In 2011, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a longtime advocate for environmental education and awareness, released the second edition of its report, Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood. Informed by the most recent studies by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the report tracks the health of marine wildlife in connection to the catching and farming of seafood. According to its findings, the world’s oceans are still under significant strain and their decline is associated directly to the ever-growing demand for seafood.
Due to overfishing, the catching of fish beyond their capacity to reproduce, nearly two-thirds of the globe’s assessed fish stocks are now depleted. This is especially true for large predatory species that are in high demand, like tuna, swordfish, and cod.
Turning the Tide also states that bycatch (animals that are caught unintentionally) and habitat damage are still serious problems, threatening species with extinction. Many bycatch fish, birds, and marine mammals are killed, either in the process of being caught or when cast back overboard. The animals that are spared face another obstacle, as their underwater habitats are often destroyed by commercial fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dredging.
The facts may be grim, but Turning the Tide suggests that the outlook is hopeful. In the last decade, a new public awareness of ocean ecology has developed and is on the rise. Consumers, chefs, retailers, fish farmers, and fishermen are responding to the urgent need to make changes in favor of ocean conservation.
Rick Moonen, nationally acclaimed chef and owner of Rick Moonen’s rm seafood in Las Vegas, argues that it is up to chefs to make the changes needed to save the seafood supply.
“Chefs have so much power,” he says, noting that by making a few adjustments in the kitchen, they can propagate huge changes that will help secure the health of the oceans and the availability of the fish they prepare. “The first thing we need to do is ask more questions,” adds Moonen. “Find out more about where your food is coming from.”
Moonen cautions against choosing certain species based solely on availability or cost. A fish, he notes, can be widely accepted by diners, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good choice. Farmed salmon may be the “all purpose fish,” according to Moonen, but it is often raised using methods that overtax the environment and jeopardize the lives of its wild counterparts. Plus, he opines, “it’s not delicious.” Moonen makes sure to buy his seafood from trusted sources, and to stay abreast of the most recent seafood guidelines, so that he can make decisions he believes are best for his guests. He admits that it is not always easy, especially in landlocked Las Vegas, but assures chefs everywhere that if he can do it, anyone can.
E. Michael Reidt, executive chef at Area 31 Restaurant, attributes his Miami location to the abundance of species available to him. “It seems I discover a new species of snapper every week,” he says. The Area 31 menu includes cobia, red grouper, yellowtail, snapper, and even lionfish, a local nuisance. “Incredibly tasty, believe it or not,” claims Reidt.
Reidt, too, believes in his responsibility as a chef to stay informed about the state of the environment and the quality of the food that he is providing. “People put a great deal of faith in the hands of the chef,” he notes, lamenting the growing need for suspicion when buying food. “People will be looking for guidance from chefs even more than now. I’d call that power, important power.”
By diversifying their menus, chefs not only can take control of market trends, but also can help to introduce consumers to more sustainable options. “Restaurants are the best classrooms in the country for sustainability,” claims Tim O’Shea, CEO of CleanFish, a San Francisco-based company dedicated to supporting non-industrial sustainable fisheries. O’Shea believes that chefs should be embracing the promotional possibilities of having a menu that fluctuates with the seasons, a menu that encourages customers to come back wondering what’s new.
“Chefs are the ones driving the market,” agrees Jonah Rhodehamel, executive chef of Oliveto Café & Restaurant in Oakland, California. “Fish like black cod were once thrown away as worthless by-catch. Now we have fishermen fishing just for that species.”
When wild salmon is not in season, Rick Moonen serves arctic char, which he views as a delicious and versatile alternative. “Arctic char is a great fish,” he says. “I tell my staff to tell people that it is like salmon light. Guests get it.”
Getting acquainted with new species can be as simple as opening up a dialog between chef and supplier. Rhodehamel buys his seafood from Monterey Fish Company, a local supplier that adheres to strict government guidelines and regulations. “When I speak with Tom [Worthington] at Monterey Fish in the morning,” says Rhodehamel, “he will usually list off about thirty great options to put on the menu. I trust anything I buy from him is going to be a responsible choice. It makes it pretty easy.”
Moonen buys directly from the fishermen of Organic Ocean in Vancouver, which was recently named Producer/Supplier of the Year by the Chef's Table Society of British Columbia . Knowing the fishermen by name and being able to ask questions about what he is buying, makes Moonen feel good about his career. “I have a better relationship with the food that I’m serving my guests,” he notes.
There are many purveyors that are open to building relationships with their clients. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) has pages of user friendly resources for chefs on their website, ranging from basic facts about sustainable fishing to cooking tips and videos.
“In Alaska, the fish come first,” says ASMI Executive Director and former U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral, Ray Riutta. According to Riutta, consumers can’t go wrong with Alaska caught fish. “It’s clean, it’s wild, and it comes from a healthy ecosystem where fisheries are highly regulated and never over harvested.”
The ASMI Marketing Director, Claudia Hogue, notes the abundance of different species that Alaska has to offer. “One species that a lot of people are starting to get acquainted with is Alaska rockfish,” she says. “It’s a wonderful white-fleshed fish. It’s firm but flaky, and it can really carry a lot of different flavor profiles.”
Alaska Seafood has a lot to say about the quality of their fish, but they also provide the information necessary for consumers to come to their own conclusions. Riutta urges chefs to take charge of their profession. “Don’t blindly rely on folks who take it upon themselves to label a fishery good, bad, or indifferent,” he advises. “If you do your basic research, you can become a knowledgeable provider.”
There are many resources available online for chefs who want to become more informed. While t the frequency of untrustworthy advice, he credits the availability of knowledge on the worldwide web for growing consumer involvement. “We have created an inquisitive food culture where our guests have never had as much interest in what we do for a living as right now.” Reidt recommends using the tools and guidelines provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. “They even have an app for your phone now,” he notes.
Turning the Tide cites a recent survey by The Ocean Project, a Providence, Rhode Island-based advocacy partnership of zoos, aquariums, and museums, that shows that Americans, overall, are aware that their seafood purchase decisions have an impact on ocean health. More and more companies, too, like Sysco Corporation and Walmart, are becoming committed to purchasing from only certified sustainable sources. This is good news, but, according to Turning the Tide, it is still only the beginning. There is much that needs rebuilding.
“Chefs are at the frontline of the battle,” claims Reidt, whose dedication to sustainability has grown along with his career. “I don’t know anything greater in life than being part of something that makes a difference.”
“The ultimate goal here is to have a healthy planet,” adds Moonen. “Get people excited about the changes you are making!”
Chefs everywhere are becoming more attentive to where their food is coming from and to whom it is being served. By researching their food sources and diversifying their menus, they are not only helping the planet, but also setting new standards for their own profession.