Sourcing Seafood Responsibly
‘Seasonal food’ most often makes people think of produce, but recently a focus has been put on seasonal seafood and the impact that ignoring seafood seasonality can have on the environment. This focus on seafood sustainability is not relegated to chefs and foodservice professionals alone. More than 50 percent of American consumers claim that purchasing sustainable seafood is important to them, and they are even willing to pay more to ensure they are consuming responsibly sourced seafood.
Breaking the Bad Habits
Earth’s oceans are so unfathomably large that it’s hard to imagine that we could fish enough to make a huge impact on them. However, as human population increased and the demand for fish grew, the fishing industry responded with fishing methods that have wreaked havoc on the oceans, with 5 percent of all known fish species currently at risk for extinction. Enormous nets and long, heavily baited fishing lines result in large catches, but often also draw in unwanted sea life. These are called ‘bycatch’ and may consist of dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, or various fish species that are inedible or don’t sell well. These creatures rarely survive their encounters with a net or line, and those encounters are far from rare – more than 42 million pounds of bycatch are discarded every day.
Bottom trawling is another major problem. This fishing method involves dragging a net along the bottom of the ocean and just scooping up everything in its path. As you can likely imagine, this destroys the ocean floor, including the coral reefs that are being wiped out at an alarming rate. While many countries have put regulatory measures in place to help protect the ocean’s ecosystem, this has merely resulted in an illegal fishing industry that takes in 11 million to 26 million tons of seafood each year. Illegal fishing can mean taking more fish than allowed, not releasing juvenile fish, or fishing in banned areas such as marine reserves.
As consumers become more aware of these issues, the demand for sustainably sourced fish has increased. As a restaurant owner, you are in a position to find seafood that has been responsibly sourced, which you can then advertise to your customers.
Since fish are always present in the ocean, why does what time of year they are caught matter? As it turns out, when fish are captured can have a huge impact on that breed’s population stability. Fish should never be removed during their mating or spawning seasons, nor should they ever be caught before they have reached maturity and had a chance to mate and spawn. Preventing fish from producing young sends that breed’s population on a downward spiral that can be hard to break. Many fish, such as salmon, also migrate to specific areas in order to breed, and should never be captured during that migration, making where your seafood is sourced almost as important as when.
While ‘wild caught’ is always an enticing phrase to see on a menu, some restaurants turn to sourcing their seafood from farms to ensure year-round availability. However, fisheries can be almost as damaging to the environment as poor fishing practices, with some using an excess of antibiotics or flushing contaminated waste water into the ocean. If you wish to source your seafood from a fishery, look for one that is certified as environmentally friendly by an organization such as the Marine Stewardship Council.
Find Your Fish
How can you make sure the seafood you’re offering is sustainably sourced and in season? Below are a few questions to ask your seafood provider.
- What species is it? Be sure you know exactly what species of fish you are serving at all times. This allows you to check seafood seasons charts to verify that the species is in season. It is also important to note that due to past overfishing or dangerous farming practices, some species of fish are best avoided year-round. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch Guide that can help you determine which types of seafood to choose, with ‘Best Choices,’ ‘Good Alternatives,’ and ‘Avoid’ lists.
- Where is it from? Buying local can be difficult if you are not located near a coast, but knowing where your fish is from can help you ensure it is in season in that area. If you are buying seafood from overseas, you can check to be sure that the country of origin has strong environmental regulations to help prevent endangered bycatch.
- How was it caught or farmed? Your supplier should be able to follow the seafood straight back to the source, so you can be assured that it was caught or farmed with sustainable practices. Being able to track your seafood back to its original source also ensures it was caught legally, preventing your restaurant from contributing to the illegal fishing industry.
It is important to be flexible as you work toward offering sustainable seafood. As different species cycle in and out of season, you will need to adjust your menu accordingly. If your current seafood supplier is not helpful in your quest to source your seafood responsibly, you may need to find a more helpful provider, such as these Seafood Watch collaborators, which are able to make environmentally responsible recommendations.
Sourcing your restaurant’s seafood responsibly by using seafood that is in season and responsibly farmed or caught is a great selling point to many customers. You should note in your advertising and on your menu that you are dedicated to sustainable seafood practices.