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Look around, and you’re likely to find "sustainable" seafood just about everywhere.
Whole Foods carries it. So does Outpost. Pick’n Save, Sentry, Piggly Wiggly… Even Walmart touts that more than 90 percent of its seafood has earned Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) or Best Aquaculture Practices, or is engaged in a Fishery Improvement Project.
The same is true for restaurants – and not just higher-end options.
In 2013, McDonald's became the first national restaurant chain to serve MSC-certified sustainable fish at all of its U.S. locations.
The popularity of sustainable options is, inherently, a good sign. It means that a growing number of Americans are aware of issues like "overfishing." And many acknowledge importance of preserving our oceans, the single greatest provider of food on the planet.
Milwaukee restaurants are no exception.
This past March, Screaming Tuna formalized its commitment to seafood sustainability by becoming the very first Wisconsin restaurant to partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a conservation program designed to help consumers and businesses make seafood choices that will keep the oceans’ populations healthy and viable for future generations. In fact, they are one of only about a half-dozen Midwest restaurants participating in the program.
The changeover was actually prompted by the persistence of a well-informed diner, who started asking questions and expressing concern about the seafood being ordered.
"I wish I could say that we were so proactive to begin that we did it on our own accord," says Cristian Vega, manager at Screaming Tuna. "But it took a diner holding a mirror up to us for our eyes to be opened. After that we started doing some research and it doesn't take much of that to realize that the oceans can't sustain this level of severe misuse for much longer."
As a result of the partnership, you won’t find bluefin tuna, unagi, escolar or Scottish salmon – all of which are being fished at unsustainable levels – on the menu. Instead, Screaming Tuna makes use of Hawaiian kampachi and ahi (yellowfin tuna), along with Atlantic albacore and Verlasso salmon from Chile.
"As a sushi restaurant and as inhabitants of this planet, we can ill afford to think of the oceans as an unlimited stockpile of resources," says Vega. "We could not do what we do without the ocean’s bounty of seafood. We know that at the current rate of depletion, future purveyors of sushi and future inhabitants of this planet will not have our same opportunities because of the mistakes of those that came before them."
Other restaurants have followed suit. Braise, La Merenda and Amilinda all purchase fish through Sitka Salmon Shares, a Community Supported Fisheries program that delivers fresh seafood to individuals in markets like Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Indianapolis, Peoria and the Twin Cities.
And restaurants like Harbor House, one of the city’s most popular seafood destinations, employs a number of safeguards which guarantee more sustainably harvested product, including working with a limited number of vendors.
"I use six different fish and shellfish vendors, and four different vendors for oysters," says Executive Chef Zach Espinosa. "One of my best resources is a company that provides distribution rights for small fishermen on both coasts. It is less convenient than ordering from a large seafood company, but when I get the name of the boat, fisherman who caught it, and where it’s from everybody wins. These fish, when we get them, are at the height of freshness and the products of responsible harvesting."
In part, these efforts contribute to restaurant’s desire to contribute to the overall health of the food system. But, they make an effort to accommodate the desires of consumers, who increasingly demand to know more about where their seafood is sourced.
A recent survey of 3,000 consumers, conducted on behalf of NPR, showed that almost 80 percent of the people who eat seafood regularly said it is "important" or "very important" that their seafood is sustainably caught.
But, despite the apparent desire to purchase and eat wisely, the topic of sustainability remains disturbingly muddy.
In 2013, the NGO Oceana released a report suggesting that 20 percent of the world’s wild fish consumption comes from "pirate fishing" – illegal and unregulated fish harvests. That’s one out of every five fish.
Eco-historian Nicolaas Mink, owner of Sitka Salmon Shares says that part of the problem is that sustainability is more complicated than it seems.
"What most consumers don’t realize is that when they purchase that piece of ‘sustainably-harvested’ haddock or cod, they are likely still buying fish caught by a large industrial vessel, from a fleet that’s consolidated into the hands of a few large companies.
"These vessels often ply waters thousands of miles away from their home ports, appropriating natural resources, and thus wealth, from local communities that should rightly call these fish their own. It would be akin to a California farmer growing tomatoes in our backyards here in Galesburg, Ill., and taking that profit to build a mansion on the Sonoma Coast!"
