One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish…Green Fish

photoCredit Antoinette Bruno

A Look at Sustainable Seafood

by Heather Sperling and JJ Proville
September 2008

We are a nation that loves its seafood; last year, Americans enthusiastically consumed nearly 5 billion pounds of it. Restaurants across the country turned massive numbers of snapper filets, Atlantic salmon, and bluefin tuna steaks, and parents told their children to eat their “brain food.” At the same time, newspaper articles about mercury levels continued to trickle in, and fish-focused organizations continued to mark certain fish—including the aforementioned—with red flags, meant to alert consumers of a combination of problems, from overfishing to pollution to bycatch.

Seafood is an integral part of the American diet, and in our lifetime we’ve seen both an explosion of unprecedented variety and the decimation of major populations. Yet we understand the issues that surround the seafood market significantly less than those of agriculture. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Michael Pollan and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Whole Foods Markets’ local produce campaign: the combined efforts of these (and many other) chefs, businesses and writers have instigated a shift in the way many Americans approach produce and meat. But what of the seafood champions?

They’re out there, they’re growing in number, and many of them are chefs. The culinary industry is the largest consumer of seafood: according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, two-thirds of all fish and shellfish entering the US passes through restaurants (one quarter goes to retail).  Monterey Bay Aquarium is not just an aquarium, but a sustainable seafood research center, and an instrumental reference and advocate. It’s one of the main sources, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Seafood Choices Alliance, Blue Ocean Institute, and the Marine Stewardship Council, for sustainable seafood information, and is a leader in a field that is growing in numbers and in trusted names.

In recent years, these organizations (and the chefs that work with them) have been amassing information and spreading a message: if we continue to fish in the way we’ve become accustomed to, we’re going to lose many of seafood species that we love.

How did we get to this point? The seafood plight creation story goes something like this: a long, long time ago, when the human race was a hunter-gatherer society, men and women foraged for berries, trapped fowl in the woods, and speared fish in the stream. We eventually discovered that plants and animals could be raised, and that agriculture was a way to ensure food for growing populations. For thousands of years we’ve relied almost exclusively on agriculture to feed ourselves, but to this day we are largely hunter-gatherers when it comes to fish.

The exception is aquaculture (agriculture meets water, i.e. farm-raised fish). American aquaculture has increased by 400% over the last decade and a half,  and today fulfills 5% of the nation’s seafood demand.  (Of the imported seafood that enters the United States each year, at least half of it is farmed.) Large-scale aquaculture is relatively young, and is still working out plenty of kinks—like any farm-raised product, the results vary widely in terms of quality and environmental impact.

Sanitation, health, natural feed, hormones—the same issues present in livestock raising are found in farm-raised fish. Farmed Atlantic salmon is marked with a stoplight-red fish symbol (“do not buy!”) in Blue Ocean Institute’s Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood because of the issues with water pollution in tanks, contaminated feed, and overuse of antibiotics. But there has also been success—the same guide’s list of species marked with green fish (i.e. “good-to-go”) includes farmed New Zealand green mussels, farmed Alaskan little-neck clams, farmed Northern Canadian shrimp, farmed tilapia, and farmed bay scallops.

Wild fish have a separate set of success stories and disasters. Alaska is the reigning model of success: when it gained statehood in 1959, one of the first things on the local agenda was to take control of its fisheries. Today, half of all American-harvested seafood comes from Alaska.  The state’s fisheries are managed through cooperation between state, national, and international organizations that work together in the best interest of the environment and the economy, keeping both conservation and allocation in mind. The key is a network of “marine protected areas” and catch limits set by scientists and biologists, which government policymakers cannot overrule.

Washington and Oregon salmon hit an all-time low this year, but Alaskan salmon is thriving (and is given a thumbs-up by sustainable seafood guides across the board). Same goes for Alaskan whitefish (including halibut, black cod, and cod) and shellfish (scallops, spot prawns, and more). Alaska has set the bar—and in 2006, President Bush signed the Magnus Stevenson Act, which requires all other fishery councils in the US to the example set by the North Pacific region.

