What’s Cooking with Sustainable Seafood?
Getting hooked on best choices through fresh businesses, cookbooks, and practices
By Sarah Henry
Cathy Phillips wants to eat fish for health reasons—all those heart-healthy and brain-boosting omega-3s for starters—but like many ethical eaters she’s also eager to source seafood that is sustainable, caught close to home, and supports the local economy. So when the Oakland resident heard about a new community-supported seafood business called Siren SeaSA she jumped at the opportunity to serve as its East Bay host.
“Every Saturday, seafood shares for 12 to 20 subscribers, depending on the week, get dropped off in my backyard,” explains Phillips, speaking about her participation in the community-supported fishery (CSF), which is modeled after the CSA produce box. “I get really good fish, I’m supporting local fishermen, and I don’t have to feel guilty about what I eat,” she says. “When the fish is this fresh you don’t even have to make a sauce. We cook it fast and just add salt and pepper. It’s simple and it’s delicious.”
Siren SeaSA is the brainchild of Anna Larsen, a Petaluma-based seafood lover who spends Saturdays tooling around the Bay Area in her silver Scion with coolers of finfish or shellfish that she drops off at five spots for about 160 customers. (Currently there’s a waiting list at most locations for new members.) Subscribers pay $20 a week for a half share, which feeds two generously, or $40 a week to feed a family of four. Larsen sources black cod, halibut, Dungeness crab, and salmon from Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, oysters and mussels from Tomales Bay, and sardines and squid from Monterey.
The seafood is caught Thursday, filleted Friday, and delivered Saturday. It’s processed at North Coast Fisheries in Santa Rosa where Larsen, who grew up shrimping and clamming with her dad in Marin, works as the quality-control assurance manager. “I try to give my customers a good sampling of everything that is available locally,” says Larsen, a professionally trained mezzo-soprano who traded singing opera for selling seafood. “I also try to make good choices about how often they eat top-of-the-food-chain fish like salmon.”
Larsen deals with weather, availability, and traceability challenges when sourcing fish for her clients from about a dozen fishermen. “Siren subscribers have been very understanding, but I’m ready to bring them something other than crab,” she jokes one stormy March Saturday as she delivers coolers packed with fresh hook-and-line-caught black cod with pin bones intact.
Finding Good Fish at the Market
These days, most people concerned about sourcing sustainable produce know where to go to find local, seasonal, organic or pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Likewise, those who want to make environmentally savvy and ethically sound decisions about buying meat seek out farms that feature pasture-raised, hormone-free animals with room to roam who only experience one bad moment in their life: when they’re humanely slaughtered.
But buying sustainable seafood is a bit trickier. Consumers must make a sea of choices before they can put fish on the table. Wild versus farmed? Fresh or frozen? Rod and reel versus bottom trawler? Atlantic bluefin tuna or California albacore? Marine-meal lovers concerned about sustainability issues are drowning in decisions at the seafood counter. Should shoppers consult wallet-sized sustainable seafood guides from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, or Blue Ocean Institute, look for eco-labels from Marine Stewardship Council, or all three? Red (listed) fish, green fish, or yellow fish? It’s enough to make a piscatarian decide to make something different for dinner.
No need to get crabby. The good news is that there are lots of developments on the sustainable seafood front, including fresh cookbooks featuring less-threatened species, new businesses to buy from, and updated seafood purchasing practices at some stores. All make for less troubled waters for shoppers seeking sea creatures to cook without the spectre of fish extinction dampening their appetite.
Here’s the catch
Buying seafood is confusing and challenging, not just because of species depletion concerns, pollution problems, and the unfortunate reality of by-catch: creatures that are unintentionally caught and killed in the fishing process. There are some hefty health matters to consider too. While seafood is an excellent source of lean protein, fish, particularly large species such as tuna, can also contain high levels of mercury, which can have dire consequences on the brain and nervous systems of children, infants, the unborn, and other vulnerable populations. And then there are PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants (known as POPS), which, despite the cute acronym, can wreak havoc on the human body. Such red flags make some consumers less hungry for a slab of salmon or a chunk of tuna.
All that before shoppers even address sustainability: The world’s oceans are coming to the end of the line, seafood-species wise. Global fish stocks are depleted to dangerously low levels, with big commercial hits like bluefin tuna on a fast track toward extinction, notes author Paul Greenberg, whose book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food outlines the fate of Americans’ favorite large fish: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Throw into this ocean of angst concerns about some aquaculture businesses (where waste, disease, and pollution are often an issue) and the anxiety around manmade creations such as genetically modified salmon, also called Frankenfish, and it’s enough to make a marine lover trade sea bass for some other, less-complex protein source.