Awareness among consumers is also an issue.
Matt Kerley of Blue Jacket says that despite what surveys say he doesn’t think most people necessarily think about fish as intently they might other proteins.
"We’ve seen this whole movement with fruits and vegetables, and proteins. We’re veering away from feedlots. People know there is a difference between this pig and this pig," he says. "But, I don’t feel that has connected with fish yet. People don’t see a difference between this piece of salmon and this piece of salmon."
One of the challenges is that diners may not recognize the reason why their favorite fish doesn’t appear on the menu.
"Searching down approved replacements for popular fish is easier said than done," notes Vega. "And once we were able to bring them on board, not every item was welcomed with open arms. Diners can be very particular about their seafood. Some saw the omission of items escolar and unagi as near blasphemous, shunning our new and sustainable substitutes in albacore and anago. But, we remain steadfast that it is the right thing to and I think most people can appreciate that."
Another very real factor that impacts restaurants is cost.
"The one drawback to having a 100 percent sustainable menu is cost," says Espinosa. "Being able to provide the product is not as hard as trying to sell a $38 cod entree. It's about a perceived value to the guest."
He says one thing he has had good luck with is running specials on lesser used fish, which often demand a lower price.
He served Red Drum in the style of a fish fry with slaw and truffled steak fries with great success. And he says both Hake and Haddock, which are fairly similar to cod, are typically well received.
"I love running invasive species and unusual fish as specials. One of the most popular unusual fish we’ve offered was Coral Ling from Hawaii," he says. "It’s just an amazing fish. We served it with browned butter carrot puree, seasonal mushrooms and bacon vinaigrette, and it just flew off the menu."
Espinosa says that offerings like fried smelt made diners feel nostalgic. Riskier options have included mackerel and sardines, both of which have also been on the menu.
But, at smaller restaurants like Blue Jacket, taking chances with seafood specials isn’t always an option.
"The price of fish has skyrocketed," Kerley notes. "It’s cheaper to get beef tenderloin than it is to get halibut. And that goes back to the fact that we’ve overfished these areas so much – and we’ve caught so much of the bycatch that feeds the populations – that there’s this scarcity, which raises the price."
Kerley says he’s cautious about purchasing expensive fish, without a guarantee that it will sell.
"If we don’t move what we buy, it’s trash. And that’s devastating," explains Kerley. "I’m only allowed to spend so much on proteins during the week. So, if I want to put fish on the menu, I have to bring things in that will move."
Sardines, he says, are a great example of a deliciously sustainable option sardines are a perfect example.
"They are meaty fish, high in protein, iron, minerality," he explains. "And they don’t have a lot of mercury."
But, when he created a sardine dish for the restaurant, it wasn’t a popular choice.
"I think we sold like two," he says. "Despite the fact that they were ultra-fresh – amazing really – people just weren’t familiar enough with them to order them. It was heartbreaking."
Kerley says that consumers can support efforts to create more sustainable – and affordable – restaurant offerings by changing the way they look at seafood.
"People always want salmon and tuna. And there just isn’t enough to go around," he says. "What happens as a result is that producers look at alternative ways to meet demand, which can be really negative. But, if we just stopped overtapping the fish population for a while, we’d see things bounce back."
He says one of the biggest things that could turn the market around would be a change in consumer demand.
"It starts and stems from consumer demand," he says. "There’s this notion that all there is out there is salmon and tuna and bass. But, in an ideal world, you’d see people branching out and trying new things.
"Restaurants would be able to serve more bycatch – like sardines, squid, little mackerel and eel. And people wouldn’t blink when they saw delicious sustainable options like hogfish and tilefish on a menu."
Vega agrees, saying that he’s witnessing a shift in attitudes about seafood – though he says there’s much more work to be done.
"In the past year, since my education in sustainability began, I have seen and connected with more and more sushi restaurants and personalities who are like minded on this issue, which is promising," he says. "However I do fear that the rate of awareness does not match the rate of environmental and ecological depletion."
So, what’s the solution?
"Customers caring, and holding establishments accountable is a great first step," he suggests.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.