Food Fibbing? Why Your Groovy Restaurant's 'Sustainable' Fish Might Be a Depleted Delicacy

Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
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Red snappers lounge on ice, waiting for a buyer at JMS Seafood, a fish wholesaler in the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. (Photo: Reuters)

Eating sustainably is all the rage. The National Restaurant Association's annual chef survey for 2011 pegs conscientious dining as the #3 food trend for the year, just behind locally sourced proteins (#1) and produce (#2). 

What's more, sustainable seafood ranks at #2 for favorite main courses. People, it seems, want their fish, and they want that fish to give them a feeling of responsible consumption.

But an eye-opening article in San Francisco Magazine by Berkeley-based science reporter Erik Vance pulls the curtain on an unfortunate truth in the restaurant industry: it's incredibly difficult to source and serve truly "sustainable" seafood. There's little transparency in the supply chain, wholesalers are under pressure to meet client demands, and the public wants to have its fish and eat it, too.

The result: even chefs with the best of intentions are serving up meals that rely on threatened fish species caught using ecologically damaging methods.

TakePart talked to Vance about what he learned during the course of reporting his story, why it's so difficult to find sustainable fish, and what needs to change. Check out his entire article at San Francisco Magazine for the down and dirty on all those "sustainable" claims you see cluttering up restaurant menus.

TakePart: What was your first indication that restaurant seafood menus might be less sustainable than they claim?

Erik Vance: Well, I started this story as a profile of a restaurateur who just struck me as interesting. Mostly, restaurateurs tend to be—essentially—capitalists, very much focused on the business of restaurants. But he was unusually fixated on sustainable fish... And he kept mentioning hypocrisy in the world of sustainable fish. I kind of brushed him off, but then I started looking into [sustainability] on my own. It almost becomes sort of addicting—and it’s not hard to do. You look at menus, and you learn a little bit about what "sustainability" means. You look at one menu, then you go to the next, and you start seeing these things that just don’t fit. 

It started bothering me. There were a lot of inconsistencies in what people call "sustainable." I found myself getting annoyed and kind of seeing why [the restaurateur] kept mentioning this.

TakePart: Can't a diner just print out the Seafood Watch guide from Monterey Bay Aquarium, take it to the restaurant, and order off of that?

Erik Vance: That’s a great start and, even before that, just asking is another great start. If the chef hears enough times that his clientele—even if they’re uneducated—that they’re interested, he can go to various resources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium who work with restaurateurs and make those first steps.

The real problem seems to come in with the yellow list. There’s a red list, there’s the green list, and there’s the yellow list. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has had to change the name of that list. From “best to avoid” or something like that to “good alternative”—something to that effect. Because it was too negative before.

So that yellow list is, I think, where we’re going to see a lot of the disappearing species... A lot of restaurants see the yellow list as okay, and they just avoid the red list. I don’t think that a lot of those yellow-list species are okay, by what most of us would consider sustainable. My rubric for “sustainable” is I want those fish to be there for my grandkids the same as they’re here for me.

TakePart: What are the mechanics of a restaurant getting a piece of fish from wherever it’s coming from, to the kitchen, and then to our table.

Erik Vance: The chef calls up a wholesaler. And the chef says, "I’d like to serve orange roughy, halibut and sardines." Now, a lot of fibbing goes along the line. And an inability to say “no,” "no we can’t serve that," "no we can’t buy that." If the wholesaler says, "I’ve got sardines. I’ve got halibut. But, I’m not going to give you orange roughy," he loses that chef as a client. And that’s what doesn’t happen.

The chef turns around and sells that [orange roughy] cooked to the customer. And the wholesaler may be buying that fish from another wholesaler in another country. There could be several wholesalers between the fisherman and the chef. 

So when a chef, who says he’s sustainable, says he wants a kind of fish from a wholesaler, the wholesaler will say "yes." And there are very few times where a wholesaler would say, "You know what, that’s not a sustainable fish. You really shouldn’t have that on a menu."

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Fish on display at a market in Nice. Can you pick out the sustainable selections? Neither can most chefs. (Photo: Reuters)

TakePart: The sustainable guides list kinds of fish. Why does a diner also need to care about the manner in which fish are caught?

Erik Vance: When my grandchildren ask me "why don’t we have any fish like you did when you were young," I’m not going to tell them [it's because] we ate all of them. I’ll have to tell them [it's because] we threw them out while trying to get the fish we do want to eat. A lot of the fish populations we like to eat are healthy, but we’re dumping tons of what we call "by-catch," fish that we caught on accident while trying to get the fish we wanted. We’re not even eating some of these fish that we’re pushing toward oblivion. We’re tossing them overboard, trying to get the shrimp, or the petrale sole, or whatever the fish is that we’re going for.

That’s why the type of fishing method is so important. 

TakePart: How are chefs responding to your article?

Erik Vance: A lot of chefs say, “Look, I’ve got to give my clients what they want." That’s most chefs. A contingent of chefs want to be sustainable. My article focuses on them and some of their failures. Overwhelmingly, these people are trying to do the right thing. They’re telling me that it’s very hard—and really confusing—to keep up with these things. Chefs that spend their whole time thinking of food told me that keeping fish straight as far as sustainability is as hard as the whole rest of the menu—including vegetables, and beef, and chicken.

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&39;I may look legit, but you should have seen the ones they tossed back.&39; (Photo: Getty Images)

TakePart: Why is it easier for a chef to be sure of serving sustainable lamb than seafood?

Erik Vance: The famous quote goes, “Counting fish is just as easy as counting trees—except the fish are invisible and move.” 

It’s very hard to ensure the production of an animal that’s underwater and moving. You can’t go to a spot, like you can on a farm, and see how [the fish are] being produced. These fish move hundreds—and hundreds of thousands of—miles. They’re caught by boats from different countries. You can’t track all those boats. These populations are in flux, and they’re wild. Three years from now there could be a change in the sardine population, and you have to keep up with that. That’s not going to happen with grass-fed beef.

TakePart: When people—chefs and diners—care about sustainable seafood, do they have to resign themselves to going without certain things?

Erik Vance: Yes. That’s the bottom line. 

But I’ve learned something else through this story: there’s a lot of good seafood out there that I’ve never had. I’ve learned about a lot of seafood that’s phenomenal—that is sustainable—that I’ve never tasted. I mean, sardines are really good. Who knew? If you have them cooked well, they’re amazing. They have a really bad name.

People need to be saying "no, but there are alternatives that are really good." Something like 90 percent of the fish Americans eat comes from 10 species; 60 percent from just three. Those three species are getting hammered—that’s tuna, salmon, and shrimp. 

It’s not that you can’t eat seafood, it’s that we need to try new seafood. We need to be flexible, and we need to be able to say "no." I can’t eat orange roughy—not for another 20 years. But there are other fish that I can eat.


Read Erik Vance's complete article at San Francisco Magazine. The story is accessorized with a seasonality chart for various fish species, a chart listing sustainable alternatives to popular fish, and a survey of sustainable seafood options in Bay Area restaurants.

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