Operators are growing their fish and seafood revenue sustainably

Variety of Seafood on a platter

By Morag McKenize

Fish and seafood is the primary protein source for more than half the planet’s population, with restaurant goers generally perceiving it as a healthier, lighter option than most meats — a perception that has propelled these menu items to ongoing growth. Canada’s increasingly diverse population, growth in global cuisine, changing attitudes towards meat consumption and its impact on our planet and the rise in the number of people following a pescatarian or lower-carbohydrate diet have each contributed to an increase in fish and seafood consumption. 

Sustainability Primer

Canada is one of the largest fish and seafood producers in the world, exporting more than $8 billion worth of product in 2022. However, overfishing, climate change and illegal and unregulated fishing have threatened hundreds of fish and seafood species and today, more than a third of global fisheries have been fished beyond sustainable limits.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a global non-profit organization that works to end overfishing around the world. Based on a scientifically verified fishery certification program, it works to recognize and reward sustainable fishing practices. 

“Fishing is deemed to be sustainable if it leaves enough fish in the oceans and waterways to minimize its impacts on habitats and ecosystems” says Curtis Haynes, Canadian program director for MSC. “If fish and seafood are sustainably caught and harvested, there will be enough fish in our oceans and lakes to secure a healthy and reliable food source for generations to come. Canada is a real leader in sustainable fishing, with 61 per cent of all fisheries MSC certified.”

MSC’s Canadian Chef Ambassador, Charlotte Langley, has worked with the organization for six years to promote sustainable fish and seafood to both restaurant operators and consumers. Hailing from P.E.I., she is a former executive chef and in 2014 she co-founded Scout Canada, providing both the consumer and restaurant market with a responsible and sustainable canned seafood option. “Sustainability in fish and seafood is a moral imperative in today’s culinary landscape,” she says. “For chefs across Canada, this issue ranks extremely high.”  

Chef Michael Smith, P.E.I. food ambassador, restaurateur, author and co-owner of The Inn at Bay Fortune, is also a very strong advocate for sustainable fish and seafood. “It’s essential for every chef to understand the relationship between the foodservice choices they make and the degrading world around us. There is no other choice than sustainable fish and seafood — full stop.”

However, while most chefs agree that serving sustainable fish and seafood is the right thing to do, not all restaurants across Canada do so.  Chef Ned Bell, another well-known Canadian seafood culinary talent and chef ambassador at Buy BC and Ocean Wise explains, “Over the past 15 years, more and more chefs are aware of where their fish and seafood comes from.  However, with a razor-thin profit margin, many struggle just to keep afloat. At times it can become a battle between quality, sustainability and price as menu items need to be affordable to keep their guests coming in.”

The Guest Perspective

Today’s restaurant guests also have a role to play in promoting sustainable seafood. Smith adds, “Guests also need to be vocal about their expectations and choose restaurants that only serve sustainable seafood.”  

Many leading independent and chain restaurants are listening. Joey’s, Earls and the Cactus Club only serve sustainable fish and seafood, as does IKEA and White Spot Restaurants and many others. Even the fast-food sector is becoming more sustainable with McDonald’s only using MSC-certified seafood.

With four locations, The Whalesbone is an Ottawa-based concept specializing in sustainable oysters, fish and seafood since 2007. “Whalesbone is founded on the principal of serving only sustainable fish and seafood,” says executive chef Michael Radford. “Knowing this is one of the reasons I do what I do.”  

Whalesbone promotes its use of sustainable fish and seafood, featuring this distinction on the sides of its buildings and on its menus. “We have customers coming to us because they know the fish they eat will be sustainable and they can feel good about what they are eating,” says Radford.  

“Today’s consumers are incredibly well informed,” says Langley. “Not only do they demand quality, but they also seek transparency in sourcing.”

Sustainability Matters

A recent survey by MSC (2022) found that seafood consumers tend to be female (52 per cent), over the age of 55 (41 per cent) with a medium to high income (81 per cent). More than 69 per cent of those surveyed feel that by choosing sustainable fish and seafood, they are empowered to positively make a difference in the health of our oceans, a seven- per-cent increase from just two years ago.

“More than 74 per cent of Canadians believe that they should only eat sustainable fish and seafood,” Haynes adds. “This demonstrates to chefs that to maintain their guests’ trust, they should only serve the same.”  

Langley explains, “While regional seafood is a source of local pride, the core issue of sustainability is universal across Canada.”  

Trending Tastes

Most chefs agree, the best way to serve fish is very simply to expose its delicious, yet sometimes delicate, flavour.  However, others are exploring other techniques, including ceviche, poke bowls, fermentation and preserves. 

Fish and seafood are also increasingly being found on charcuterie boards.  

“Via Rail chefs are using our Scout canned seafoods (P.E.I. mussels in a smoked-paprika sauce and lobster with lemon-infused olive oil, $9.99 each) to create unique boards, pressed sandwiches and salads,” says Langley.

The increasing popularity of global cuisines, particularly those from countries near the ocean, has also popularized unique preparation techniques and flavours.  These include Japanese, Mediterranean, Southeast Asian and African influences.  Chefs are also using unique vinegars and spices to add acid flavours.

Seafood to Go

As restaurants pivoted to takeout and delivery during COVID, their fish and seafood menu offerings had to change as quality, texture and taste can be compromised with extended delivery times.

To address this, The Whalesbone shifted its menu to include takeout-friendly items such as lobster mac and cheese and individually frozen, cook-at-home menu items. Radford says while they didn’t change the principal or concept of the menus, “we introduced a takeout dinner for two and developed a new type of breading that stayed crispier during the journey.”  These items have proved to be so popular that they have continued on the menu today.

Know Your Source

Getting to know your fishmonger or supplier helps chefs trust that their traceability and sustainability standards are real and verified.

Wholesale manager for The Whalesbone, Kevin Conway, has seen a great deal of change in the wholesale sustainable fish and seafood market.  “We sell only MSC or Ocean Wise-certified fish and seafood to restaurants and operators. We’re an on-time provider, meaning we take day-of fish orders. More than 99 per cent of our fish is fresh, including all fish and oysters. Most of our chef customers are concerned about traceability, including where/when fish was caught and how it was processed.” 

And while getting to know your fishmonger or supplier will alleviate some of the supply challenges the restaurant industry continues to face, it cannot alleviate all.  “From overfishing to climate change, the challenges are multi-faceted. Technology is aiding in traceability efforts, with blockchain technologies promising end-to-end visibility. Collaborative efforts among chefs, suppliers, and advocacy groups are essential to make a broad impact,” Langley concludes.

Maximizing Revenue

As interest in fish and seafood, particularly from sustainable sources, continues to grow, the focus remains on minimal waste and maximum flavour.  Nose-to-tail fish cooking, which uses every part of the fish is on the rise.  The Whalesbone Bank Street features a whole fish for two served with salsa verde, tartar and slaw (market price).

Growing your fish and seafood revenue includes ensuring your menus and restaurant highlight your sustainability efforts. Training all staff so they understand the importance of sustainable fish and seafood — and then share this with their guests — is equally critical.  Offering sustainable fish and seafood “specials,” particularly when using a lesser-know fish species, gives guests an opportunity to try new choices.  However, full transparency in sourcing will be the key to providing guests with the comfort of knowing their menu choices really do matter — today and into the future.

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