A few years ago, New York chef Peter Hoffman came across a chart listing the best, worst, and so-so ecological choices for seafood. “Everything on my menu was in the red zone, and I didn't know how to cook—or nobody wanted to eat—anything that was in the green,” Hoffman recalls. After reading more about the negative impacts of the seafood industry, from the overcrowding of farmed salmon to the overfishing of wild monkfish, the chef started rearranging the menu at the renowned Savoy Restaurant.
The Savoy's menu now stars “aqua-friendly” dishes such as grilled sardines and wild Alaskan salmon seven days a week, and Hoffman chairs the Chefs Collaborative (CC), a network of 1,000-plus culinary professionals dedicated to local, seasonal, and sustainable cuisine.
Last spring the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, invited Hoffman and a dozen other celebrated CC chefs to educate and entice seafood lovers with sustainable dishes. “Water is a giant unknown to most people,” Alice Waters, founder of the revolutionary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, told the crowd. “But if we don't pay attention and protect it, we aren't going to survive.”
The true costs of fish
While sustainable seafood may sometimes cost a bit more, Hoffman says that conventionally produced food often doesn’t reflect the real cost of production. “You can’t really produce any fish for $2.50 a pound,” the current price of farmed salmon, says Hoffman.
Seafood’s low prices often conceal habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing, and by-catch (unwanted fish and sea mammals inadvertently killed in fishermen’s nets). And the rapid rise in global demand for seafood is depleting the oceans: Seventy percent of the world’s fisheries are fully fished or overfished, says Jennifer Dianto, who heads the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. In some cases, the aquarium approves farmed fish because they relieve the pressure facing species in the wild; in others, farmed seafood is problematic. For example, farmed Atlantic salmon are raised in netted pens where the fish and their byproducts can easily escape to coastal waters, spreading disease and polluting the water with their antibiotic-laden waste.
Habitat devastation is another major concern. Fishing nets combing for bottom feeders such as cod are removing their homes and breeding and feeding grounds, says Dianto. Once damaged, the living seafloor can take centuries to grow back. Habitat loss is also tied to fish farming, such as in Southeast Asia, where shrimp farms have replaced valuable mangrove ecosystems.
Restaurateurs are heeding the aquarium's advice. You won’t find conventionally caught wild shrimp on the menu at Chez Panisse or the Savoy, for example. That’s because, for every pound of shrimp caught, some three to four pounds of marine life, most notably sea turtles, are also killed by the nets.
In spite of the threats to aquatic wildlife, there are many choices out there that don’t compromise our oceans or palates. Hoffman sees sustainable cooking as a chance to learn about how our food is produced and to reconnect to the stories behind the menu. “It’s not about a perfect world,” says Hoffman, “it’s about taking steps in the right direction.”
Chef Alice Waters shares a recipe for fresh halibut, a healthy, sustainable choice for seafood lovers.
Rick Bayless' classic ceviche is a festive appetizer.
Chefs get active
- The Seafood Lover’s Almanac (Audubon’s Living Oceans, 2000), edited by Mercedes Lee, contains information, illustrations, and recipes pertaining to sustainable seafood. (888-277-4482, http://seafood. audubon.org. Check out the web-based Seafood Lover’s Guide at www.audubon.org/campaign/lo/seafood/guide.html.
- Join the Chefs Collaborative (www.chefnet.com/cc2000) and patronize its member restaurants.
- Ask your Congressional representatives to sponsor legislation protecting our waters from wasteful and destructive fishing practices. The Marine Fish Conservation Network will contact them for you from its website, www.conservefish.org.
Sources: Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Marine Conservation Society