But it’s not all dire news from the deep blue seas. In late March, Whole Foods Market announced that it would no longer sell any wild-caught seafood that appears on the Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute code red lists. Starting on Earth Day—a year ahead of an internal deadline—the national grocery chain stopped selling fish caught from depleted waters or through ecologically destructive methods, a move that other supermarkets will likely follow closely.
No longer in the seafood case at Whole Foods: octopus, skate, Atlantic halibut and Atlantic cod caught by trawls, and certain tunas. The company will stock sustainable replacements like cod caught on lines and Pacific halibut. The supermarket chain, which also works closely with the international fishery certification program Marine Stewardship Council, had earlier refrained from offering such popular picks as orange roughy, shark, and Atlantic bluefin tuna due to overfishing concerns. “We’re leading the charge here on sustainable seafood in supermarkets,” says Mark Hernandez, associate seafood coordinator for Whole Foods Market Northern California and Reno. “I’ve worked in seafood for a long time and from all angles—fishing, sourcing, retail—and this is what we need to do to preserve the last wild food for future generations.”
The shift allows Whole Foods to promote and highlight fisheries that use responsible fishing methods and source from areas where fish are most abundant and fisheries are well managed, adds Hernandez. For instance, small-boat fishermen tend to do less environmental damage hauling in their catch close to shore than do large ships trawling the open oceans, where they frequently suck up every living critter in their wake.
But independent marine-science monitoring groups lack the resources to assess and certify all the small-scale fisheries in business, cautions Paul Johnson, co-owner of the Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley, an industry leader in local sustainable seafood circles. So while this shift is welcome news, there are still many sustainable small fish operations, he says, that simply don’t have a seal of approval for what they do well.
A sea change for consumers
Still, there are ways to reel in sustainable seafood for eaters willing to go the extra mile for mussels or work a bit harder for halibut. Local fish experts offer the following advice:
Get schooled: “There’s a constant flow of contradictory information regarding sustainable seafood,” says Anna Larsen. “The Seafood Watch list and app are good places to start. Then ask questions. Find out the species of the fish, as well as how and where it was caught.” Johnson of Monterey Fish Market, who authored the cookbook and reference guide Fish Forever, describes the Seafood Watch list as “one tool in the toolbox for determining sustainability.” Consumers should balance general information gleaned from such lists, he says, with choosing fish caught wild and locally by small-boat fishermen, often solo operators. In addition the Marine Stewardship Council program, which only certifies wild-catch fisheries, includes a traceability component, meaning consumers can find out exactly which fishery their dinner comes from.
Think seasonal and consider substitutes: Nobody concerned about sustainability expects to buy great tasting, local, organic tomatoes in January. Consumers should apply that same sensibility to seafood shopping and pick shellfish and finfish during their peak times for freshness, taste, and price. Dungeness crab is typically harvested from November through May, for instance. When in doubt, ask. Most Americans who eat seafood choose fresh salmon, frozen shrimp, or canned tuna. Check out farmed Arctic char, line-caught Pacific halibut, or wild Alaskan troll-caught salmon for a change. “I encourage consumers looking for sustainable fish to come in with an open mind,” says Lee Nakamura, who runs the seafood counter at Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley, where both sustainable and threatened species share space,. He advises, “Have a second choice if something you want isn’t available.”
Go small as well as whole: Americans are conditioned to thinking bigger is better. Not necessarily so when it comes to fish. Sardines and anchovies—those oily little forage fish of the sea that reproduce quickly and are revered in other parts of the world—are flavorful, nutritious, and affordable. They also carry a lower risk for toxins than fleshier fish like tuna. Filter feeders such as mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters are another smart choice for similar reasons. Johnson says he’d like to see more whole-fish consumption among his clientele to avoid waste. Though pre-cut fillets remain king, he holds out hope that people will begin to seek out a complete fish—in the way whole-animal butchery is redefining what consumers think of as meat.
Reconsider frozen and farmed fish: A properly frozen fish (landed gently, bled, and quickly chilled, preferably at sea) can be a high-quality, low-carbon-footprint option, if handled well, says seafood cookbook author Becky Selengut. While hook-and-line-caught wild fish is a better bet than seafood caught by dredging or trawling, which can produce a lot of by-catch, farmed fish such as rainbow trout or tilapia raised on a mostly vegetarian diet may have minimal environmental impact, adds the Seattle chef. If you’re unsure of a Pacific cod’s provenance, ask how it was raised and caught. Sensing a theme here?
