Most of the seafood sold to U.S. consumers happens through restaurants and retailers. As “gatekeepers” of the nation’s fish supply, these businesses can help improve the health of the global ecosystems by offering only sustainable catch to their customers, say the good folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, who are well-schooled on the topic. For more than a decade, Seafood Watch has provided guidelines, training tools, and partnership opportunities to support food purveyors in understanding and implementing best practices.
Its free resources include quick-reference fact cards for staff, an eight-page guide to sustainable seafood business practices for managers, and a Seafood Watch Buyer’s Guide for chefs, suppliers, and others who make purchasing decisions. “We also have a local program for restaurants who all use the materials, have signage that they are a partner, and distribute pocket guides,” says Alison Barratt, a spokeswoman for the aquarium. “They all take a pledge to serve no red-listed items, to train their waitstaff, and be current with the issues.”
Prominently displaying the Seafood Watch logo can provide restaurateurs and butchers with a competitive advantage, Barratt adds. “It gives their customers the peace of mind of knowing that all the choices they make will be good ones, as the restaurant has done the homework for them. Many businesses like to use commitments such as Seafood Watch to show their patrons that they are responsible and environmentally friendly.”
Consumers who want to do their own homework can use Seafood Watch’s pocket or mobile guides. The guides, updated twice a year, are available in regional editions (some in English and Spanish). Each rates which species of farmed and wild fish are the most environmentally sound choices, which make acceptable substitutes, and which should be avoided entirely. The ratings are based on fishery, habitat, species, management, and various other factors. Since 1999, Seafood Watch has distributed 37 million pocket guides, its iPhone app has been downloaded 500,000 times, and it has nearly 200 business partners across North America.
Other organizations use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s science to create their own guides and reports. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund uses its fisheries and aquaculture science for its Seafood Selector, Barratt says. EDF, which works with troubled fisheries to improve their management and conservation efforts, also put together a Green Dining Best Practices guide with Restaurant Associates. The dining guide (to which this writer contributed) provides tips and tools for making commercial kitchen operations greener and more cost-effective.
Nathan McCall, a chef and proprietor of McCall’s Meat and Fish Co. in Los Angeles, works with Seafood for the Future. The program, run by the Aquarium of the Pacific, provides fishery reports, technical aquaculture information, and other resources, including this chart examining the degree of consensus among major seafood advisory programs.
“We try to source only sustainable seafood, and at this point our customer base is aware of that,” McCall says. “It’s all about making the consumer aware that you are trying to make an effort. I’d say about 10 percent of customers question sustainability.” McCall says he doesn’t use Seafood of the Future logos or signage, but he does tag some items on the menu as “responsibly farmed.”
“I think [demand for sustainable foods] will continue to grow,” he adds. “Everyone wants to know where their food is coming from.”