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?
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.