Leading the Way: Canada’s Sustainable Seafood Movement

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Seafood is the world’s single highest-traded food commodity. Almost every nation
on earth has some type of fishing industry and even more of the world’s population consumes seafood brought in from elsewhere.

It’s no secret that the global fishing industry has, over many years, put the natural populations of our oceans, lakes and rivers at extreme risk. Overfishing, pollution and global warming have had a negative effect on our waterways. Canada, especially, has had to face the harsh realities of overfishing throughout the years — most famously during the Northeast coast’s cod moratorium, which was imposed in the early 1990s.

In the years since the moratorium took hold, choosing to buy only environmentally sustainable seafood and fish has become increasingly important to Canadian consumers. According to Claire Li, account representative at Canada’s Ocean Wise organization, 91 per cent of Canadians want to purchase only sustainably sourced seafood — though only eight per cent have the tools and know-how to actually know what they’re buying.

“It can be complicated with different species and whether the fish was wild or farmed,” she explains. “Not to mention there are various common names that can be used to identify one single species. Our goal is to make it easy for our foodservice partners to identify sustainable seafood.”

In the past, Ocean Wise used a colour-coded system (green, yellow or red) to identify the various species of fish and whether or not they are considered a sustainable choice.

“People found it difficult to use these guides,” Li remarks. “For example, tuna could be in all three categories, depending on the species and where it was caught.”

Ocean Wise is a well-known brand among consumers, with a third of all Canadians surveyed recognizing its symbol. In order for a restaurant or business to be Ocean-Wise recommended, wild-fish offerings need to meet four areas of criteria: abundance of the species of fish, limited habitat damage, whether the fishery for the species is well-managed and how it’s caught, while fish grown through aquaculture have an additional six criteria to meet prior to recommendation.

“When we start working with a particular restaurant, we verify (with the suppliers) what the species is and where and how it was caught,” Li continues. “We recommend both wild and farmed [seafood varieties]. We’re not a certification program — we simply set the bar and you meet it or you don’t.”

Those who “don’t” have reason to be concerned — according to Li, since the main reason Canadian fisheries are doing so well in terms of sustainability is because consumers are driving the change.

“In Canada, people are well aware of the issues surrounding sustainable seafood and, because of this, fisheries are working hard to be as sustainable as possible,” she explains. “Canada is in a good place. Globally speaking, a lot of other countries have a way to go.”

Don Read works closely with Ocean Wise to ensure his seafood products end up on the right menus. As president of Surrey, B.C.-based Willowfield Enterprises, he represents two of British Columbia’s most innovative aquaculture farms: Gindara Sablefish and West Creek — the only land-based Coho-salmon farm in the world.

Gindara Sablefish is a well-established aquacultural business specializing in sablefish — a type of cod native to the area. They can live up to 100 years with a maximum possible weight of 100 lbs. While Gindara’s farmed sablefish live substantially shorter lives (the average fish being harvested at two years of age), they are free of the parasites and sea lice often found on wild sablefish and other farmed species.

“Sablefish have always been in this environment — we’re in their natural habitat,” Read says. “They have evolved to live at a deeper level in the water, so issues with algae and parasites (that tend to live at the top of the water) don’t affect the sablefish.”

Both Gindara Sablefish and West Creek Coho Salmon are recommended by Ocean Wise and Read says they’re also in the process of being certified by Seafood Watch in California.

“When [Gindara] was in the thought process of developing a high-end brand, we decided the U.S. was the market we needed to go after — just [based on] its volume,” he remarks. “We were, however, amazed to find that the Canadian market was so willing to try, accept and embrace sablefish.”

Chefs such as Ned Bell of Ocean Wise and John Morris of Toronto’s CN Tower use and promote Gindara Sablefish on their menus. Morris’ dish of ginger tea-smoked sablefish with sweet-potato purée, king oyster mushrooms, asparagus and Claremont miso-and-birch caramel (prix fixe menu; $79 for three courses) was an elegant addition to 360 Restaurant’s summer menu this year (its winter menu is now officially launched and continues to feature many sustainable-seafood options).

“When it comes to ingredients for our menu, our guiding principles are high quality, deliciousness, Canadian, sustainability and adequate supply,” Morris explains. “Due to our volumes — we served 370,000 guests in 2017 — not all suppliers can provide enough product to meet our demand.”

