Sustainable Seafood Chronicles

As I prepare to take a long trip down South for the Chef’s Collaborative Summit in New Orleans and the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium and Delta Divertisement in Oxford and Greenwood, Mississippi, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I hope to learn on the trip. The Symposium is something I’m really excited about, and I’ll have a lot to say on that later. One of the events in New Orleans I’m really looking forward to is a tasting of Gulf Coast oysters at the opening reception. Then there are a number of workshops exploring sustainable seafood with a focus on the Gulf. As you know, this is dear to my heart.

There’s a popular American colloquialism that’s tossed about when a person or organization has a tumultuous or difficult past that may be causing problems in the present. Folks will say something to the effect of “We/he/she/they have to come to terms with our/his/her/their past.” This presumably means that once one can make peace with an ugly or painful episode or memory, progress can be made.

When it comes to the environment in general and sustainable food in particular, I like to turn that colloquialism on its head. We have to come to terms with our future. By that I mean if we don’t get serious now about making the changes we know need to be made, we had better come to terms with a future that is far less idyllic than our past. We’ve seen glimpses in the increasingly wicked weather. Chicago resembles Baton Rouge in the summer and Edmonton in the winter.

With seafood, we saw the collapse of the Patagonian Toothfish fishery and Swordfish stocks along the South Coast. The same with red grouper and snapper. When’s the last time you saw abalone on a menu? A generation ago? If we don’t make the right choices now, many fish populations from cod to orange roughy and Great Lakes whitefish could go the way of the abalone – maybe not extinct, but no longer available as a meaningful food source.

Part of the sustainability conundrum also involves jobs. The wild American Gulf Coast shrimp fishery, while pocked with bad players, is overall a very well-managed fishery with abundant shrimp that are not only delicious but can feed a lot of people. It’s also been devastated by cheap imports. By cheap, I don’t mean they cost half what American wild caught shrimp do. They do come in alot cheaper but the middlemen and wholesalers take a bigger markup and pass on savings of only a few pennies per pound. It’s naked greed. To make matters worse, the American shrimp fishery is the only one that reliably uses Turtle Excluder Devices on their nets to ensure sea turtles can escape if they find their way into a net. Most Asian imported shrimp is farm raised in the most destructive way imaginable, and is contaminated with antibiotics and polluted water to boot. Many of the Asian Aquaculture operations are set up in places where the local population was kicked off their fishing grounds they used for millenia. Now they are without food, and their coastline is polluted to boot.

Shrimp is just one example and I could cite many more, but the bottom line is that tens of thousands of American jobs have been lost to cheap shrimp imports, and the American fishery was more environmentally sustainable to boot. Unfortunately in our marketplace of greed that values pennies per pound over healthy oceans, the American shrimp industry may prove to be economically unsustainable if people don’t demand their product.

The American catfish industry is in a state of crisis for similar reasons. It’s a model of sustainable aquaculture, and the imports that are displacing it are models of what not to do if you care about the environment. But there it is – for pennies a pound.

One thing I can tell you after more than 25 years in the restaurant business is that the seafood industry, while it is out there pumping up its sustainability creds, is the problem. They sell the bad stuff because it makes money, and the excuse is that their customers want a cheap price. A couple of Chicago’s major fish houses don’t even stock American shrimp anymore! These same companies are out there on Earth Day and at industry events touting their sustainable seafood. They’re talking fat talk out of one side of their mouths while they use the other side of their mouth to tell their customers that bad choices are sustainable and I’ve even had fishmongers tell me to ignore the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch! One hand is at the Earthday event, the other is shoveling Chinese imported catfish in imported Indonesian shrimp into the Chicago market and shouting “cha-ching!”

There are actually instances when we will go outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s safe list or the Shedd Aquarium’s Right Bite approved lists, but only when we’ve been told by objective observers, such as the folks at the Shedd or Monterey Bay Aquarium, that this particular fish from this particular supplier is safe. There are good players in bad industries and they have to be supported to institute change. But – and this is important – the fishmonger doesn’t get to tell me what’s sustainable! We are all taught to doubt the word of fishmongers from our earliest days when we start in this industry. They’re notorious for spinning yarns. That said, there are good people in the industry and we actively seek them out.

After we made the decision more than two years ago to go 100% sustainable with our seafood program, one of the pieces of the puzzle was crab meat. We went with Jonah. because it’s good, and it’s domestic meaning we could more closely monitor the fishery. Weather factors among other things have made Jonah supplies unreliable and we would wind up with imported from SE Asia blue crab. We’d inquire about getting domestic blue crab, it grows wild all over the south coast and that’s a lot of territory.  We were told they couldn’t get it. Then, this past Spring in Nola, I was talking with a local fishmonger who said they ship it all over the world.  Huh.

It took a lot more effort and doing than it should have, but we have supplies of Ponchartrain Blue Crab crab in house and have been using it exclusively since last Spring. It comes at a dear price, but we feel it’s worth it as our future depends on it. This fight was a lot like getting the domestic crawfish. The fight over domestic shrimp was similar. The local suppliers can get the more sustainable (and American job-producing) products if they really wanted to, but instead we will drag them kicking and screaming into a future where all seafood is sustainable because they can’t sell the stuff that’s not.

We are committed to Gulf Coast fishing families and sustainable seafood. We are also committed, as a Rite Bite partner with the Shedd Aquarium, to helping you make better decisions when you’re buying seafood so your children can enjoy the same abundant oceans you have. It starts here – ask them where that shrimp/crab/fish came from. If they can’t tell you, or won’t, buy something else. This country produces a lot of food. There’s plenty to eat and leave the oceans at peace.