Randy Rice, a scientist and head of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s technical program, sums up the approach, saying, “It’s really the biologists calling the shots—and this wasn’t the case for many other seafood councils.” The Northeast especially has been on a bumpy path—but according to Rice, “they are starting to make very fundamental changes. You’ll begin to see Alaska-like models around the country very soon.”

How to Make it Happen

            “Build a team of purveyors that care about sustainability, build a team of chefs     that are educated and know about it, and start affecting your customers.”
            - Chef Mike Minor of Border Grill, Las Vegas

Atlantic salmon is bad, Alaskan salmon is good. Atlantic bluefin tuna is bad, Caribbean blackfin tuna is good. “Bad” can mean any combination of things: that it’s overfished, that it’s high in mercury, pollutants or antibiotics, or that it’s farmed or caught in ways that are harmful to other marine life or the environment. There has been a proliferation of seafood labels, but unfortunately, thus far, there is no codified common denominator. The first step towards working with sustainable seafood, then, is sifting through the information and figuring out what and who to work with.

Chris Lazicki, a buyer for Father’s Fish at the Hunt’s Point fish market, is a fish agent who caters to chefs in search of sustainable products. Hunt’s Point is the largest wholesale seafood market outside of Japan and most of the sustainable fish it carries is farmed—meaning it tends not to fluctuate in price, and there’s a consistent stock. Lazicki has a working knowledge of sustainability, making it easy for the chefs who come to him: “they don’t even have to do the research—they can just tell me they want only sustainable fish.” He says, however, that concern about sustainability tends to come from the buyer’s end, not the suppliers’. 

When Mike Minor decided to make a commitment to serve sustainable seafood at Border Grill in Las Vegas two years ago, he dropped all his fish suppliers save two that shared his philosophy. Minor now sources almost all of his seafood from Santa Monica Seafood, who ship to Southern California and Las Vegas, and from the Honolulu Seafood Company. Barton Seaver, a chef and seafood activist in Washington DC, says that information about sustainability will rarely come unless you demand it. (The subtext here echoes Lazicki’s point that you can’t assume purveyors focus on responsible sourcing—they just want to make the deal.) Seaver suggests training your fishmonger to tell you how a particular fish is caught, and to put it right on the invoice. “If they can’t do this, then you’ve learned something about them that you should have known from the beginning,”

Share the Knowledge

            “Chefs make choices every day… Now more than ever, it is clear how our
            choices—and those of retailers and consumers—can affect the environment.”
            - Jacques Pépin

Rick Moonen of RM Seafood (Las Vegas) says “it’s all about sharing.” He learned of one of his best suppliers, Boston-based Seafood Specialties, from another chef in Las Vegas, and makes it a point to pass on as much knowledge as he can. Moonen and Minor give lectures for students at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas, and Moonen screens a Monterey Bay Aquarium video for all of his employees. He gives them the aquarium’s fish fact cards to memorize, distributing new ones when a new fish is added to the menu. On the floor at RM Seafood on any given night, one might hear guests wondering aloud about less familiar names, and servers offering a guiding hand: “if you love salmon, you’ll love Arctic char.”

Chefs have the power to guide popular taste, one fish course at a time. According the Seaver, it takes a certain amount of finesse. “It’s not enough to present sablefish as ‘a substitute’ for Chilean sea bass,” he says—it needs to be presented as a better option. “It’s when sablefish replaces sea bass as a preferred choice that a positive change is achieved.” 

Sustainable Seafood Lists
Seafood Choices Alliance
Monterey Bay Seafood Watch

Blue Ocean Institute

Learn more about Sustainable Fisheries
Marine Stewardship Council

Consumption Advisory Reference
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Protection Agency
Mercury Consumption Calculator

The Seafood Choices Guide for Professionals
(Download PDF)

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood
By Taras Grescoe

Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook's Essential Companion
By Rick Moonen

One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook
By Carol Baldwin and Julie Mounts

Printable Purveyors List (pdf)

   Published: September 2008