On the Watch
How can consumers make the best choice for fish that is healthy for their families and good for us all? The “sustainable” definition can be confusing, like many other well-intentioned labels. Our best advice with livestock and vegetables is always to “ask your farmer.” So we’ve gone straight to the source to find out what you can do to make good choices about seafood.
Seafood Watch: What does it mean?
One of the best resources for consumers comes out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is called Seafood Watch. Seafood Watch assesses impacts on marine and freshwater ecosystems of fisheries (wild-caught) and aquaculture (farming) operations to make their recommendations which are updated regularly. Their “Best Choices” in seafood list includes varieties that are best for individuals and our oceans. These fish are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter and sign-up for their e-news. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium website, as well, to access these user-friendly tools.
1. Seafood Watch App. This free app offers up-to-date recommendations with detailed seafood information which enables you to search for seafood quickly and easily by its common market name. Included is a sushi guide and you can view locations of nearby restaurants and businesses that serve ocean-friendly seafood.
2. A printable Seafood Watch Guide designed to fit readily into your wallet.
Seafood Watch Certification: How Restaurants Make a Difference
For dining out, look for the Seafood Watch Certification. Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, one of Pittsburgh’s premier restaurants located on Mount Washington, holds a Seafood Watch Certification. Chef Eric Wallace shares the reasoning behind their commitment to quality and sustainability. For them, it begins with a trusted supplier and an ongoing responsibility on their part to stay educated.
Wallace says that they primarily work with accredited vendors with whom they have cultivated a trusting relationship. One example is Samuels and Son’s Seafood, whom Wallace calls “true stewards” of the industry. He says that “they recognize that we are dealing with species that are not finite.” They appreciate and follow the issued guidelines as set forth by the governing agencies. They have a fantastic team of buyers that have relationships with teams of fishermen all over the world and an exemplary sales staff that is constantly educated about the ever changing seasonality of each species that they sell to the consumer.
Secondly, Wallace says that Monterey Bay Fish Grotto strives to fall within the acceptable categories that are provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium-Seafood Watch guidelines when they design their menu. They try to give people not only what they want, but viable alternatives that add to the continuance and overall health of the oceans. And they have been doing this for nearly 20 years. They have a healthy symbiotic relationship with their suppliers. They ask them questions about where their products are from, how the health of the stocks and supplies they are pulling from are and how they can be responsible consumers while still ensuring that these species will be around for continuing generations to enjoy. Wallace says, “We challenge ourselves daily to do and be better for ourselves and our guests not only as industry professionals-but as a corporate citizen of the world.”
Good Suppliers Pave the Way
The suppliers are the gatekeepers for the restaurants and for many consumers. Their vigilance in ensuring standards makes it much more viable for the average consumer to make good choices. Joe Lasprogata, VP of New Product Development, from Samuels and Son’s Seafood Company shares some of his insights to a rather daunting undertaking when it comes to evaluating sustainable fish production:
For starters, he notes that the definition of sustainable seafood is a very complicated topic and requires some research on the part of the consumer. They have to learn more about different fisheries around the world. The backbone of the whole concept is to understand where the fish is from and how it’s captured. There are a whole host of companies that offer varying standards. His company’s hope is that the vigilance of a few will continue to drive up standards that will have an effect on many people.
Part of the problem, Lasprogata notes, is partial information that can be gleaned from the internet without a full understanding of the issue. In addition, there is the sensationalism of that information. And not all sources are created equally. One organization may discredit a certain type of fishing, for example, because they have a conflict of interest and want to promote an industry represented on their board. He feels that, of course, it is great to take a stance on an issue, but it’s important to have the facts behind that stance.
Another problem, from his observation, is the enforcement of the standards placed on fisheries. How do you monitor this? If a fishery is harvesting hundreds of miles from the nearest land mass, who is there to ensure good practices? However, there are good organizations out there, so better monitoring is slowly becoming a reality. And there is legislation in the United States that will hopefully catch on to other countries and eventually become worldwide policy.
Farm-raised fish are easier to monitor for obvious reasons. For awhile, there was the misconception that farm-raised fish are somehow inferior to wild-caught fish. And Lasprogata would ask people who believed this if they only ate “wild caught” pork? Or if they only ate wild vegetables instead of ones grown on a farm? If we ate wild animals like giraffe, he asserts, then people would be outraged, and yet, we cannot see why this concept doesn’t apply to fish. Simply put, he says, “With 8 billion people in the world, it is a ridiculous expectation to only eat wild-caught fish.”
Lasprogata asserts that it is just important that people know where every bit of their food comes from whether farm-raised or wild. They should also understand the impact on economies of the population catching their fish. Is there slave or child labor? Are fisheries being paid properly? All of these issues factor into sustainable fishing. Lasprogata would, at least, plead with people to have some kind of working knowledge of the issues if they want to be a part of the conversation.
And he shared that there are many resources that can help the average consumer. One that is very user-friendly, fairly objective and has excellent information is the National Marine Fisheries Service. They help to monitor domestic fisheries within 200 miles of our coastline, and he feels that they deserve more credit. Anyone can utilize their tools to search a particular fish and they will provide you a profile to evaluate that fish.
Above all else, Lasprogata would recommend the most practical tool is finding that local retailer or fish market you can trust. He said, “You are looking for someone who not only understands the complexities of the market, but your personal tastes. You should be able to ask them relevant questions and feel empowered by their answers.”
As more people become educated and demand sustainable fish, it will increase the demand and therefore bolster the agencies who are trying to do, not only what is best for the health of individuals, but for the species biomass.
As distributors, Samuels Seafood is sourcing a worldwide product, so they look to agencies like the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. These agencies have created standards and the fisheries have to be certified to meet those standards. Then they have a certified third party who will audit the fisheries.
As a part of that chain of custody, as suppliers, they have to be a certified distributor and we sell to certified restaurants. There is documentation that follows from the restaurant to the user. However, with any documentation, there is a related expense. Some restaurants or fisheries may be using good practices without the added expense of documentation naturally. And fish is no longer the poor man’s fare. It is already expensive. There are even labels that suppliers cannot use due to copyright infringement, but Samuels Seafoods has a reputation as a trusted source. Why? Lasprogata says, “Because we do our homework and that is what we recommend to the average consumer.”
Wholey’s Market, a Pittsburgh Strip District staple, weighs in to share the resources that they offer to our particular area as a retailer. With over 100 years of experience in fish sales, Wholey’s has learned the best sources for fresh and sustainable fish. And they keep up with a changing industry. Some of their fish cutters have over 40 years experience, and they are more than happy to advise customers and answer questions.
Travis Whitco, a representative of the company, shares that they are proud to work with reputable agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council. Their label represents a great deal of vigilance on behalf of the consumer and the species biomass. Not only does the label represent less of a carbon footprint, but more sustainable fishing practices.
Dragnets, which were once common, would catch all manner of sea life in addition to the intended target. So fisheries are monitored to utilize long line practices—say for swordfish—which target the intended fish and not all others. So that label will help the average consumer to make more sustainable choices.
Whitco said that there are also ways that agencies will monitor the inventory of fish. In Alaska, they will use electronic counters at the bottom of the rivers during salmon runs to assess the population. From there, they will set quotas and enforce those quotas. Aquaculture has also become much more sustainable in certain parts of the world.
Whitco recommends utilizing the expertise of Wholey’s staff: “There are two questions that our customers should be asking. Number one is what is the country of origin? And number two is what is a simple way that I can prepare this that everyone will enjoy?” They want to help people overcome any apprehension about serving fish safely. With over 100 years of business, Wholey’s Market boasts unparalleled customer service.
“If you are pregnant and walk up to our counter,” Whitco shares, “Our fish cutters will steer you away from fish we know to be high in mercury.” And if you have heart issues, you can ask them for recommendations on the best fatty fish rich in Omega 3 acids to promote heart health. They are happy to answer your questions and to advise you.
Many of these resources work wherever you live. Just as you find that local farmer you can trust, you can do exactly the same for your seafood. Many people are becoming aware of the health benefits of incorporating fish into their diet, and if we all do this in a sustainable fashion, it will make a huge impact.