Consumers who favor sustainable seafood want fish to be delicious and for its supplier not to harm the environment. To help meet those goals, restaurateurs increasingly are partnering with providers of premium, all-natural seafood from sustainable sources as well as pursuing relationships with nonprofit organizations.
For their part, seafood providers are seeking to offer sustainable options by teaming up with organizations that ensure water sources are not harmed, local fish are not contaminated and area residents benefit from the fish production. They are also employing growing processes that help keep the price of premium, sustainably raised seafood down.
“As a society we say we want a stable world and poverty eliminated,,” says Magdalena Wallhoff, who is ambassador at large and a member of the family that owns Regal Springs, a supplier of lake-grown, all-natural tilapia. “A key part of that is food production — and in our case, we know we not only produce fish, but we add stability and justice to areas where we work.”
Several sustainability-focused organizations provide guidelines and certifications for conservation, which inform consumers and suppliers that the food came from a source that did not deplete resources. Some of these organizations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) have logos that restaurateurs can include on their menus to help let consumers know that certified sustainable seafood (MSC) or responsibly farmed seafood (ASC) is being offered.
Wallhoff cites the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a good example of a partner whose goal is to provide sustainable seafood. “They know the questions to ask about specific species and about a specific lake,” she says.
WWF works with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to ensure, among other things, that certain species of fish are not harmed by the harvesting of other fish. Businesses that offer certified sustainable seafood can use the MSC label to let consumers know the fish was responsibly caught, handled with care and traced back to a sustainable source. Other organizations that ensure fish are caught responsibly and prepared and raised according to the highest international standards include the British Retail Council and Global Aquaculture Alliance/Best Aquaculture Practices.
Regal Springs not only works to prevent seafood from being depleted, but also provides benefits for the region with job creation and other positive economic initiatives. The company employs the process of aquaculture, or fish farming, to raise its 100-percent, all-natural, lake-grown tilapia. The fish are grown in large floating pens in pristine lakes in Honduras, Indonesia and Mexico, and fed U.S. soybeans and premium grains, not other fish. The diet of soybeans and grains relieves the pressure on the diminishing wild fish populations while helping to keep the cost of the tilapia down.
The WWF, citing the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, notes that aquaculture accounts for almost half (73 million tons) of the world supply of seafood (150 million tons). It is projected to surpass wild harvest in fisheries product within the next decade.
Seafood that is produced in a sustainable manner does not necessarily have to be more expensive than other seafood. “Aquaculture does help to keep seafood costs steady, as some wild-caught species are seasonal and not always available, thus affecting their specific price point,” says Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va.
Another detail that helps keep costs down, according to the NFI, is that tilapia has become so popular over the years it currently ranks as the fourth most consumed seafood in the United States behind shrimp, salmon and canned tuna, in pounds per capita. In fact, premium lake-grown tilapia is gaining so quickly in popularity that Regal Springs plans to increase production to a total of 165,000 tons of tilapia in 2016, compared to approximately 110,000 tons in 2014.
Aquaculture can help keep seafood prices in line, says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for Seafood Watch. “Aquaculture has the opportunity to provide this kind of ‘clean’ product and to be more economical. It requires fish farmers to make good choices — the right species, the right farm siting, etc. In addition, providing dependable product with good flavor and texture help make the product more desirable to chefs and consumers, and that helps build the market.”
Sustainable seafood can be more expensive than seafood raised less responsibly, Bowman says, but consumers are often willing to pay more for healthful and delicious products. “When sustainable seafood producers, suppliers, retailers and chefs share the good story behind their seafood, the price starts — even when higher — to hold less importance.”
By partnering with a supplier like Regal Springs, operators can meet consumer demand for premium proteins at a competitive price. “Consumers expect cheap protein on the plate,” Wallhoff says. “Good quality tilapia is a fine white fish with a clean taste.” So instead of trying to get restaurant-goers to buy into the concept of paying more to support the workers and the communities behind the fish and to support the environmentally friendly practices, the key is to focus on the fact that tilapia is a premium seafood that often costs less than other fish.
Wallhoff also says raising tilapia sustainably in pure, clean waters and feeding them high quality grains has helped to elevate an inexpensive fish into a premium seafood alternative. “Tilapia is such a mild and versatile fish,” she says. “It is a good price substitute for higher end white fish. This is a very versatile piece of light meat that is excellent for your health.”
Restaurants that partner with Regal Springs for its sustainability initiatives also find that tilapia can be showcased in creative, delicious ways. Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio’s Coastal Grill, for example, serves sustainably raised seafood, including Regal Springs tilapia.
Ralph Rubio, co-founder of Rubio’s Coastal Grill, calls the Rubio’s Regal Springs Tilapia Taco a “must-try.” The tilapia is grilled or blackened on an authentic comal (a smooth, flat griddle), served on warm corn tortillas, topped with creamy chipotle sauce, salsa fresca, and cilantro-jalapeño slaw.
“At Rubio’s, we take great pride in our commitment to serving sustainable seafood whenever possible,” Rubio says. “And we’re proud to partner with Regal Springs to source our tilapia.”