The concept of sustainable fish and seafood may seem as difficult to navigate as our oceans and lakes are deep and dark, the phrase tossed about like a cork on the waves. But what is “sustainability” and should sustainable fish and seafood be a part of your restaurant’s menu? Defining sustainability
Fish and seafood can be wild-caught or farmed. Whether wild-caught fish and seafood is sustainable or not can be determined by examining the general health of a species and its vulnerability in the face of fishing and harvesting. Other considerations include the population of the species and fishing rates; how fishing impacts habitat and the marine environment; and whether stocks are managed in a way that values long-term health over short-term economic benefit.
What constitutes sustainable practices differs when it comes to farmed or aquaculture fish and seafood. Attention must be paid to responsible use of wild marine resources in feeding farmed species; safe-net pens that prevent escapes into wild populations; control of waste discharges; ensuring diseases and parasites do not enter wild populations; aquaculture systems that do not pollute adjacent ecosystems; and controlling the risks involved with a relatively new production modality of significant size and volume.
Gathering all of this information requires time and painstaking research, but there are organizations that can help. Ocean Wise and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) rely on scientific study and estimations of fish stocks, as well as the general health of aquatic ecosystems, both wild and farmed, and publish updated releases indicating the current status of various species and whether they are “good” or “bad” selections — or whether they should be avoided altogether.
SeaChoice is another organization with the mandate to inform consumers and businesses about environmentally sound fishing practices. It has the imprimatur of several ecological organizations, including the Sierra Club and David Suzuki Foundation. Not all organizations coordinate completely; for instance, Ocean Wise may not recognize all certifications made by Marine Stewardship Council.
MEETING CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS
Sustainable menu choices offer a number of benefits — even for restaurants not located on any body of water. Guelph, Ont.-based The Neighbourhood Group of Companies (NGC), which operates The Woolwich Arrow, Borealis Grillehouse & Bar and Miijidaa Caf + Bistro has been dedicated to local food and sustainability since the 1990s. It recently became a certified “B Corps” for social and environmental performance — one of the largest restaurant groups to gain the designation. Co-owner Court Desautels relies on the scientific guidance of Ocean Wise and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to answer a simple question: “Is what we’re taking from the water being replenished at the same or a faster rate? I trust the biologists to give us that information,” Desautels says.
Using suppliers Organic Ocean of Vancouver and John O Foods in Wheatley, Ont., Desautels considers ethics, too. “Where is the fish raised? Where is it coming from?” he asks. “Wild fish live in their natural habitat and are able to roam free and live their lives. Mother Nature raises them.”
With seven B.C. locations, U.S.-owned The Boathouse restaurants are situated in unique environments and sustainability would seem paramount. Corporate chef Brent Fisher notes that although Boathouse locations offer sustainable seafood items guided by Ocean Wise, it often makes purchasing decisions based on common sense. “[Wild Pacific] halibut is a so-called sustainable fishery, but we go a step beyond that. We used to highlight it on our menu, but it has become a more expensive and smaller fish. We still feature it but are slowly removing it and using fish we feel are more sustainable,” says Fisher who has been with the company since 2004.
Customers haven’t directly insisted on sustainable products, Fisher acknowledges, but says the market has been moving towards sustainability — along with hormone-free and steroid-free foods. “Seafood took that turn a while ago and it continues to be a dynamic situation,” he says. “I don’t see people demanding it as much as expecting it.” Similarly, at Toronto’s Scaramouche, the kitchen cares about the provenance of its ingredients and looks to Ocean Wise, but doesn’t burden the menu with too much information. According to chef de cuisine Carolyn Reid, it simply isn’t a selling point with customers. “We do mention that our halibut is from the west coast and that the sea bass is from Europe. But we’re not overly specific about it,” Reid notes of these Ocean Wise sustainable species.
While salmon is a popular fish for a broad range of consumers — a cursory glance of the seafood counter at your grocery store will confirm that — restaurants such as Storms on the River in Kamloops, B.C. search for more interesting sustainable products. Owners Heather Morgan and Alex Lange explain that about 95 per cent of the fish and seafood at the 120-seat restaurant is Ocean Wise-certified. Morgan, who is a chef, states that serving sustainable, seasonal seafood is, in her words, the “right thing” to do. “It means making sure our oceans can keep reproducing and living properly together and fishing in a proper way. I think seasonality is important too,” she says.
At one time, she served west coast mussels, but when the source was impacted by red tide, they simply took mussels off the menu, rather than getting them from the east coast. “I like to keep everything within a small radius,” she says.
When Morgan introduced local prawns to the menu, it was a move she says was both more sustainable than shipments from Thailand and more interesting for customers. “Most people have no idea that there are humpback and sidestripe shrimp and all these great-tasting prawns right here in our own waters.” The restaurant’s recent “Spot Prawn Week” featured fisherman-delivered live, jumping prawns that were a hit with customers.
SERVING UP KNOWLEDGE
Educating customers about seasonality and locality is a priority at Storms, and Morgan says serving fish and seafood in its prime season and at maturity means more flavour. “They can be tasteless when they are too young and out of season. We have so many different types of fish here, and we want to use them.”
Location can also drive the contents of a menu and for Boathouse, that means sockeye salmon features prominently — when it’s in season, it will prepare about 8,000-lbs of sockeye salmon per week; it’s a fish that goes into five of its top 10 dishes. Fisher agrees that’s a large number to contemplate in the context of sustainability, noting there might not be a commercial sockeye run on the Fraser River this year. The restaurant will therefore look to mixed grills of seafood, which mirror dining trends of customers seeking smaller plates and eating multiple appetizers. “You can get anything in season flown to you fresh basically any day of the week, but local makes it more sustainable, obviously, because of the environmental impact of shipping something across the world,” Fisher says. Interruptions in supply can actually boost creativity. For example, when sockeye salmon couldn’t be found, Desautels’ Borealis Grille restaurants switched to species such as coho salmon or lingcod rather than switch to farm-raised salmon. “That’s the exciting part for the kitchen and the dining room; guests get to try something different and the cooks get to learn about cooking a new fish,” he says.
The utility of a cut of protein and getting every last gram of value out of it is crucial to any restaurant. Scaramouche’s Reid states that margins are always a concern across the board, citing a hefty 30 per cent jump in beef prices in the last couple of years. “You have to use ingredients wisely, or charge accordingly. Or both,” she says. Sustainable products do cost more and may taper margins, concedes Fisher; the corollary is that they are better products and are part of a supply chain that cares about quality. “A sustainable option over a non-sustainable option is going to be better quality.” He admits the restaurant could use less-expensive shrimp, but adds it has never explored using a lower-quality product.
When he can source sockeye, Desautels pays more but says he’s not pricing himself out of the market and customers appreciate quality. “I can buy farm-raised salmon for about $10 per pound. We pay $15 per pound for sockeye, but there’s a better story with it and it is a better ingredient,” he says. When the kitchen receives a whole fish, they make several unique dishes that cover the cost of the fillet. “Whether that is a chowder, fish cakes or fish tacos, we’re using every bit of the fish.”
Finally, how any sustainable fish or seafood is prepared and served is important. The comparison Desautels makes is to properly cooking grain-fed compared to grass-fed beef. “There are two questions a customer can ask about a restaurant serving seafood,” he says. “Are they making the right choices in terms of sustainability and can they cook the fish and seafood properly? If you can get that right, you have a winning formula.”
Volume 49, Number 6
Written By Andrew Coppolino