Reporter's Notebook: 'Sustainably raised' seafood?

February 3, 2010 6:00:42 PM PST
One of the things you'll notice on local menus lately - along with the words "local" and "organic" - is "sustainable." It can be used to reference produce, but also seafood. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed the menu at Prasino, in La Grange, makes special mention of their "sustainably raised" seafood. What the hell does that mean?I'm in Paris to find out. More precisely, I'm attending the annual Seafood Summit here, a three-day seafood geek-fest that brings together the world's leading authorities from the seafood industry and the conservation community, and then attempts to bridge the gap between the latest science and the reality of the marketplace. It's a Trekkie convention for seafood junkies, the kind of place wigged-out fans would beg David Pasternak for an autograph.

As I've been gathering, "sustainability" has several meanings, and, like our sometimes haphazard definition of what is truly "organic," the term can mean different things if you ask a social anthropologist who researches small-scale fisheries in Spain, versus a research director from Norway.

"The North Sea is somewhat in trouble, and the stock is decreasing," said Dr. Reidar Toresen, the Research Director at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway. "In the 1960s, nylon nets contributed to the collapse of the herring population. It was almost wiped out. But the fisherman learned a lesson. They started doing proper assessments; managers learned to establish criteria to help bring the population back."

Today, those Norwegian fishermen are running a sustainable fishery ? harvesting cod, haddock and Norwegian Spring-spawning herring ? by implementing a number of controls:

  • they have a harvest control rule
  • there is an analytical assessment in place
  • there is a minimum size to the fish they catch
  • they manage the mortality rate of fish they catch
  • Toreson says there are three primary ways governments can work toward sustainable fisheries (like the one in the Northeast Atlantic):

  • have a knowledge of the ecosystem and its resources
  • put a management system in place, including enforcement and control
  • be sure politicians have the ability and the will to manage the fisheries
  • Sustainability isn't just about managing the catch. It's also about providing a safe environment for well-trained employees, limiting energy usage and reducing emissions, as well as being equipped to be able to track the fish from the water to the plate.

    One of the most obvious questions is how do you know what's o.k. to eat? A couple of years ago, we heard that Chilean Sea Bass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) was off limits, thanks to a "take a pass on sea bass" campaign. More recently, bluefin tuna has been on the Do Not Eat list. High demand by sushi fans have severely-depleted the supply. Greenpeace's Paul Johnston says there are a couple of reliable sources, if you're really interested in ordering fish from sustainable sources that are not on any watch lists:

    The Monterey Aquarium
    The Marine Stewardship Council

    Charlie "Not"ter at 33,000 ft.
    On a side note: I got bumped up to Business Class on the flight over to Paris, which gave me a chance to sample some Trotter "approved" food. The bottom of the menu has the familiar "T" logo, and says this item was "designed especially for United Airlines by Charlie Trotter." He's currently putting his name on a few dishes in both Business and First Class, and my only choice for dinner included his "mustard thyme scented chicken, with warm horseradish potato salad." Now don't get me wrong, I realize that these chefs consult with the airline's commissary, give them a few suggestions and maybe spend a day or two working on recipes, but it's basically a branding exercise (as well as a cashed check), and like eating in the Vegas outpost of any "celeb" chef, I certainly don't expect them to actually cook the food they serve on the plane. I also realize the severe limitations of reheating food in a galley kitchen the size of a New York City closet. But seriously, putting your four-star name on a product as dry, bland and uninspired as my weak, rectangular entrée, is akin to asking Meryl Streep to fill-in for Paris Hilton's latest B movie, and do the performance via Skype. It was more like "dry chicken breast, draped in cloying, grainy mustard sauce, accompanied by undercooked red potato wedges scattered with random green beans" (not even haricot vert, mind you). Why bother? Why tarnish the brand? I mean, assume I'm a well-heeled venture capitalist or internet start-up millionaire who doesn't blink at spending the extra $3,000 to fly Business Class, and I'm not from Chicago but I've heard of this Trotter guy. This is my first exposure to his food, and now I'm supposed to make a reservation there the next time I'm in town? With this kind of introduction, I'm probably more likely to drop $300 at Alinea.

    Seafood Summit: Day 2

    Now I see why Target pulled the plug on farmed-raised salmon. It's not that all of the salmon raised in open net pens is bad ? although there has been evidence here showing that there are plenty of issues with farm-raised fish. It's the fact that fisheries like those in Chile have been decimated over the past decade, as more and more salmon are succumbing to a pair of diseases, in essence, wiping out the farm-raised population and forcing the Norwegian multi-nationals to move their nets further South, toward Patagonia.

