In an ideal world, when a restaurant tells you that it serves “sustainable seafood,” you could have some faith that the claim is true, that the chefs and buyers know exactly what they are getting and the issues around how it was caught.
The seafood situation in the famously eco-friendly San Francisco Bay Area is a far cry from this ideal, according to a superb new article in San Francisco Magazine by Berkeley-based Erik Vance.
Vance and the "star" of the article, Kenny Belov, co-owner of Fish in Sausalito, go up and down the seafood supply chain, asking tough questions at restaurants, sending servers back to the kitchen again and again to find out exactly how and where that night’s seafood was caught. They pester wholesalers and talk to the people that actually catch fish along the California coast. His interviewees claim to have seen menus that list farmed salmon as “wild,” that local fishermen are given credit on menus for fish that actually came from another source, and that many chefs seem to have given up pressing their wholesalers about the products. And then there’s the bigger question of what is "sustainable," something that people in the industry can’t even agree on.
Trust and complexity
The chefs and owners of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and other top restaurants know the farms and ranches and many of the farmers personally who provide their meat and produce, and perhaps even visit them from time to time to see how they operate. But for seafood, it seems to be all about trust: “We’ve had a relationship with Monterey Fish for a really long time,” says Beth Wells, co-chef at Chez Panisse Café, “We trust what they tell us.” A sidebar that rates a handful of Bay Area restaurants on seafood sustainability notes that Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café assumes that when she buys from Ports Seafood and Monterey Fish, that "it’s gone through a filter [of sustainability]." (In another infobox, Kenny Belov praises five restaurants that he thinks are paragons of seafood, and, it must be noted, sometimes buy products from Belov's company: The Basin, Flea St. Cafe, Nettie's Crab Shack, Nopa, Revival Bar and Kitchen, Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar, and Zazu.)
These chefs' trust of their suppliers makes a certain amount of sense. Whereas someone from Chez Panisse or Zuni can spend half a day driving around the farms that raise their hogs or chickens, it’s a lot harder to ride along on the many fishing boats that catch their seafood. Furthermore, while it’s relatively easy to see if the pastures used by grass-fed cattle are abused, it’s difficult, if not impossible to see how different fishing methods -- for example, a standard trawl vs. a 'lighter' trawl -- affect the habitat on the ocean floor. And when it comes to fish from much farther away, forget about it. Finally, since seafood is something that is hunted, sources will vary from week to week, unlike the same farm providing the same crop every week.
A bit of good news
So we have misleading menus, squabbles about what sustainability means, chefs who seem to have given up (like Craig Stoll of Delfina who admits that he no longer “bugs the shit out of them [seafood distributors], asking how things are caught”), and more disheartening news. Not much fun. Fortunately, Vance includes a positive story about rainbow trout.
Fish co-owner Belov is devoted to the cause of sustainable seafood and carefully curates his menu. But when he found out that most rainbow trout producers use feed that consists of plants and reduced wild fish, he and his partner started looking for an alternative. (As my first piece on aquaculture at the Ethicurean noted, even the “good,” mostly-vegetarian fish such as Chinese carp, trout, and tilapia are fed fish meal and fish oil because they grow faster when fed such things.) Working with a fish farmer in Northern California named David McFarland and an industry expert named Rick Barrows, they developed a recipe for a fully plant-based feed that provides farm-raised trout with the necessary nutrients. The feed, which includes algae, corn, and soy, now helps McFarland raise rainbow trout that are served at Belov’s Fish restaurant, as well as such San Francisco hot spots as Nopa and Bix.
While the new feed is an improvement in terms of sustainability, corn and soy are both eco-intensive crops. I wonder if Belov and his colleagues have considered raising insects as feed, as an article in Delta Farm Press suggested.
What to do
"Sustainable seafood" is a complicated, highly fluid issue, with the answer to the question “what is sustainable?” a moving target. So, what is to be done? At the end of his article, Vance proposes some solutions:
We all need to know more, but it’s too much to ask the general public to keep tabs on an entire planet’s worth of fish. Some federal guidance on what qualifies as sustainable seafood, whether it’s wild or farmed, is necessary. And standards must be monitored through the entire distribution chain. Restaurants must be held accountable for the claims they make on their menus. Sustainability has to be more than a marketing gimmick, especially when diners are paying for it. One model might be the LEED certification: Certain restaurants would receive bronze, silver, or gold ratings, based on the number of steps they take toward a clearly defined standard.
There’s a good case for government to step in here, bolstered by a report from Food and Water Watch. The shortcomings of private certification include limitations on public input, lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest. Government agencies can have these flaws too, of course: the USDA's dual charge of promoting sales and consumption of U.S. agricultural goods while also monitoring many of them for safety can be and is a massive conflict of interest.
California is working on just such a seafood label. The passage of Assembly Bill 1217 in 2009 tasked the state’s Ocean Protection Council to develop and implement a voluntary certification program for wild California fisheries (not aquaculture), and has already held several public meetings and solicited comments on the proposed protocol (PDF).
The analogue to LEED that Vance suggests is being privately implemented by fish2fork, a project from the people that created the feature film The End of the Line. Fish2fork develops restaurant ratings using questionnaires filled out by restaurants and through independent examination of restaurants’ online menus. A restaurant that earns the top rating – five blue fish – is doing everything it can to source sustainable seafood while also providing useful information to its diners. The bottom of the bin is five red fish, a rating for restaurants that serve one or more endangered species without any indication that they are from sustainably managed sources. (For what it’s worth, Belov's Fish restaurant received a very high rating, 4 blue fish.) So far, only 106 restaurants are listed, so they have a long way to go. Though it might be difficult to implement, I'd like to see a system that provides continuous feedback, so that restaurants' ratings can rise and fall as their menus change, as opposed to infrequent evaluations, something like a Yelp! for sustainable seafood (but with some controls over who can offer ratings).
In the end, it’s going to take efforts at all levels to preserve the wild oceans: personal, commercial, and political. Vance’s reporting illustrates that sustainable seafood is like an aquatic house of cards: damage one level and the whole system can fall apart.
Additional notes on the article: Vance and San Francisco Magazine deserve additional praise for providing graphics illustrating the seasonality of seafood (something that is all too often forgotten) and fishing methods (another useful primer is The Good Catch Manual from the Seafood Choices Alliance). Additional commentaries on the article can be found at Climatide and SF Weekly.
Update, 2/13/11: On February 4, KQED's Forum devoted an hour to the subject of sustainable seafood, featuring Erik Vance, Kenny Belov, Paul Johnson of Monterey Fish Market, and Craig Stoll of Delfina. The audio is available for streaming or downloading as an MP3 file.
Photo of school of fish from Troy Holden's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License. Photo of sidewalk koi taken by the author on 18th Street in San Francisco's Mission District, a block east of Delfina restaurant and Bi-Rite Market (a small, locally owned market with an exemplary seafood counter).