Restaurants can help educate diners about sustainable seafood

Second of two parts.

Restaurant chefs have tremendous power to influence consumer demand for new ingredients or preparations. Calamari, California rolls and tuna tartare started as innovative offerings that chefs had to talk customers into trying. Today, they're so popular they're often considered culinary cliches.

But when it comes to seafood, popularity has more serious consequences than bored diners.

Consumer demand drives markets and bears partial responsibility for the overfishing of hundreds of species, some to near extinction.

Henry Dewey, co-founder of Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District, interacts with customers both as a retail fish outlet and a popular spot for sushi and other seafood dishes. He has a lot of older customers who come in looking for "big, thick cod fillets," which come from types of the fish that practically disappeared from the oceans in the 1990s. "That's probably because [that cod] was so delicious, too," Mr. Dewey said.

He's not certain that consumer interest in sustainable fish -- the type that is abundant, well-managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways -- has grown.

"Maybe one in 200 people will have a Seafood Watch flier," he said. If there's no wild salmon, a number of people will settle for Scottish farmed salmon, even if they know it's less sustainable.

Margie Marks, curator of conservation education at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, hopes that as more people learn about the effects of overfishing, that will change. As a partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they give out tens of thousands of its Seafood Watch guides to zoo visitors a year, and the Sound Seafood exhibit, built to look like a fish counter, encourages people to buy "best choice" and "good alternative" types of seafood at the grocery store and at restaurants.

Ms. Marks also believes that chefs can play a positive role in creating a demand for sustainable seafood by educating customers and creating delicious dishes from more sustainable options.

Last October, she organized a wild salmon cook-off to celebrate Sustainable Seafood Month. Chefs from Big Burrito, Six Penn Kitchen, Whole Foods and the zoo's own A Taste of the Wild Catering each prepared a dish using wild Alaskan salmon, and participants tasted the dishes and voted on their favorite.

She found one local partner in the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group. Eat'n Park restaurants no longer use farmed salmon, while Six Penn Kitchen has agreed to make sure 90 percent of its seafood purchases are rated as "best choice" or "good alternatives" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which provides a consumer's guide to sustainable seafood.

Six Penn also makes these Seafood Watch sustainability guides available to customers. "They're gone every month," said executive chef Keith Fuller, who believes that there is a growing interest in sustainable seafood.

Mr. Fuller finds the program easy to follow, although occasionally it requires some creative substitutions. He'd planned to use monkfish liver in a dish he was creating for a special dinner, but he realized monkfish is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "avoid" list. Instead, he made a pate from chicken liver and fish stock and used it on a Vietnamese hoagie with crabmeat and pickled vegetables.

It's one thing for restaurants with just a few seafood options to focus on a few of the best dishes, but what about Pittsburgh's seafood-focused restaurants that want to offer guests more than a dozen varieties every day of the week? Local restaurants with fresh catch menus or boards now typically provide the origin of the fish, making it easier for interested consumers to select more sustainable items.

At Monterey Bay Fish Grotto on Mount Washington, recent menus have included striped bass from the Atlantic, sablefish from Alaska and farmed rainbow trout from Idaho -- all "best choice" options. But the menu also included Chilean sea bass, grouper from Florida and hiramasa from Australia, which are all on the "avoid" list.

A dozen other types of available seafood weren't so easily looked up in a Seafood Watch guide. The sustainability of fish depends as much on how it was caught or raised as it does on the type of fish. Even restaurants that want to have this information available to their customers can find it very difficult to acquire.

Mr. Dewey of Penn Avenue Fish Co. is often frustrated by how much investigation it takes to figure out which fish are sustainable.

After a number of customers asked about the sustainability of swordfish, he looked into the issue. First, he discovered the fishing methods used to catch most swordfish can result in a high rate of bycatch, the unintended capture and death of many other species of fish and sea animals. But he also learned that in the United States, strict laws minimize bycatch, which earns U.S. longline swordfish (the most common method) a good alternative rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"With a lot of species, it depends on how you source them," explained executive chef Sean Davies at the Original Fish Market, Downtown, so he asks suppliers a lot of questions to find out where the fish are from and how they were caught or farmed. The volume of seafood restaurants sell allows them to put significant pressure on suppliers to get them the answers they need.

Last year, a note was added near the top of the menu, explaining that "At The Original Fish Market, the sustainablility of the world's seafood supply is a great concern. With increased consumer awareness and an increase in seafood consumption worldwide, the demand for aquaculture and sustainable wild sources has increased in recent years. Items marked with an asterisk represent our most sustainable options."

Currently, bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass are among some fish that the Fish Market will not serve. "People were clamoring when we took Chilean sea bass off the menu, but we stuck with it, and there's not much of an issue anymore," Mr. Davies said.

Few local restaurants, however, go to these lengths. At McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, which has two locations in Pittsburgh and more than 75 nationwide, organic and sustainable selections on the wine list are marked with an Earth symbol. Yet no such system is in place for its seafood-heavy menu.

The menu does include a number of sustainable choices, such as mussels, oysters, Idaho rainbow trout, scallops and North Carolina catfish. But the crowded layout made finding these options a chore.

For restaurants that don't have the buying power of the Original Fish Market (or McCormick and Schmick's), working with sustainability-focused suppliers is another option. Sea to Table, based in New York, works to connect sustainably managed fisheries in Alaska, the Tobago island area in the Caribbean and the southern United States directly with hundreds of restaurants across the United States that are willing to pay a premium for this type of fish.

"We partner with [the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium] and work with marine biologists as advisers to know which fish stocks we should sell," explained co-founder Sean Dimin. "We keep a clear line of information and traceability. We know exactly where the fish came from, how it was caught, and even who caught it, and we can pass that assurance on to our customers."

Mr. Dimin believes working with chefs is one of the most effective ways to increase the market for sustainable seafood. "Chefs are the gatekeepers to food and the majority of seafood is eaten out at restaurants," he explained, "so the chef is the one that will, if not dictate, heavily influence what diners eat and learn about."

Sea to Table regularly supplies seafood to Legume Bistro in Regent Square and also has worked with Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Shadyside. A recent menu at Toast was dominated by "best choice" seafood, including arctic char and wild striped bass.

Of course, restaurants rely on customers to buy what they offer, so customers ultimately control what kind of seafood (and other items) are on the menu.

Ms. Marks of the Pittsburgh Zoo encourages people to ask questions and bring their seafood guides to the restaurant. And, of course, if diners don't like the options, they can choose a meat or vegetarian dish or take their business to a different restaurant.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow China on Twitter at . First Published February 18, 2010 5:00 AM


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