    The Chilean salmon industry was a darling at one time. It grew exponentially, and like our mortgage-backed security problem, there was little oversight, high demand, and plenty of people willing to overlook problems as long as the money rolled in and the jobs were plentiful. According to one Chilean official, business has since dropped by 50%, and one of the main reasons is an incurable disease called Infectious Salmon Anemia, or ISA. It seems that the Chilean farm-raised salmon were particularly susceptible to this disease, as well as something called "sea lice," which would attack the farm-raised salmon. Chemicals can treat sea lice, but some fish are now becoming immune to it.

    "We have our problems, we have issues we're trying to solve," said Peter Arnesen, a representative from Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company profiled in a startling documentary shown here called "Farmed Salmon Exposed," which shows the effects of farm-raising salmon in the pristine waters of Chile. Arnesen says his company actually reported the ISA problem three years ago, and has since taken an active role in trying to address the problem.

    Like other farm-raised operations, the problems are always the same: live fish (typically anchovies and other smaller creatures) must be caught and ground-up into fishmeal to feed the salmon. If chemicals or fish oils are added, that waste winds up wreaking havoc on the sea floor below the net pens; another problem arises when the surrounding wild population gets too close to the farm-raised fish, giving sea lice and ISA a chance to spread among the greater population.

    So now I'm thinking, o.k. so wild fish is probably the best way to go, at least when it comes to buying a sustainably-raised product. But then someone shoves a flyer in my hands, telling me that the wild sockeye salmon from Canada's Fraser River has been endangered for years, and that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ? the primary 3rd party certification for wild-caught fish in the world ? is planning to certify the fishery there as sustainable anyway. Why are these activists speaking out? Because just this past summer, only a million of the predicted 10 million sockeye made their way back up river to spawn. It was the third year in a row of record low returns.

    You can see where this is headed. At almost every turn here ? in hallways and meeting rooms and lecterns ? this vocal, passionate group of business, science and environmental leaders are raising their concerns, sharing their experience and trying to win over support for their side of the story. On one hand, the Sustainability Expert at the Shedd Aquarium tells me the "Right Bite" program (along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium guide) is the perfect tool for consumers, telling them which species are endangered and which are not. The next minute, John Connelly from the National Fisheries Institute is saying he doesn't like rating cards because they lack transparency on how decisions are made, and claims there is a total lack of review and rebuttal.

    Connelly told a large group here that 75% of U.S. fish products come from just 6 species. The largest are shrimp, salmon and tilapia (all of them farmed and imported). So the next question becomes traceability and transparency.

    How do you know where your fish is coming from?

    As consumers continue to ask questions of their fishmongers and waiters, the industry is slowly moving toward greater transparency. One of the catchphrases I heard was Trapia ? Traceable tilapia. Some distributors are now doing DNA tracking as they focus on an "egg to plate" approach. Considering zander is often substituted for walleye, and Falkland Island Toothfish is often referred to as Chilean Sea Bass, you can see why some advocates would like to know exactly where their fish is coming from.

    One of the really interesting speakers was Tim Wilson, who runs a company called Historic Futures. His business specializes in tracing products to their source. Ever wonder where that diamond pendant at Wal-Mart came from?

    They can trace it back every step of the chain, to a company that does the diamond mining in Africa.

    "Improved transparency generates brand trust and loyalty," said Wilson. "There is a level of cynicism today; most consumers don't believe what they're told, especially if it means it's going to cost more."

    Then I bumped into Mark Palicki, a former seafood buyer for Shaw's Crab House, and the current Vice President of Marketing at Fortune Fish, a local distributor.

    "Our buyers work closely with the fisherman, " he said. "We travel, visit the farms, or use guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is another good source. We pull from everything we can find to figure it out. We don't tell people what not to eat. We celebrate who is doing a good job and market and promote those things," said Palicki.

    I'm still not convinced farm-raised salmon is all that good for the environment. What I have learned here is that we, as consumers ? and food professionals ? need to be diligent and continue asking questions about the sources of our food. If we keep asking the right questions, drilling down to the source, hopefully the industry will begin to take a harder look at what it's doing. Who knew that shopping for fish could be so political?