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Legal Sea Foods defies aquarium’s watch list

Restaurant serves seafood conservation group said should be avoided

Legal Sea Foods recently questioned the validity of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list by serving seafood the prominent marine conservation group said should be avoided.

Roger Berkowitz, Legal Sea Foods’ president and chief executive, served hook-caught hake and Gulf of Maine cod, both brought in by Gloucester day boats, and farm-raised black tiger shrimp from Vietnam on Monday at the 32-unit chain’s Park Square location in Boston. The dinner was held in conjunction with the Culinary Guild of New England.

Until recently, all of the seafood served at the dinner was on the “avoid” list of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, which outlines “ocean-friendly” seafood for consumers to reference when shopping for food or dining out.

“The purpose of the dinner was to dispel some of the myths that these fish are not sustainable,” Berkowitz said, arguing that American fisheries are very strictly regulated by the government.

Berkowitz, who said he has been in the fish business since the 1950s, said that New England cod and hake have been determined to be sustainable by the National Marine Fisheries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As for the Vietnamese shrimp, he said, “our partners in Vietnam know we only want product that’s farmed sustainably, and I’ve inspected the plants there and they’re the best I’ve ever seen.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium communications director Ken Peterson explained that the Seafood Watch pocket guides are “a fairly general tool that can really be used by the general consumer walking into the average restaurant, given the limited information that most servers or chefs or staff at the seafood counter have.”

More nuanced guides are available for “major buyers” such as restaurants and others that are capable of getting more information on the exact origins and fishing methods of the seafood they’re buying.

“If you can get more information from your supply chain, then you can make more nuanced buying decisions,” Peterson said.

Berkowitz said the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its Seafood Watch guide, along with other conservationist organizations, tend to oversimplify complex issues surrounding sustainability.

“Not to denigrate any particular group out there that I think is well intentioned, but often they’re very well funded and they have legions of lobbyists to get their point across,” Berkowitz said. “And the fishermen are essentially defenseless. They don’t form associations well. That’s one reason why a lot of them become fishermen — they like to work alone.”

He said that fisheries in the United States are so tightly regulated that they aren’t allowed to fish often enough even to meet the quotas set by the government regulating how many fish they can catch. He added that the fines for fishing, and monitoring technology such as beacons on all fishing boats, makes exceeding their quota too risky a proposition for many fishermen to attempt it.

Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium said the Seafood Watch guides are published every six months and that, although Gulf of Maine cod had been on the “avoid” list in July, it had since been upgraded to a “good alternative” in the guides released shortly before the Legal Sea Foods dinner.

In a release earlier this month, the aquarium said that, with the new changes, 80 percent of the total value of seafood landed in New England fit into the “Best Choices” or “Good Alternatives” categories.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].


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