The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Seafood Restaurants Turn to Underutilized, Sustainable Species

The rising trend of “trash fish,” or unusual and underutilized seafood species, on fine dining menus in New York City was discussed last week in The New York Times by Jeff Gordinier. The idea is to, “substitute salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices,” with less familiar species that are presumably more abundant, like “dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.”

Changing diners’ perceptions isn’t always easy, especially about seafood, but there is certainly momentum building for more diverse seafood species. Seafood suppliers are reporting record sales of fish like porgy and hake. Chefs feel good about serving these new species because, “industrially harvested tuna, salmon and cod is destroying the environment.” A new organization, Dock-to-Dish, connects restaurants with fishermen that are catching underutilized species and these efforts are highlighted as a catalyst for this growing trash fish trend. From a culinary perspective, this trend allows chefs to sell the story of an unusual and sustainable species, which more compelling than more mainstream species like tuna, salmon or cod. From a sustainability perspective, Gordinier implies that serving a diversity of seafood species is more responsible than the mainstream few that are “industrially caught” and dominate the National Fisheries Institute list of most consumed species in America.

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr

While I applaud the desire to eat underutilized species, it seems as if the chefs interviewed don’t know much about sustainable seafood. Below are a few quotes from the article that give the impression that eating traditional species such as tuna, cod, salmon and shrimp is an environmental crime.

“Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices”

“The chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”

“Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an ecofriendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.”

“A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers in New York and around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction.”

A well educated chef should know that there are plenty of salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod that are healthy, sustainably managed, and either certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list as best choice or good alternative. There is no reason not to eat these species so long as you know where the salmon, shrimp, tuna or cod comes from.

Second, none of these species is in any way threatened with extinction – some individual stocks may be overfished, but no commercially important species has ever gone extinct or even come close to it. We all hear about the poor state of Gulf of Maine cod but perhaps these Chef’s don’t know that the Barents Sea cod stock is at record abundance levels (4 million tons compared to Gulf of Maine’s estimated 2,500 tons). So the global marketplace for Atlantic cod is going to have a million tons of Barents Sea cod, and less than one thousand tons of Gulf of Maine cod.

Alaska produces hundreds of thousands of tons of sustainable wild salmon — that is both MSC certified and on the Seafood Watch best choice list. Why can’t these Chef’s serve that salmon?

So it is fine for these Chef’s to brag about how sustainable they are (even if they do fly fish half way around the world with a large carbon footprint), but they should know, and advise their customers that there is plenty of sustainable salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod to be served.

Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr

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10 Responses

  1. Thank you Ray Hilborn.
    Clearly a case of “…too many cooks spoil the broth”—especially when they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about! Actually, same as some of our eco-NGO friends, they’re looking for some “easy to catch” publicity by further dismantling the relatively defenseless local fishing communities, conflating them with “…industrially harvested” fishing that is “destroying the environment”!

  2. Thanks for the correction Dr. Hilborn. And thanks to fishermen and fishery managers who bring to us a bounty of healthy and sustainable seafood. Not sure who to blame for this gross disservice to lovers of seafood; the ignorant cooks or shameless NGOs creating crisis where none exists. And what happened to the fact checkers at the New York Times?

  3. At last a voice to challenge ignorance. Sensibly. How do we better inform chefs but to shout louder about the positives of safely sourced fish and seafood wild and farmed. Well done Ray. I am sure we can make the truth louder than fiction.

  4. FINALLY, a respected member of the scientific research community speaking out about the ‘agenda’ of ignorance and greed that has all but destroyed the U.S. fisherman.
    Having grown up fishing in New England and having lived and worked (in the marine industry) in the Seattle area, I feel it is especially important to bring a different story about seafood to the epicenter of the popular (and usually very misinformed and radical-‘yuppie?’Eco-culture of the west coast, as well as nationally and internationally.
    I have done my part to help destroy the incessent ignorance and greed that permeates the Rhode Island area. I have done this over the last 30+ years as an outspoken advocate for free and common access for all to the incredible abundance of nutritious local seafood in my area through my http://www.Freeandcommon.com website.
    Thanks again Ray, for your expert voice of reason among the chaos of government and NGO propaganda that has almost completed its mission of destroying the U.S. Fisherman!

  5. I would also like to thank Ray. Would it be feasible and worthwhile to produce a reasonable, scientific rebuttal to these people and submit it to the New York Times and NPR as a group effort?, until we get an audience? The UN or some body of journalists, such as maybe te Columbia Journalism Review? The AIFRB or AFS could be venues, or the Marine Fisheries Section of AFS, if not some people centered out of CFOOD? The latter is a great effort on its own, and excellent. Maybe we could go on the offense a little more.

  6. You raise some important points, but I think you put too much blame on the chefs when it is really the NYT and faulty reporting. I find it ludicrous that they would list a chain like Chaya in this article alongside other chefs who are actually trying to be sustainable and support local fishermen. You’re right that there are sustainable options for tuna, shrimp, etc but few if any would be local for the chefs in Detroit and New York City. The article fails to define what it means by “industrially harvested” but I’m assuming they are attempting to make the distinction between larger seafood operators vs. the day boat fishermen that Dock to Dish and similar companies work with. The author was lazy with the facts as you pointed out, and what could have been an informative article was ruined by mistruths.

    I think it’s interesting this article came out not too long after Paul Greenberg’s Ted Talk on avoiding eating shrimp, tuna, and salmon (Perhaps this is where Goldiner is getting some of his sweeping generalizations?) and I’d be interested to hear your take on that talk.

    Thank you for creating this site. It’s refreshing to get a different perspective.

  7. Until the east coast commercial fishing industry can organize as a whole, I mean from the Texas Mexican border to the Canadian border they will be affected by all type’s of hype. The industry is woefully under represented because of its lack of an organized response to this type of publicity.Right now the shrimp fleet is being hurt beyond belief because of cheap imports and they have no national support.
    Fishermen are notoriously independent ; if they can ever find the right person to bring all of their messages to light, they will not be portrayed as the bad guys in the ocean. This would also make dealing with the NMFS much easier. Lobbyist have the ear of your congressmen and senators and until there is a group effort by fishermen to be represented things will not change.

  8. Hi , I am one of the last commercial trawlers in California. I have been working on trawl gear that reduces by catch and bottom contact. The restaurants around monterey won’t buy my fish . The monterey bay aquarium has three restaurants in it and they were promoting our fish .how ever they won’t serve any in there restaurants. All the certifications in the world won’t get our markets back. The infrastructure is gone . The markets are gone ,no ice houses. We can’t get observers unless I pay for them to drive hundreds of miles.my last one came from oregon with a price tag of a thousand dollars to show up. The best part is that I every place I go talapia is there special of the day. I will never understand educated chefs .

  9. Great article and I feel like this topic doesn’t get enough attention. You brought many great points in your article that really got me thinking for better options and solutions to help over fishing and the protection of endangered species.

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