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Sea Change: The Quest for Sustainable Fish

June 19, 2008

All tales of redemption begin with sin.

As I sat at my favorite seafood restaurant, La Dorada in Coral Gables, preparing to eat a chunk of monkfish, I thought of the opening passage of Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (Bloomsbury, 2008)).

Grescoe describes the way monkfish is caught — a technology that rakes the deep-ocean bottom, destroying all manner of habitat in the process. It has been compared with “using a bulldozer to catch songbirds for food,” he writes.

To be fair, I have feasted at La Dorada on grilled sardines, the most sustainable of fish, and could order centollo (land crab) or razor clams, which get passing grades from marine watchdog organizations.

Still, my conscience was piqued. The way the oceans are being ravaged, Grescoe writes, they eventually will sustain nothing but jellyfish.

We have overfished some species to or near extinction. Cod, once a huge fish that fed whole societies, is small and relatively scarce today, the victim of a thousand-year “fishing binge,” as Mark Kurlansky puts it in Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Penguin, 1998).

Fish farming may seem like the answer, but it creates problems of its own. Salmon, for example, are carnivorous, so stocks of wild fish are depleted to feed them. Shrimp farming, especially in developing countries, is notoriously polluting.

As I was drawn to the ecologists’ arguments, I faced a quandary. I knew farm-raised salmon, imported shrimp and monkfish weren’t conscionable choices, but how about branzino, grouper, stone crab?

I could consult sustainable-seafood guides. (Stone crabs are cool.) Or, as Grescoe insists, I could ask the source when ordering fish at restaurants. Locally, servers at Oceanaire provide that information unprompted, but at most places, they don’t know.

And then there are restaurants where sustainable seafood is the only option. That’s been the case for the past three years at Chef Allen’s in Aventura, the result of a fortuitous identity crisis for chef-owner Allen Susser.

“Who am I?” Susser says he asked himself after 22 years as a leading South Florida chef. “What I love is fish,” he concluded, “so let’s focus on the seafood and go for the greening idea.”

He set out to educate himself, his staff and customers. And to encourage local fishermen to catch the fish he wanted.

One of his suppliers is Two Bills Seafood, a sustainability-minded wholesale and retail operation in Dania Beach. Capt. Mark Silverstein, a lifelong South Florida fisherman who delivers Two Bills product to Susser, has seen it all.

“When I was young, there were no laws,” says Silverstein, 52. “Fishermen will tell you there’s plenty of fish out there, but there is less every day.”

Susser has more than doubled his seafood offerings with dishes like mahi-mahi poached in red wine and paella made with Bahamian lobster, and his customers have responded.

“Now that I do more fish, I sell more fish,” he says.

“Chefs are thought leaders in the industry; they have an influence beyond their own restaurants,” says Ken Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which honored Susser and Michy’s Michelle Bernstein as “chef ambassadors” for their promotion of sustainable seafood.

Seafood Watch publishes pocket guides for consumers (see box). Of greater impact, it has gotten big food-service companies like Aramark to use more sustainable seafood.

And then there’s Wal-Mart, which now sells only certifiably sustainable seafood. The retail giant, Peterson says, “is going to Asia and telling shrimp farmers what they need to do to sell shrimp to Wal-Mart.”

Grim prophecies of jellyfish-choked oceans aside, conservation efforts have been making a dent. The international Seafood Choices Alliance reported that in 2007, 37 percent of U.S. retailers had removed seafood items from their inventory because of environmental considerations, up from 20 percent in 2001.

I was converting. When I read Grescoe’s chapter on sardines, I had to rush to Old Lisbon on Coral Way to dine on grilled Portuguese sardines. This fish is not only plentiful but good for you, rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Still, man does not live by sardines alone, and getting the lowdown on every fish in the display case requires research most consumers are not prepared to undertake. At Captain Jim’s Seafood Market and Restaurant in North Miami, I skipped the usual grouper and snapper and asked them to fillet a triggerfish and three jacks they had on ice. Grilled, they were superb.

But when I text-messaged triggerfish to Fish Phone, a service intended to provide instant consumer information, the reply was apologetic: Triggerfish wasn’t in their database.

What is a fish lover to do?

“Certification is the way,” says Polita Glyn, head of the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which gives fellowships to researchers, lawyers, writers and others in the field.

In the same way that organic certification fueled demand for meat and produce raised without chemicals, Glyn, Peterson and other experts believe sustainability certification will bring market forces to bear on behalf of the oceans.

“You don’t need a postgraduate degree in marine ecology,” says Peterson.

The benchmark program is run by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. It’s MSC-certified seafood that Wal-Mart sells. Looking for the MSC label takes the pain out of being ethical.

Finding it, however, isn’t an easy matter — at least not yet. A spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market said all the seafood the company sells is sustainable, yet at its Red Road store I could find only four MSC-certified species in the big seafood section. And one of them, wild salmon, cost more than $30 a pound — four or five times the price of farm-raised.

Which leaves this convert to sustainable seafood high and dry. I couldn’t afford a steady diet of $30-a-pound fish any more than I could afford to dine at Chef Allen’s every night.

There remains one surprisingly virtuous choice for the sustainable-seafood righteous: McDonald’s fish sandwich. The fish comes from the Alaskan pollock fishery and is certified sustainable by the MSC. (The same fish goes into sandwiches at Arby’s, Dairy Queen and Burger King.)

So, a spiritual journey that began in a luxury seafood restaurant ends beneath the golden arches. I have yet to go for that sustainable fillet of fish in the land of Big Macs. I will contemplate the possibility when I’m back at La Dorada, dining on a splendid plate of also-sustainable fried sardines.