Overfishing, pollution and climate change are a lethal combination threatening the very existence of our planet’s most diverse ecosystem. Fish stocks are dwindling; life sustaining coral reefs are disappearing at a record pace; oceanic “dead zones” are expanding; certain aquatic species are on the verge of extinction.
Ethical diners, demanding chefs, and a network of advocacy organizations (Ocean Wise, an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada; Sea Choice, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.S.A.; the U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council) are together shifting the foodservice industry towards sustainable seafood in response to increasing concerns about the future of the world’s fisheries.
Just as they are already doing for meat products, diners are also slowly seeking out restaurants that approach their seafood purchases ethically. And for many chefs, while choice may be limited and prices slightly higher, the increased quality of the products makes the move an easy one. Line-caught fish are in much better condition than their net-caught brethren; there is less bruising, scales and overall skeletal structure is in much better shape, they can be held in refrigeration for much longer periods of time.
Of course, finding suppliers that carry sustainable seafood can be a challenge, which is where organizations like Ocean Wise, Sea Choice and the Marine Stewardship Council come in. They work with fisheries to ensure their practices are sustainable, monitor them on their progress, and each run successful labeling and branding programs to aid consumers and chefs alike make their purchases.
So, what is sustainable seafood? Ocean Wise provides a concise definition:
“Species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.”
And when assessing a species to determine whether or not it is sustainable, Ocean Wise relies upon four basic criteria, asking:
- Is it abundant and resilient to fishing pressures?
- Is it well-managed using current research?
- Is it harvested in a method that limits by-catch?
- Is it harvested in a way that limits damage to marine or aquatic habitats and negative interactions with other species?
Best of all, for Ocean Wise, the answer is as simple as black-and-white: either a species is sustainable or it isn’t – making it that much easier for both the home consumer and for the foodservice industry to make the choice.
I was first introduced to sustainable seafood by the fantastic folks at Ottawa’s Whalesbone Oyster House. (They introduced me to quite a few things, in fact; Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum quickly comes to mind, but that’s a story best left untold!) There, they pride themselves on only serving sustainable seafood — and do so marvellously, thanks in no small measure to a brilliant team of culinary wunderkinds. Better still, the efforts of proprietor Joshua Bishop to promote sustainable fish and shellfish created such demand in the Ottawa region, a few years ago he opened a second, complementary operation: the Whalesbone Sustainable Oyster and Fish Store. Cool, eh?
Anyway, suffice it to say, it is heartening, as an aspiring chef, to see the industry move in this direction. We all, regardless of our profession or vocation, ought to find ways to conduct our businesses more ethically and sustainably. And, making the choice to buy, prepare and serve only sustainably caught or harvested seafood is a small, but important step in the right direction.