Riding the Wave of Sustainable Seafood Trends

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In July 22, 1992, as disgruntled fisherman tried unsuccessfully to barge into the St. John’s hotel room where Canada’s then Federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie was speaking, he announced the unthinkable: a moratorium on the fishing of Northern cod. Years later, Crosbie would describe the decision, which put an estimated 40,000 people in Atlantic Canada out of work, the hardest of his political career.

Northern cod had sustained Newfoundlanders for nearly 500 years; when the English explorer John Cabot discovered the North American coast in 1497, he is reported to have said the fish on the Grand Banks were so abundant they slowed his ship. But human ingenuity has a way of rendering even the unthinkable possible. The introduction of new and improved fish-finding technologies, as well as factory freezer trawlers capable of spending months at sea, helped make the cod-fishing industry ruthlessly efficient.

Boats from Canada — not to mention Spain, Portugal, Russia and other countries — pulled a record 810,000 tonnes of ground fish (a group that includes cod, flounder, halibut and sole) from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in 1968. Nobody knew it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end. The annual harvest would decline steadily over the next decade, with the harvestable biomass of Northern cod alone plummeting 82 per cent between 1962 and 1977, leading to the industry’s eventual collapse and Crosbie’s fateful announcement.

Nobody could have foreseen it at the time, but there would one day be a bright side to the story. Jay Lugar, program director, Canada for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in Halifax, points to the collapse of the cod industry as the flashpoint for today’s sustainable-seafood movement. “It galvanized people, not only because of the health of the oceans, but the people involved,” he says.

Today, sustainable seafood is increasingly top-of-mind among Canadian restaurateurs. It ranked seventh in the top-10 hot trends in Restaurants Canada’s 2017 Canadian Chef’s Survey and sixth overall in the top-10 up-and-coming trends.

“Sustainable is gaining buzz,” says Kunal Kr, director of Culinary Development at Halifax’s Grafton Connor Group, which operates restaurants in the casual, fine-dining, bars and grills, nightclub and dinner-theatre categories. “It gives the guests a feeling of appreciation [they don’t get] with fish from China.”

Kr recently worked with Grafton Connor president Gary Hurst to implement a sustainable-seafood program around the re-launch of the company’s 35-year-old flagship restaurant, The Five Fisherman, in May. “Before that, sustainability was not on our list [of priorities],” says Kr. “We live in a fishing town and the most important thing is to maintain and increase production for the long-term without jeopardizing our oceans and eco-systems. Over-fishing is probably the biggest threat our oceans are facing.”

The Grafton Connor Group submitted the Five Fishermen’s menus to Ocean Wise — the sustainable-seafood program operated by the Vancouver Aquarium — which suggested menu changes based on sustainability. The items were then sourced from Afishianado Fishmongers, a Halifax supplier specializing in “sustainable, transparent and locally sourced seafood.”

Grafton Connor’s story is being repeated around the world. According to a 2016 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), certified-sustainable seafood accounted for 14 per cent (roughly 23 million metric tonnes) of total global production in 2015, up sharply from a mere 0.5 per cent (500,000 metric tonnes) just a decade earlier.

“We’re clearly seeing a growing level of interest [in sustainable seafood] among consumers and all providers of seafood,” says Lugar.

Established in 1997, MSC’s globally recognized “blue ecolabel” is the oldest standard for the labelling of sustainable wild-catch species. More than 20,000 seafood products worldwide now carry the MSC label, signifying that they come from a wild-catch fishery that is independently certified and fully traceable to a sustainable source.More than 290 fisheries in more than 33 countries are currently certified to the MSC standard. These fisheries boast combined annual production of nearly nine-million metric tonnes (approximately 10 per cent of annual global yields).

The Canadian sustainable-seafood program, SeaChoice, defines sustainable seafood as fish or shellfish “caught or farmed in a manner that can be sustained over the long term without compromising the health of marine ecosystems.” Criteria for the sustainable designation among wild-caught species includes low vulnerability to fishing pressure; they are caught using techniques that minimize “by-catch” of unwanted species and captured in ways that maintain natural functional relationships among species.

Rob Stutman, co-owner of Brit & Chips — an eight-year-old fish-and-chips chain with three locations in Montreal — says there is “absolutely” growing customer interest in sustainable seafood.

