seem to be saying is that BlackSalt must employ some kind of secret mojo to produce fish from stocks that otherwise have been declared off limits to everyone else. But I guess you have to decide which "experts" you want to rely on. I've already decided to put my trust in organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute. I don't know what else consumers can be expected to do without becoming totally lost.