Sustainable seafood is a much-talked about topic among consumers and restaurateurs, but that doesn’t mean they understand what it means. Both operators and their customers show a strong preference for wild-caught seafood over farm-raised, and when menus mention a seafood item’s sustainability they are likely to be accompanied by terms such as “local” and “wild,” according to menu research firm Datassential. “Farmed,” not so much.
Sustainable seafood champion and avid fisherman Kerry Heffernan believes there’s a need for and a value in both wild-caught and responsibly farmed seafood. As executive chef of Grand Banks, a floating oyster bar and restaurant on the deck of a historic schooner docked at Pier 25 in New York, Heffernan has not only built a menu around that idea, but he also has led the effort to position the restaurant as a strong voice in the sustainable seafood movement.
For example, Heffernan led Grand Banks’ launch of an industry-wide campaign against serving striped bass and other at-risk species, and has established partnerships with Sustainable Seafood Week and the Billion Oyster Project, which seeks to distribute a billion oysters across 100 acres of New York Harbor by 2035.
Oysters filter impurities out of water, making them not just sustainable, but restorative, improving the quality of the ecosystems where they grow.
Heffernan has also joined the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of chefs and culinarians who are “helping shape the Seafood Watch program to support advocacy efforts of the wider culinary community.”
Heffernan recently shared his thoughts about why there isn’t more positive conversation about farmed fish, how to discuss sustainability with diners and the future of sustainable seafood in restaurants.
Why aren’t more chefs talking about farm-raised fish, on their menus or otherwise?
The perspective among many chefs is that [farm-raised] is bad. And it was bad. People were going for the cheapest possible option. Since then, I think [fish farmers] found out a better way. The future and most advanced system is recirculation [aquaculture — which helps alleviate contamination of surrounding areas]. Recirculation is the future.
What seafood on your menus is farm-raised?
We serve a huge amount of farm-raised [seafood], but it’s in the form of oysters. There’s no more sustainable [seafood] than farm-raised shellfish. The more they put in the water, the more it filters the water … it’s all about balance.
I dealt with some recirculated salmon about a year ago. That was interesting. That technology is still in its infancy. There’s a guy at the Union Square Green Market selling recirculated shrimp. It’s not cheap yet — it’s very hard to compete with commodity-raised shrimp. But as people get improved awareness of it [the price will come down].
Who manages the seafood orders at your restaurants? What’s your purchasing criteria?
I oversee all of the purchasing. It’s pretty easy [but] you have to have good relationships with fish purveyors. [My criteria] is usually species, location and method of capture.
How do you communicate such complicated sourcing information to your diners?
When it comes to communicating to customers, we try not to message too heavily in any one direction. We try not to make it a guilt trip.
How do you see the future of sustainable seafood at restaurants?
I see a landscape change. What would you have said about organic 15 years ago and what would you say about it now? It comes down to these big places — chains, industrial feeders — saying, “We care about these things.” I see people like Aramark coming to Monterey Bay and saying “I want in.” We all need to participate. We would like every restaurant to not be just sustainably [minded], but for sustainable to be the standard.