Find a trustworthy fishmonger: Uncertain what such catch terms as Scottish seine, purse seine, trawl, troll, or jig actually mean? Ask. Get to know the guys (it’s usually men) behind the seafood counter of the supermarket or fish shop. Seek out these knowledgeable specialists and grill them for tips on sustainable choices, alternative selections, and cooking methods. “The more that people ask for information, the more retailers have to pay attention to the details themselves,” says Larsen. “A fishmonger should have all the information a consumer needs to help make a good decision.”
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: For sustainable seafood searches and pocket and mobile guides, including a West Coast list. www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx
Blue Ocean Institute: Conservation group offers seafood and sushi guide, and recipes. www.blueocean.org (click on “view the seafood guide”)
Marine Stewardship Council: Global nonprofit fishery certification and eco-label program for wild-catch fisheries. www.msc.org
A trio of recent cookbooks makes eating sustainable seafood at home easier and tastier.
Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, by Becky Selengut (Sasquatch Books, 2011). Includes 75 recipes for such dishes as Dungeness Crab Mac-and-Cheese and Skillet Sardines with Fennel, Currant, and Pine Nut Salad. We’ve reproduced a recipe from the book on the opposite page, and you can find instructional online videos—such as how to cook and clean a Dungeness crab—from the Seattle-based private chef and cooking teacher at Selengut’s website, www.goodfishbook.com
The River Cottage Fish Book: The Definitive Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Fish and Shellfish, by gentleman farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the aptly named fisherman Nick Fisher (Ten Speed Press, 2012). The renowned River Cottage crew from Britain turn out a tome on sea creatures in this 608-pager that’s been tweaked for an American audience and includes reference information, seafood how-tos, and 135 recipes, such as Clams with Chanterelles, Mackerel Stuffed with Salsa Verde, and Saltfish and Parsnip Rosti Fish Cakes.
For Cod & Country: Simple, Delicious Sustainable Cooking, by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure, 2011). Award-winning Washington, D.C.–based seafood chef Barton Seaver’s cookbook is organized seasonally and features such offerings as Avocado-Dill Soup with Smoked Trout, Poached Mackerel Roll with Flavored Mayonnaise, and Halibut with Ginger-Raisin Crust. It also includes seafood-savvy techniques such as how to fillet a bass or shuck an oyster. Seaver, who has teamed up with the Blue Ocean Institute to advocate for sustainable seafood, provides a list of substitutions for overexploited species, for instance, Pacific cod in place of Atlantic cod, sablefish instead of Chilean sea bass, and squid in lieu of octopus.
Siren SeaSA: Local, sustainable, community-supported fishery delivering a weekly catch from shore to door in five Bay Area locations. www.sirenseasa.com ; 707.738.5540
I Love Blue Sea: San Francisco-based online sustainable seafood supplier, I Love Blue Sea doesn’t sell any of Seafood Watch’s red-listed fish. Ships nationally via FedEx. Bay Area residents can pick up directly, avoiding the expense and guilt associated with air freight. Pick-up at Radius, 1123 Folsom (between 7th and 8th streets) Tuesday–Saturday 1–8pm. www.ilovebluesea.com ; 415.300.0940
Monterey Fish Market: Old-school storefront and local leader in sustainable seafood selection. Online site includes seafood list and resources. www.montereyfish.com ; 1582 Hopkins St. Berkeley; 510.525.5600
READ, LISTEN, & WATCH
READ: Those who feast on fish at local restaurants should check out Erik Vance’s San Francisco magazine story “The New School of Fish” for some eye-popping insights into what Bay Area chefs really know about the seafood touted as sustainable on their menus.
LISTEN: Restaurant owners and fish wholesalers discuss the challenges of catching, selling, and serving sustainable fish on KQED’s Forum. www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201102041000
WATCH: Isabella Rossellini’s amusing and wacky short films, Green Porno, document the sex lives of anchovy, squid, and shrimp, and bring attention to their environments. www.sundancechannel.com/greenporno/video/
Sarah Henry is a local food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Henry writes a weekly food column forBerkeleyside, and regularly contributes to KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Grist, and Civil Eats. Her stories on good food matters have appeared in Eating Well, AFAR, California, the San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco magazine. She grew up in the seafood-loving city of Sydney, Australia.