Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sustainable Seafood? Good Luck!

Studies indicate that the world's fisheries may be facing total collapse by 2048. Some 80 percent of commercial fish are already being exploited beyond or near their ability to sustain themselves. So imagine a world in which most of the world's governments are actively promoting the pillaging of oceans and even the best experts in the seafood industry can't agree on how consumers should go about deciding which seafood to buy.

Those are the lessons I drew from a sustainable seafood confab hosted this past weekend by the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum and the American Institute of Wine and Food. Of course, most of the people were there for the food. They packed a Friday night cocktail reception with tons of ceviche, raw bar and various seafood stations. A lunch on Saturday was booked early. I attended two panel discussions Saturday that didn't quite fill the museum's Baird Auditorium. But many of the big guns were represented, including Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium, the Marine Stewardship Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Three of D.C.'s premier seafood chefs were on hand--Bob Kinkead, Jeff Black and Barton Seaver. Alton Brown, as host, maintained a lively banter and injected a bit of humor.

All agreed that an attitude of "pillage and plunder" still prevails on the world seas. Fish are the only wild creatures still hunted commercially. Enforcement of environmental laws on the oceans is virtually impossible. Only a handful of countries--the U.S., Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia--take sustainability seriously, while the Europeans, and especially countries such as Spain, are among the worst offenders. Everyone seems agreed that if anything is to be done about saving the planet's fish populations--and by extension the oceans themselves--consumers will have to step up and start playing a more active role by avoiding seafood that has not been sustainably caught. In other words, vote with your fork.

"Governments around the world have failed to save our oceans," said Steve Murawski of the National Fisheries Service. But miracles can happen when government,industry and environmentalists work together to allow individual species to recover and thrive. That is the best strategy for creating sustainable fisheries. For instance, the striped bass, once king of the Chesapeake Bay, was nearly wiped out. Then a moratorium was declared and now the striped bass is on top of its game again. Swordfish, also, are making a comeback in the Atlantic following strict regulations. And Murawski said that careful husbandry of resources is now producing some of the biggest sea scallops ever seen, right here in the U.S.

What I was most interested in knowing is how consumers can go about choosing sustainable seafood when information is often conflicting or hard to come by, and when so much of the seafood we see on restaurant menus or on display in the supermarket clearly does not fit the description of "sustainable." It gets even more confusing when you find chefs who proclaim to be sustainability advocates serving fish that otherwise would fall under the heading of "avoid" on the lists provided by the protectionists' leading lights.

What's going on?

Alton Brown, for instance, has become a big advocate of the lists formulated by organizations such as Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium and Blue Ocean Instute. The lists, available online and as printed pocket guides, advise consumers which seafood is "best" (green), which is "acceptable" (yellow) and which we should "avoid" (red).

Unfortunately, lists such as these rub some chefs the wrong way. Jeff Black said, "it's very simplistic to say this is on a red list and this is on a yellow list." For instance, the Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program lists farmed salmon as "avoid." Salmon farming raises all kinds of environmental concerns. Black gets his from operations in Scotland and Ireland that have been certified as "organic" in Europe. Yet "organic" doesn't signify sustainable. Black counters that "if we stopped eating farmed salmon and just ate wild salmon from Alaska (which is certified as sustainable), the wild salmon would be gone instantly."

Both Black and Bob Kinkead argue that part of the problem is consumers' lack of interest in fish other than the familiar triad of tuna, swordfish and salmon. And there is the strong indication that in order to survive as going concerns, restaurants need to cater to customer desires by seeking out fish that might not qualify as certified "sustainable." Black said he has tried offering tilapia in his restaurants, for instance. Tilapia, a vegetarian fish, can be easily grown in sustainable aquaculture facilities. But while he can put it on the lunch menu, "people just won't buy tilapia for dinner," Black said.

"I have to be able to sell product that makes enough money to keep the business going," Black declared.

And watch out. The choices are likely to get even harder. Tim O'Shea, co-founder of a California business called Clean Fish, said small, artisinal fisheries are on the rise. They may be offering seafood you won't find on any list, or they may sell fish otherwise listed as "avoid" that are being raised or caught in what Clean Fish believes is a sustainable manner, but hasn't caught the eye of rating agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council.

What these small operations offer, O'Shea said, is a great story about how individuals are fostering sustainability in microcosm, much like the small operators in cutting-edge agriculture who are producing fine cheeses and other products in an artisanal fashion. "The people are as hungry for the story as they are for the fish," O'Shea said.

But Carrie Brownstein, the Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, warned against buying into "good stories." Brownstein, who scours the globe investigating seafood producers and developing standards for Whole Foods said she has heard many "good stories" and advises consumers to stick with seafood that has been approved by a reputable rating agency such as Marine Stewardship Council.

Confused yet? I was. The question I put to the panel was, How far down in all these layers of information do consumers have to drill before they can be assured that they are purchasing "sustainable" seafood.

There was no satisfactory answer forthcoming. And as Bob Kinkead pointed out, he's been selling seafood for many years and the general restaurant-going public mainly is concerned about being served the fish they want, not what may appear on some environmental organization's green list.

"I care about these issues. And I know everybody in this room cares about these issues," Kinkead said. "But I've gotta tell you, most of the people who come into my restaurant could give a rat's patootie."

My own advice is, if you're not a sustainable seafood expert yourself, stick with the recommendations of "Seafood Watch",Blue Ocean Institute and the Marine Stewardship Council. And fear not: There are plenty of sustainable fish and shellfish to choose from. Among those you might not have heard much about before, try Pacific "black cod," or "Pacific cod," also sold as sablefish. Barramundi is a farmed fish, but make sure it comes with a U.S. label.

"It is everyone's patriotic duty to eat farmed oysters, clams and mussels," said chef Barton Seaver. Of course he's referring to shellfish farmed here in the United States, and especially in the cold waters of New England. But he's right. There's hardly anything more sustainable or economical--or tasty, for that matter--than a big bowl of steamed mussels.


Bob said...

According the Seafood Watch, farmed Oysters are the Best-Choice and wild-caught are a Good Alternative. Is it likely that our Chesapeake Bay oysters are farmed? I hope people realize what a delicious, healthy, delicacy these babies are - they are local (not flown in from Prince Edward Island), affordable (a bushel will keep for a week with minimal attention and you can get a ton of meals out of them), and versatile (eat them raw, poached/roasted, stewed, fried, smoked, Rockefeller).

Amelia said...

Not to mention, sablefish is absolutely delicious. Try cooking it en papillote with a few slivers of garlic, a bay leaf, a tomato slice, and a small drizzle of olive oil. It's also great with a miso glaze.

Bippy said...

I know there's some interesting work being done in farming fish in huge undersea net geodesic domes. I hope that spreads, because everything I've read from the people doing it is fantastic. is an interesting place to start reading. There are other people doing similar things. I hope they manage to make it work.

Ed Bruske said...

Yes, National Geographic recently did a piece on open-ocean fish farming. The jury's still out....