About a year ago, I made the decision to purchase and eat only eco-friendly seafood. Since I began cooking professionally, I had become increasingly aware of the acute issues such as overfishing and habitat damage that surround our seafood supply. Some of the types of fish we most commonly find on our plates make their way there through the most troubling background stories. At our Manhattan restaurants Fedora and Bar Sardine, we are lucky to have the knowledge and resources to do better. Every day, I dig through that thick layer of snow-like ice that lines our fish delivery box, hoping that I'll be pulling out a beauty by the gills.
From there, I get to play with it for a few hours, creating a little culinary story on the plate with sustainability weaving through the narrative. Thankfully, we have a team of skilled chefs and cooks and a group of thoughtful diners who allow us to get creative. And when we cook with lesser-known species as an alternative to the most overfished and ecologically damaging options, we are hopefully turning some guests on to something new with an ancillary (if hidden) benefit of helping them to eat more sustainably.
We're all looking for convenient, affordable, and healthy ways to feed ourselves, and in this country (as well as many others) we are increasingly choosing that new sushi joint over a sandwich or burger. Upgrades to typical casual food means your lunch might be a salmon avocado roll, Hawaiian-style poke, or a rice bowl with grilled shrimp. But this mindful move towards seafood—while well-intentioned—can have huge negative ramifications for the environment.
Salmon, tuna, and shrimp have accounted for over half of the seafood consumed in the US for over a decade. This acceptance of the same streams of fish and the lack of diversity in our seafood consumption leads to an unsettling truth: We are basic bitches when it comes to eating seafood. A pumpkin-spice latte in the left hand and a spicy tuna roll in the right. If we want to reverse current trends that have nine out of ten fisheries being fished at or above their sustainable limits, and experts predicting a total collapse of marine biodiversity in the next 35 years, we need to be willing to make changes to our daily diet and the ordering habits of both restaurants and diners. Becoming more knowledgeable about the hazards of our reliance on the "Big Three" seafood varieties is a good place to start.
Most of the salmon Americans consume is farm-raised, and salmon farms are typically plagued with issues. There are a small handful of farms that raise salmon in an environmentally friendly way, but most have issues around chemical use, fish feed, pen breakouts, and disease outbreaks. Wild Alaskan salmon species—like Sockeye, Coho, and King—are good ways to go. Restaurants and grocery stores that carry these types of fish are like your buddy who decided to go gluten-free; you're going to hear about it, often ad nauseam, whether you care or not. But when a menu or label lists just "salmon," or even Atlantic salmon, opt for something greener. At our restaurants, we celebrate the unheralded Arctic char, a versatile and flavorful cousin of the salmon that is farmed with minimal environmental impact.
Unlike most of our salmon supply, tuna are caught in the wild. Most species of tuna are either overfished or fished using a method that catches other species like endangered sea turtles and whales. This latter issue of bycatch, the incidental catch of unwanted species, affects canned tuna fisheries as well. Limiting your yellowfin and bigeye tuna intake is also a wise health decision, given the increased mercury levels in these predator species. Your best bet is to stick with pole- and line-caught tuna or brands that carry the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification label. The critically endangered Bluefin tuna, despite its ubiquity at sushi restaurants across the country, is akin to eating a panda bear and should be avoided entirely. If more of us could make a shift in our tuna purchasing patterns, it would take pressure off the threatened tuna stocks and allow for them to rebound with time.
Shrimp is our most popular type of seafood in the US, and 90 percent of it comes from abroad. Shrimp farms are connected to myriad environmental issues, from pollution due to chemical and farm waste to concerns about disease outbreaks. There are a small number of farms that raise shrimp in an eco-friendly manner, with wild-caught American shrimp coming from outside of the Gulf (which we use at the restaurants) being another suitable option. The overwhelming majority of what is out there is imported shrimp, another unequivocal "skip."
Unless you see it swimming around in a tank in the restaurant, it's not easy to know what you're getting when you order seafood. That's why it's crucial for us all to get used to asking more questions. Simply asking whether a fish is sustainable is a good start, since at the very least it helps establish that you care and are looking to learn more. At the restaurants, I'm always following up with questions like, Where is it from? How was it caught or farmed? And, to avoid being duped by clever marketing names, I'll even ask what's the Latin name? I want to be sure that the fish I'm pulling out of the box the next day is one I can feel good about serving.
Making this commitment requires research and ongoing communication. For a restaurant, that means texts and calls to fish purveyors for details. Sometimes we need to pull a fish off our menu as its sustainability rating changes.
We also rely on the carefully researched Seafood Watch program, created by the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. They offer resources to help the general public as well, including a Seafood Watch app and consumer guides for each state. It's time to apply the same awareness we have cultivated for other areas of our food system towards the seafood on our plate. It's not easy to navigate the waters, but I want to know the fish's story before it becomes part of my own. After all, I like a happy ending.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.