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Our oceans are in peril.

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.

It’s no surprise this calamity has touched the foodservice industry.

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:

  1. Is it abundant and resilient to fishing pressures?
  2. Is it well-managed using current research?
  3. Is it harvested in a method that limits by-catch?
  4. 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.

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If, only a few weeks ago, you would have told me I would be spending my final Saturday in Ottawa having a beer with George Wendt, I probably would have scoffed at the suggestion. And yet, there I was, doing just that at Beau’s Octoberfest in Vankleek Hill, about an hour east of the city.

On tap were Beau’s famous Lug Tread Lagered Ale and their seasonal Festivale Ale.  The guest of honour was none other than George Wendt, who was kind enough to pose for photographs with fellow beer aficionados like me.

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Ottawa-area restaurants, like my favourite, the Whalesbone, also set up stations and were serving up tasty morsels.  Those who did eat told me the food was delicious.  (I was on a liquid diet.)

It was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, in the company of close friends, celebrating the Ottawa valley’s finest food and drink.

Best of all, when I look back on these last few days in Ottawa, I’ll have one heck of story: I shared a cold one with Norm from Cheers.

The oysters.

I’ll miss those lowly bi-valves, lovingly shucked and plated at one of Ottawa’s best restaurants, The Whalesbone. And I’ll miss their food. And their service. And those LPs. And the Sailor Jerry — that sweet, spicy elixir.

In the years I’ve been in Ottawa, this unassuming resto-bar at the corner of Bank and Gladstone has become my watering hole of choice, my go-to destination for a good time, my satellite office.

My friend Rachelle has already heaped the praise on the Whalesbone and its annual Oyster Fest that the establishment deserves, so I won’t belabour the point; but, it cannot be said enough: Ottawa’s Whalesbone Oyster House is awesome.

And when I Ieave Ottawa, I know I’ll miss the place and its kick-ass staff, many of whom I consider friends.

I know what it seems like: guy befriends staff at drinking establishment: how sad.

Not so.

Ask any urban Ottawan with half a brain and an iota of taste what they’d say is the coolest, tastiest place in town and they’ll say, “the Whalesbone.”

So, yeah, one thing I’ll miss about Ottawa is its extraordinary oyster bar.

Of course, I’ll also miss the friends I’ve made. And the four distinct seasons in this part of the country. And being so close to Montreal, and New York City and Washington, DC. (I can live with being a little father away from Toronto.)

But distance won’t come between me and my friends; nor will it prevent me from visiting DC, NYC or Montreal. (Better still, I’ll be closer to my favourite US city, Chicago.)  Distance will, however, make it more difficult to enjoy a plate of oysters and a pint of Steamwhistle.

Sigh.