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Originally published in Flyfishing in Saltwaters
Sept/Oct 2007 Edition
Eat Smart to Ease Strain on Wild Stocks
By Capt. John McMurray
Until recently, few people gave much thought to what seafood they ate. Today, it’s hardly breaking-news that a great number of commercially valuable stocks are in dire-straights. Roughly one in three U.S.-managed fisheries are in trouble, yet folks are eating more seafood then ever. According to a recent report from NOAA, consumption has risen substantially since 2001 and experts are forecasting that it will greatly increase over the next decade. If you don’t think this affects your fishing, then it’s time to take your head out of the sand.
Thankfully, market forces nudged by a number of environmental groups, concerned suppliers and restaurateurs/chefs, are beginning to respond to the glaring problem. The need to channel demand away from overfished species is leading a small but growing number of folks to promote the concept of “Sustainable seafood,” best defined as adequately managed species caught with gear that minimizes harm to the marine environment. Though still in its infancy, the effort is quickly gaining support. Even last year's animated movie Happy Feet carried a message about protecting oceans from overfishing, and each Happy Feet DVD contains a “Seafood Watch” pocket guide, produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The Seafood Watch guides deserve credit for bringing the concept of sustainable seafood to the public’s attention. Almost a decade ago, the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed a list of sustainable seafoods as part of a "Fishing for Solutions" exhibit. The list evolved into the “Seafood Watch” pocket guide for consumers. On the East Coast, Carl Safina’s Living Oceans Program (Now the Blue Ocean Institute) was, at the same time, developing and marketing a similar list.
Over 30 million pocket guides have now been distributed to consumers. The ultimate goal is to gain the support of chefs and businesses in the food industry who, in turn, can send a powerful message back to the commercial fishing industry that improved fishing practices will be rewarded in the marketplace. So far it appears to be working, as some of the biggest seafood buyers in the nation are getting on board.
The National Fisheries Institute, the seafood industry's principal lobby, has become a booster of the sustainable seafood movement. Whole Foods, the large and growing supermarket chain specializing in quality foodstuffs, was one of the first corporations to serve only seafood certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a British-based nonprofit organization which grants a blue and white label to fish that pass an independent, peer-reviewed certification process. The discount giant Wal-Mart has also recently pledged that, within five years, it will to sell nothing but seafood which meets MSC standards. McDonald's is now shifting away from the rapidly dwindling Russian pollack to MSC-certified Alaskan pollack and New Zealand hoki. In a similar move, Darden Restaurants, the parent company for Red Lobster, Oliver Garden and other popular chains, is shifting its seafood offerings toward sustainably-harvested species, as is the Compass Group, a huge food-service provider to corporate and university cafeterias.
Such large corporate entities aren’t moving towards sustainable seafood out of the goodness or their hearts. There is an economic incentive: They stand to gain market share and customer loyalty and, perhaps more important, reliable long-term supplies of product.
Unfortunately, the sustainable seafood movement has not yet gained wide support among seafood harvesters. In most fisheries, commercial fishermen still fight needed regulations, which they view as obstacles that limiting their income, rather than tools necessary to preserve their very means of livelihood.
However, market forces may soon overcome their intransigence. Smart, business savvy chefs are carving out market niches for themselves by promoting sustainable seafood menus. Top-notch fly angler and well-known chef, Brandon McGlamery from Luma on Park in Winter Park, FL is a prime example. He focuses considerable time and energy determining which fish he can serve his customers with a clean conscience. He stopped serving Patagonian Toothfish (aka Chilean Seabass – the poster fish for overfishing) long ago, despite strong customer demand. Brandon has also educated his wait staff to explain why Chilean seabass is not on the menu, and to offer black cod or fresh farm-raised Georgia rainbow trout in its place. Brandon acknowledges that it can be more difficult and time consuming to locate sufficient supplies of sustainable fish, as the well-known overfished species are far easier to acquire. “The higher the demand, the easier it is to get and the cheaper it is” he says.
Serving sustainable seafood presents additional challenges to chefs who must please their customers if they are to remain in business. The bottom-line is always quality and taste, which are far more important to the average consumer than the environmental impact of unsustainable fishing. There is the risk of losing customers to restaurants that lack a conscience. Thus, restaurants that only serve sustainable seafood remain are in the minority. After interviewing a handful of New York chefs that also happened to be flyfishers, I found that none of them had menus that were 100% sustainable.
Those courageous chefs such as Brandon, who have thrown themselves headfirst into the sustainable seafood movement, engage in a high-stakes sales pitch, replacing crowd-pleasers with fish that have yet to become trendy. But, Brandon says, when given a chance, sustainable fish sell just as well as the overfished species. Some choices may not be popular at first, but pioneers who promote fish such as barramundi and tilapia are enabling consumers to see the light. As it becomes increasingly chic to display environmental consciousness, more consumers will seek out restaurants such as Luma on Park that offer only sustainable seafood choices. If nothing else, restaurants that serve sustainable seafood attract attention and set themselves apart from the others, and that publicity, in itself, can better the bottom line.
The difficulty will be to keep the concept of sustainable seafood from evolving into the very thing that it was designed to avoid. As restaurants and mega-grocers such as Wal-Mart become major buyers of sustainable seafood, they will undoubtedly create increased demand and increased fishing with the potential to drive currently healthy stocks over the brink of overfishing. Managers must remain vigilant, and continue to manage such fisheries correctly, in order to avoid such a problem.
Some critics believe that it is too late for market forces to protect fish when the world's population is growing and two-thirds of the world's commercial stocks are already being fished at or beyond their capacity. The only solution to overfishing, they say, is for governments to muster the political will to restrict catches. While regulation will always play an important role in protecting fish populations, it would be foolish to ignore the potential impact of market-based initiatives. Between 1998 and 2000, conservation groups SeaWeb and Natural Resources Defense Council ran a campaign called "Give Swordfish a Break," persuading more than 700 U.S. chefs and three major cruise lines to stop serving North Atlantic swordfish. In response swordfish nursery areas in U.S. waters were closed. And since 1998, swordfish have recovered dramatically.
The sustainable seafood movement is only just beginning to impact the seafood industry, adopting new approaches that do more than simply try to educate consumers with wallet cards. Instead, it is targeting the big buyers that actually decide what fish consumers have the opportunity to purchase, taking the ethical decision out of the individual consumer’s hands.
Today, only about 6% of the global fish catch is certified as sustainable. However, the sustainable seafood movement is still quite young. We must be patient. As anglers who are more connected to the resource than the average consumer, it is our duty to eat only sustainably caught seafood, patronize those business that have committed to sustainable seafood and to educate others to do the same.
For a list of restaurants in your area that serve sustainable seafood check out this website: www.seafoodchoices.net/secure/alliance-search-chef.php. For info on what to what you can eat with a clear conscious and what you want to steer clear of, check out these websites: www.blueocean.org, www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp.