Appreciate Those Bottom Feeders for More Sustainable Fisheries

paella.jpgWe don’t eat lions, tigers or bears for protein, so we shouldn’t eat shark, tuna or swordfish either. We need to be eating further down the ocean food chain if we want an ocean food chain from which to eat in the future.
Those are statements from Paul Johnson made on a panel during Changemaker’s Day at Slow Food Nation this weekend in San Francisco, CA. The panelists and audience were interested in how fishers, distributors, and chefs could work together to ensure the viability of the oceans upon which their livelihoods depend.

Besides encouraging eating more “bottom feeders, ” who reproduce more quickly, Johnson (owner of Monterey Fish in San Francisco) made even stronger statements regarding the importance of supporting small boat fishers, even ones that might use trawlers, over industrial, large scale fishing if we want clean fish choices in the future. He thinks the small boat fishing industry, and communities which they support, may be in more danger than the fish populations. Treehugger just this week also discussed how small boat fishing likely has a much lower impact on climate change than industrial fishing.
Beyond not bringing entire breeds of fish to extinction, nor impacting climate change more then we already are Johnson pointed out that from a purely protein efficiency perspective feeding people extensively on the larger fish is just foolish. It takes about 20 kgs of the feeder fish to produce just 1 kg of the large fish.
Shrimp and salmon are two other fish with significant issues in the way they are raised and which sustainability-conscious chefs are hard pressed to know which to serve. Joe McGarry works with Bon Appetit Management Co and was on the panel representing the food service end of the conversation. He decided to just stop serving shrimp all together. They tried Oregon pink shrimp, the only shrimp variety on the best choice list from Monterey Bay Aquariums’ Seafood Watch, but customers did not like it, so they have not served any shrimp at all in their cafeterias and have had no complaints.
However, restaurants say there is a demand for swordfish, blue fin tuna and salmon which they must satisfy. McGarry believes food providers can redirect the customer demand by simply offering other food choices as he did. A few chefs in the audience pushed back saying they had had some customers leave their restaurant when they saw seafood choices such as calamari or clams but no salmon. The transitional, educational response? Pair those popular fish with other smaller fish in the same dish so you are using less of the big fish, helping people taste and appreciate the lesser known fish, and supporting the fishers who are trying to make a living with those lower-valued fish.
Personally, I find it hard to believe people are so wedded to only eating certain types of food they would leave a restaurant if they didn’t have them (I am sure there is always a chicken or beef option to satisfy!). And I’d appreciate someone helping me figure out what is ok and what is not to eat and even trying something new. But what do you think? Should restaurants serve just what they determine is sustainable and consumer preferences be damned? If they do, do they risk losing too much business?

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