Brit & Chips became the first independently owned restaurant in Canada to achieve MSC certification in 2015, allowing it to serve cod, haddock, salmon and sole bearing the MSC label (its menu also features sustainable hake that is not MSC certified). “We wanted to make sure whatever products we were using were excellent for our clients and good for the oceans,” says Stutman. “We want to make sure we don’t clean out the oceans just to sell some fish and chips.”

Brit & Chips pays between $3,000 and $4,000 each year to maintain its MSC certification, but Stutman has no qualms about the cost. “It’s not much for what we believe in,” he says. Kr says sustainable seafood can cost as much as 25-per-cent more, based on several factors. Many sustainable species are line-caught, for example, which requires additional fishermen and typically results in a smaller yield, while there is also the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating and maintaining sustainable-fishing programs. These costs are typically downloaded to patrons, requiring restaurants to educate them on the importance of sustainability. “I see nothing but positives once everybody gets educated on what’s happening,” says Kr.

The rise of sustainable seafood coincides with unprecedented pressure on fish stocks around the world, with global per-capita consumption reaching 20kg a year for the first time ever in 2014, according to the 2016 edition of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report.

Canadian seafood consumption is modest by global standards, with the average Canadian consuming 7.5kg of fish in 2016 according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, down from a high of 10.04kg in 1999. That compares with 32.5kg of chicken, 25kg of beef and 20.9kg of pork.

While the collapse of the Atlantic-cod industry has become synonymous with overfishing, it is by no means alone. According to a January report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) entitled Fishing for Proteins, 31 per cent of the world’s scientifically assessed fish stocks are considered overfished, while another 58 per cent are considered fully fished — with any further increase in fishing activity carrying the potential to “gravely jeopardize” their health.

In addition to Atlantic cod, Greenpeace’s so-called “Red List” of the 22 marine species that should not be made commercially available includes albacore tuna, Atlantic halibut, Atlantic salmon, orange roughy and Chilean sea bass.

Yet, even a perfunctory search quickly turns up Canadian menu items such as miso-glazed Chilean sea bass and Atlantic halibut with smoked-salmon crust, suggesting there’s still work to do in making sustainable seafood the industry standard.

Jason Bangerter, executive chef of Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., says his menu features only seafood sourced from reputable suppliers. He works directly with Organic Ocean, a group of independent west-coast fisherman specializing in sustainable seafood that claim to be the first seafood supplier in the world to provide DNA-certification of their products. “These are the people I’m surrounding myself with when it comes to ingredients,” says Bangerter. “People that are serious about sustainability, about the environment, and the product.”

Organic Ocean has supplied restaurants throughout Canada, including Mercer Hall in Stratford, Ont., the Four Seasons Hotel’s YEW Seafood + Bar in Vancouver, Borealis Grille & Bar in Kitchener and Guelph, Ont. and The Chase in Toronto.

Yet there appears to be ample room for the growth of sustainable seafood among restaurateurs, with a recent MSC-sponsored study of 16,000 seafood eaters in 21 countries finding Canadians “overwhelmingly” report purchasing sustainable seafood in grocery stores versus restaurants (91 per cent versus 21 per cent).

In 2014, QSR giant McDonald’s announced that all of the fish (Alaska Pollack) in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sold in the U.S., Canada and Europe was MSC-certified. “Restaurants are gaining a sense they need to speak to sustainable seafood,” says Lugar. “They’re searching for credible ways to make it happen.”

Colorado-based FishChoice’s “Sustainable Seafood Restaurant Finder” identifies 988 restaurants in Canada offering certified-sustainable seafood. They range from chains such as Earls and Moxies, to independent eateries such as Lbs. in Toronto’s financial district. But Lugar believes sustainability’s growth potential is hampered because it hasn’t become a key factor when it comes to selecting a menu item. “[Restaurants] don’t often get people saying ‘I want this fish because it’s sustainable.’ When they’re eating fish in a restaurant they’re looking for taste, texture and flavour,” he says.

Because it’s voluntary, MSC relies on the public to push demand for sustainable seafood, which Lugar says can put pressure on fisheries to become certified.

“We can educate and inform people, but fisheries have to volunteer to come forward. Using consumer demand, and having people become aware of the need for sustainable seafood, will push those requirements to these fisheries.”

Volume 50, Number 7
Written by Chris Powell

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