Gindara consistently supplies many upmarket restaurants in B.C., Ontario and Quebec. Read says chefs enjoy the fact they can order the sablefish year-round for the same price —in fact, the farmed sablefish is generally of a higher quality and costs up to 20-per-cent less than its wild counterpart. Morris agrees the quality of the farmed sablefish has won him, and many of his guests, over this past year.

“It is just such a consistently great fish,” he continues. “It has been an absolute pleasure to cook and serve sablefish to so many of our guests this past summer.”

Another Canadian food business making waves in aquaculture is Langley, B.C.-based Berezan Shrimp Company. Using newly patented methods of shrimp farming, Berezan produces clean, sustainable, delicious shrimp in a fully controlled environment.

“About 99 per cent of farmed shrimp, globally, are not produced securely,” says Warren Douglas of Berezan Shrimp Company. “The global industry is too unregulated. We don’t focus on the negative, though — our shrimp is grown indoors. We control the water, nutrition and hygiene. The result is a weekly production of organic, biosecure and fully traceable shrimp.”

Some of Berezan Shrimp Company’s customers include Fairmont Hotels, Urban Fare and several local, independent seafood retailers, proving you don’t always have to go high-end to find sustainable and innovative Canadian seafood options.

This past summer, A&W Canada featured a Wild-Caught Cod Burger ($5.99) and Wild-Caught Cod Wrap ($2.99) on its menu as a seasonal item. The cod used was sustainably sourced and certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), deep fried and topped with coleslaw and tartar sauce. Susan Senecal, president and Chief Executive Officer of A&W Canada says the customer response to the sustainable-seafood menu items was amazing.

“We’re proud of the high standards we’ve set for sourcing simple, great-tasting ingredients that are produced with care for both our guests and the environment,” Senecal says. “We looked for a sustainable-seafood program that incorporated equally high standards so we can tell our guests, with confidence, that our fish products support healthy oceans.”

A&W is now the second fast-casual chain in Canada to promote the fact that its fish products are both sustainably sourced and certified by the MSC. Senecal says the company’s environmental policy is among the most progressive in the country.

“A&W is on a journey to reduce its environmental impact,” Senecal explains. “This year, we marked World Oceans Day with the announcement that we would eliminate all plastic straws from all restaurants by the end of this year. We’re proud of our progress, but understand we have more to do.”

From the perspective of the MSC, A&W is incredibly influential in its ability to drive broad awareness and support for sustainable wild fisheries. Jay Lugar, program director of MSC Canada, says the company’s strong stance on environmental sustainability made it a natural fit for the MSC’s symbol of sustainability, known as the MSC Blue-fish Label.

The MSC has a presence in Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto, where Lugar and his team work with fisheries, processing plants, distributors, retailers and restaurants to help promote a higher standard for sustainability.

“As a global society, we’ve managed to deplete many wild fish stocks on a world-wide scale,” Lugar explains. “The MSC was started 20 years ago to develop a fishery standard — best practices on how to operate and manage a fishery with NGO’s and businesses working together.”

According to recent MSC data, 72 per cent of seafood consumers believe that, in order to save our oceans, shoppers should only consume sustainably sourced seafood, with an additional 72 per cent believing there is a need for all sustainability claims to be independently verified.

The MSC has become recognized by consumers in Canada and around the world with fisheries in 40 different countries currently engaged in its certification program. To obtain certification with the MSC can be costly to the fishery, but for the most part — especially in Canada, where two thirds of the wild fish is certified — the fisheries feel this certification process is worthwhile and better for business in the long run.

Bill DiMento, VP of Sustainability for High Liner Culinary, agrees. He says each of the many organizations in Canada and around the world play equally important roles in sustaining ocean stocks, which is part of the reason why High Liner works closely with the MSC, as well as Ocean Wise and Seafood Watch, to ensure its products have been caught or farmed in a sustainable manner.

“Social responsibility is just as important to our brands as food safety, quality and profitability,” he says. “Lessons learned from the past are key to understanding the best practices for fishery and aquaculture-management programs and governance must be based on sound science.”

While “sound science” might be hard for a lot of consumers to understand, High Liner strongly believes continuing to educate both foodservice providers and consumers on sustainability is key to future healthy waterways.

“Understanding why it’s so important to have sustainable resources is the first step in making smart decisions that will have a positive impact on future generations,” DiMento explains. “[When it comes to sustainable seafood], education is the most important tool in any toolbox — it’s overlooked by many foodservice businesses.”

Written by Janine Kennedy

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