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Red Fish, Green Fish
Published in Natural Home, Nov./Dec. 2002

To eat or not to eat? It's not easy making your way through the tangled nets of sustainable seafood choices -- but a host of celebrity chefs want to help.

A FEW YEARS AGO, New York chef Peter Hoffman came across a chart listing the best, worst, and so-so ecological choices for seafood. "Everything on my menu was in the red zone, and I didn't know how to cook -- or nobody wanted to eat -- anything that was in the green," Hoffman recalls. After reading more about the negative impacts of the seafood industry, from the overcrowding of farmed salmon to the overfishing of wild monkfish, the chef started rearranging the menu at the renowned Savoy Restaurant.

The Savoy's menu now stars "aqua-friendly" dishes such as grilled sardines and wild Alaskan salmon seven days a week, and Hoffman now chairs the Chefs Collaborative (CC), a network of 1,000-plus culinary professionals dedicated to local, seasonal, and sustainable cuisine.

Last spring the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, invited Hoffman and a dozen other celebrated CC chefs, including Nora Pouillon, who founded Restaurant Nora, America's first certified organic restaurant, to educate and entice seafood lovers with sustainable dishes such as three-beet caviar and smoked hoki salad. Water is a giant unknown to most people," Alice Waters, founder of the revolutionary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, told the crowd. "But if we don't pay attention and protect it, we aren't going to survive."

THE TRUE COSTS OF FISH

While sustainable seafood may sometimes cost a bit more, Hoffman says that conventionally produced food often carries a low price tag that doesn't reflect the real cost of production. "You can't really produce any fish for $2.50 a pound," the current price of farmed salmon, says Hoffman.

Seafood's low prices often conceal habitat destruction, water pollution, overfishing, and by-catch (unwanted fish and sea mammals inadvertently trapped and killed in fishermen's nets). And the rapid rise in global demand for seafood is depleting the oceans: Seventy percent of the world's fisheries are fully fished or overfished, says Jennifer Dianto, who heads the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

In some cases, the aquarium approves farmed fish because they relieve the pressure facing species in the wild; in others, farmed seafood is more problematic. For example, farmed Atlantic salmon are raised in netted pens where the fish and their byproducts can easily escape to coastal waters, spreading disease and polluting the water with their antibiotic-laden waste.

Habitat devastation is another major concern. Fishing nets combing for bottom feeders such as cod are removing their homes and breeding and feeding grounds, says Dianto. Once damaged, the living seafloor can take centuries to grow back. Habitat loss is also tied to fish farming, such as in Southeast Asia, where shrimp farms have replaced valuable mangrove ecosystems.

Restauranteurs are heeding the aquarium's advice. You won't find conventionally caught wild shrimp -- often associated with significant amounts of by-catch -- on the menu at Chez Panisse or the Savoy, for example. That's because, for every pound of shrimp caught, some three to four pounds of marine life, most notably sea turtles, are also killed by the nets.

In spite of the threats to aquatic wildlife, there are many choices out there that don't compromise our oceans or palates. Hoffman sees sustainable cooking as a chance to learn about how our food is produced and to reconnect to the stories behind the menu.

Sustainability isn't a red, yellow, and green issue but a continuum, the chef says. It's not about a perfect world," says Hoffman, "it's about taking steps in the right direction."

SAVE OUR SEAS

Care about the state of the seas but still want to savor the catch of the day? Here are some steps you can take.

  • Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Card (www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp) and take it with you to restaurants and seafood counters. If a seafood's origin isn't well identified, ask about it; if sustainable choices aren't available, be a pioneer and suggest some. --Look for the Marine Stewardship Council's (www.msc.org) eco-label identifying sustainable seafood products.
  • Experiment with preparing your own sustainable seafood. The Seafood Lover's Almanac (Audubon's Living Oceans 2000), edited by Mercedes Lee, contains information, illustrations, and recipes pertaining to sustainable species. To order, call (888) 277-4482 or visit http://seafood.audubon.org.
  • Check out the web-based Seafood Lover's Guide, based on the book, at www.audubon.org/campaign/lo/seafood/guide.html). --Join the Chefs Collaborative (www.chefnet.com/cc2000) and patronize its member restaurants.
  • Ask your Congressional representatives to sponsor legislation protecting our waters from wasteful and destructive fishing practices. The Marine Fish Conservation Network will contact them for you from its website, www.conservefish.org.

FISHING NETS

While New England's fishing industry is on the verge of collapse, strict federal restrictions have begun to revive some of the depleted stocks. The depleted species are mostly groundfish such as cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. Others include summer flounder (fluke) and scallops as well as migratory species such as tuna, billfish, and sharks. New federal regulations that went into effect last spring reduced the number of days fishermen could work by 20 percent, required the closing of key fishing grounds, and limited the size of fish that could be caught by recreational fishermen. Despite some progress, and the return of a healthy fluke population, environmental groups have pointed out that of the 304 fish stocks assessed annually by the National Marine Fisheries Service, 93 are still being overfished. Tuna, billfish, and shark populations remain stressed because other nations aren't cooperating with the limits. --Summer McElley

Sorry, Charlie

Government warnings about fish consumption by pregnant women may not be strong enough, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) charges. Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised pregnant women to avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish because they contain high levels of methyl mercury. After the EWG urged that tuna be included in that list and accused the FDA of watering down its warnings under pressure from industry groups, the FDA commissioned independent scientists to review the advice. In the meantime, those concerned about the safety of the fish they're eating can log on to the Seafood Selector at the Environmental Defense website at www.environmentaldefense.org. The site includes safety and health facts for more than 150 species. ]

 


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