When it comes to food trends, some restaurateurs try to set them, others try to keep up with them, and a few even try to ignore them.
But when it comes to seafood sustainability, many foodservice operators are leading the way, working with local fishermen, large aquaculture operations, conservation organizations and distributors in order to help improve fishing and farming practices, access to information, and reporting protocols.
SeaFood Business magazine, in its latest biennial foodservice survey published late last year, found that nearly 60 percent of independent restaurateurs, chain operators and noncommercial executives ranked sustainability as one of their top three seafood-related concerns, following only pricing and availability.
By contrast, the number who said sustainability was a top concern of their customers was in the mid-teens, well behind freshness/quality, price, taste, preparation and nutrition/health.
Making the case
There are reasons why operators are more interested in sustainability than their customers.
Darden Restaurants Inc., in its “2012 Sustainability Report,” said, as the parent company of Red Lobster and seven other chains, seafood accounts for more than 30 percent of all of the foods the Orlando, Fla.-based company purchases.
“However, demand for seafood as one of the healthiest, most affordable proteins available to feed a rapidly growing global population is fast outpacing supply,” the report said. “For Darden this is more than a social and environmental concern; it’s a core business issue. We have a vested interest in ensuring that the supply of seafood on which we rely remains available, affordable and meets the quality and safety standards we expect.”
Restaurateurs often find themselves on the front lines of seafood sustainability issues. As fisheries become depleted, supply becomes limited, prices rise and quality declines. And as an increasing number of chefs seek local sources for their food, they also find themselves working with local fishermen who continue to struggle with the changing fortunes of their fisheries.
Sheila Bowman, senior manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, said fisheries are ranked on a three-color scale — green for seafood from well-managed fisheries or farms, yellow for “good alternatives” that the program nevertheless has some issues with, and red for operations they recommend be avoided due to overfishing and harmful environmental practices. Bowman said she has added two full-time positions and one support position just to cover the interest in her program from businesses.
Consumers’ commitment to sustainability is less clear.
“The indications have always been about increased awareness of sustainability and ocean issues,” Bowman said. However, their purchasing practices don’t always reflect that, she added.
Talking up 'trash fish'
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One approach a growing number of restaurateurs are taking is to encourage customers to try atypical fish, allowing popular species like red snapper, grouper, halibut and cod to repopulate.
Los Angeles-based chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, co-owners of the four-unit Border Grill chain, were the latest in a growing group of chefs to host a “trash fish” dinner at their Las Vegas restaurant in July.
Serving “the best seafood you’ve never tried,” the menu showcased species that are undervalued or thrown away as bycatch — a term applied to any species that is different from the one a fisherman intends to catch.
On the East Coast, trash fish being served include sea robin, scup, fluke, bluefish and Atlantic pollock — a different species from the widely available Alaska pollock and common bycatch of cod, haddock and flounder.
Richard Garcia, executive chef of the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, said using them not only helps the more popular fish replenish themselves, but it helps fishermen who otherwise couldn’t sell their bycatch.
Garcia also pointed out that buying such fish, which fetch lower prices than more popular species, results in a lower food cost and allows him to reduce his menu prices.
Seafood served at the Border Grill dinner included Pacific sardines, California squid, porgy and farm-raised sturgeon, which is prized for its caviar but whose meat is in limited demand.
Milliken said while her customers are interested in discovering new foods, they also are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions on seafood sustainability.
“I think the American public is interested in learning more [about] where their food comes from and how it’s handled and the consequences of how it’s being raised,” she said. “I think they’re ready to fall in love with something other than the usual.”
She added that eating a wide variety of seafood is essential to the preservation of all species.
“As soon as somebody says, ‘Oh wow, Patagonia toothfish [the technical name for Chilean sea bass] is delicious and really easy to cook,’ all of a sudden, we wipe out the entire population in a couple of years,” she said.
Bowman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium said that by moderating fishing practices the population of even slow-growing species, like Patagonia toothfish, can recover. She said that 60 percent of Patagonia toothfish fisheries are now off the aquarium’s red list and on the yellow list.
Some restaurateurs find the three-color system to be overly simplistic, however.
“I think even the word sustainability is fraught,” said Ian MacGregor, owner of The Lobster Place and Cull & Pistol in New York. “It means different things to different people.
“I think that boiling it down to an iPhone app or card that makes it red, yellow or green probably massively oversimplifies the issues,” added MacGregor, a former Coast Guard officer who was responsible for enforcing fishing regulations.
Instead of telling customers what to buy or avoid, he provides them with available information — and there’s a lot of it, he said, particularly when it comes to domestic fisheries. Then, he lets them decide.
Meanwhile, companies like Darden are continuing with their own sustainability initiatives.
Brandon Tidwell, Darden’s manager of sustainability, said he’s working with the New England Aquarium in Boston to create more tools for his buyers that would allow them to have more up-to-date information about the state of the fisheries from which they’re buying.
He said he has begun conversations with the aquarium about introducing some of those lesser-utilized fish to his company’s higher-end brands, such as Seasons 52 or The Capital Grille, rather than at Red Lobster.
“The American palate is fairly confined to five or six major species that they eat, but introducing new species is something that we’re open to,” he said.