On Monday, the Boston-based chain Legal Sea Foods hosted a black-listed seafood dinner to protest what CEO Roger Berkowitz has called unfair labeling of seafood as unsustainable. Some five dozen people paid up to $110 to hear Berkowitz’s thoughts on the subject while being served black tiger shrimp, Atlantic cod, and hake - species that are considered unsustainable by many fisheries experts. The event was controversial, but has definitely sparked discourse on the topic.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Berkeley-based Erik Vance didn’t coordinate the publication of his article on sustainable (or not) seafood with Legal’s dinner event in Boston. But the timing is perfect, really. And Vance makes some important points for anyone interested in consuming seafood.
A central player in both stories is the popular Seafood Watch guide published by Monterey Bay Aquarium. Vance writes that the guide has become an important force in the seafood market.
It’s hard to overstate the impact these cards have had on the seafood industry. The aquarium has distributed more than 35 million to date, plus over 300,000 iPhone apps and an untold number downloaded from their website. Its red, yellow, and green indicators have become ubiquitous in seafood parlance, and many industry consultants and certifiers rely on the list for guidance.
Legal Sea Foods’ event was largely a protest of such listings, which CEO Roger Berkowitz contends are often based on outdated science and oversimplify the situation – black-listing entire species rather than distinguishing between regions or types of fishing gear that are more sustainable. For example, Atlantic cod and haddock have been depleted by historical overfishing and are often caught using bottom trawls that are devastating to sea floor ecosystems. But cod and haddock caught in New England’s waters using hook-and-line gear are more sustainable alternatives that help support local fishermen. That was Berkowitz’s reason for including Gulf of Maine cod cheeks on Monday’s menu. For that matter, the current Seafood Watch guide also makes the distinction, awarding Gulf of Maine hook-and-line caught cod it’s middle rating – good alternative.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that finding fish from the sustainable sub-sections of a fishery isn’t easy, even if you know what to look for. Last fall, following the release of Food and Water Watch’s Smart Seafood guide (which subdivides some fisheries and gear types), I went looking for the hook-and-line caught haddock they recommended. Two local fish markets assured me their haddock was hook-and-line caught, fresh off local day boats. But it’s worth bearing in mind that not all small towns have the kind of local seafood industry that we have here on Cape Cod. And the supermarket I frequent was a different story – the guy behind the fish counter couldn’t tell me anything more than what was printed on the tag, namely whether it was wild-caught or farmed and generally where it came from (Chile, North Atlantic, Alaska).
Now, Vance’s extensive research into the Bay area seafood market calls even my local fish mongers into question. He draws on some sustainable seafood die-hards who have gone to extremes to trace the origins of the fish they buy, sell, serve and eat. The unsettling conclusion is that, whether due to intentional deceit or just the loss of information along a chain of buyers and sellers, seafood billed as sustainable may not be what it seems.
“The challenge of tracing fish, particularly imports, has been recognized not just by the government but also by the industry as being a serious problem,” says Richard Gutting, former head of the country’s largest fishery association and a past legal adviser on the subject to Congress. “A consumer at a seafood counter asks, ‘Where does that fish come from?’ And the guy behind the counter tells him. Well, he’s gotta kind of trust that guy.”
Vance’s article is a consumer guide all to itself – extensive, filled with great graphics, highly recommended reading for anyone who eats seafood. It might make vegetarians out of a few.