If you’ve made the decision to offer sustainable seafood on your restaurant’s menu, congratulations! You’re not only helping to minimize negative environmental and economic impacts due to overfishing, but your restaurant is now part of a growing trend that is predicted to stay.
If you’ve already answered some basic questions about how to incorporate sustainable seafood into your menu, then you are likely ready to start purchasing sustainable seafood and preparing it in your kitchen. But with the predictable demands (plus some new challenges) that come with running a restaurant, you probably don’t have time to pore over every single supplier catalog buried on your office computer.
Whether you want to source wild-caught seafood, or you feel that farm-raised is a better option, you may still want some simple guidance in identifying the best, reputable supplier for your sustainable seafood.
The gold standard list for identifying sustainably harvested wild seafood species is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. This highly-respected list is used by chefs and purchasers all over both the US and Canada, because it is constantly updated, they offer an easily searchable smartphone app, and they even share recipe ideas. Their simple Best Choice / Good Alternative / Avoid categorization makes it simple to know if the species you want to serve is currently being harvested in a sustainable manner. I even keep this list stuck to my fridge in my own home!
But just because a species appears on this list (or ones like it) does not mean it was harvested in a sustainable manner. Harvesting methods like bottom trawls, dredges, and seines can all be all harmful to the environment and non-targeted species, and by-catch is a serious side effect of less precise methods of wild seafood harvest.
Identifying Sustainable Harvesting
Depending on the suppliers available in your market, you have two good options for making sure the sustainable species you want to serve was not caught in a harmful manner:
- Get to know your supplier personally: Ask how the fish are caught, inquire about the specific boats, and generally ask enough questions until you are confident that they are being honest when they tell you the seafood they are delivering was sustainably harvested;
- Learn about eco-labels.
Neither of these are fool-proof. While the first method requires a good deal of trust, the second does offer some more regimented guidance, even if it’s an imperfect system. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers their list of the eco-labels they feel provides the best assurance that your seafood was sustainable harvested.
If you are looking to support sustainable seafood by sourcing a farm-raised product, then there is one easy rule to follow: buy American. You’re more likely to get a truly sustainable product, and you’ll also be helping to support an underdeveloped US market.
Would you believe that the US actually imports 90% of its farm-raised seafood? This is because the regulations for fish farming the US are far more stringent than most other countries. As such, many large distributors have opted to purchase their farm-raised seafood from other countries, where environmental and labor regulations are often more lax, and the fish can therefore be farmed for a fraction of the cost (conversely, those countries that do adhere to stricter standards offer high-quality products, but for a premium price).
Still, there are some questions you may consider asking of your aquaculture supplier:
- How are the fish raised? Is it an ocean pen or closed/inland system?
- Is the water recirculated or flow-through?
- What happens to any waste?
- How densely are the fish stocked?
- What are the fish fed?
Hopefully your aquaculture supplier will be willing to share all of this information with you before you make your first purchase.