Expect to see a lot of local buzz about sustainable seafood this week.
San Diego Ocean’s Foundation is holding its annual Sustainable Seafood Gala at SeaWorld Thursday; followed by the city’s Sustainable Seafood Week, kicking off Sunday, March 10. Plenty of notable restaurants are participating in both events, including The Fishery, Alchemy, Azuki Sushi, The Red Door, Café Chloe, Farmhouse Cafe and more.
Events like these that can boost awareness and bring a complicated and important topic literally to the table. Seafood and the issues surrounding it – whether it’s bycatch (when nontargeted marine life is accidentally caught by fishing nets or hooks) or overfishing, concerns over fraud or mislabeling, the possible introduction of a genetically modified species or the abundance of our stocks – are deeply complex.
Seafood is a topic I’ve covered extensively over the last decade, and is a theme you’ll see here frequently.
Rather than being a city synonymous with the fish taco, I’d like to see San Diego bump up its commitment to sustainable seafood. Bluefin (regardless of whether it’s farmed or wild) is still a regular item on plenty of local menus. Unagi is easy to find on the local sushi circuit despite dire warnings that the species is in serious trouble. And while there have been improvements made in the farming of fin fish such as Atlantic salmon, environmental groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program still apply a red “avoid” rating to the fish over concerns of feed ratios (meaning the amount of wild fish ground up and turned into pellets needed to grow a pound of farmed Atlantic salmon) and ongoing issues of pollution and escapement of non-native species.
But for chefs like Paul Arias of The Fishery in north Pacific Beach, sustainable seafood isn’t just a week-long event. It’s a practice the restaurant adheres to every day of the year.
“Our stance at The Fishery is that we only use wild product with the exception of shellfish, which is farmed,” he told me.
For Arias, the owners of The Fishery and its sister company Pacific Shellfish, it’s about supporting wild fisheries that are properly managed.
For the upcoming gala and Sustainable Seafood Week event, John Valencia, the foundation’s executive director, says their definition of sustainable seafood comes from Seafood for the Future:
“Seafood that is harvested and/or produced in a manner that minimizes bycatch and impacts on surrounding ecosystems, while maintaining or creating economic viability for those who depend on the industry.”
Even if you can’t make it to the gala or hit-up a participating restaurant next week, there are plenty of ways you can keep it sustainable at home:
1. Eat low on the food chain: squid, sardines, mackerel, shellfish. Not only are these kinds of species able to reproduce quickly, they’re far less likely to contain contaminants like mercury or PCBs than a large predatory fish like tuna or swordfish.
2. Consider substitutions. Have an affinity for Chilean sea bass? Try local sablefish (also known as black cod) instead. Overall, tilapia is a sustainable choice, but look for those farmed here in the U.S. rather than those grown in China. Farmed Atlantic salmon has a far cheaper price tag than that glistening hunk of wild Alaskan king salmon, but there are other salmon species to consider. Sockeye can be comparable in price, and we’re frequently seeing pinks show up in the fish case. Farmed Arctic char is another good alternative.
And don’t snub frozen seafood. Many processors freeze at sea. Not only does it prevent food waste, but it can make a seasonal product last year-round.
3. Look for labels. The Marine Stewardship Council got pummeled in a series by NPR recently. Their label is one you’ll see frequently at the fish counter, on San Diego’s own local brand of tuna, and even on the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish box. The story caused quite a stir, but for now, the bottom line is: While the MSC isn’t perfect, it’s still the best program we have available for monitoring wild fisheries.
Dr. Tom Pickerell, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, agrees. He said it’s still a label consumers can trust. Other labels like Global Aquaculture Alliance are probably better than no label at all, but the fact that Darden (parent of Red Lobster) is a founding member of the GAA, and is labeling its own product, should raise some eyebrows.
4. Buy local. San Diego is lucky enough to still have working fishermen on our docks. Support them by shopping at their dockside market Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., at 750 North Harbor Dr., behind The Fish Market.
Pete Halmay, president of the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group, says they’re just wrapping up the lobster season, but groundfish is next. Look for black cod, sheepshead, cabazon, sand dabs, rockfish, sardines, sea urchin and more in the coming weeks.
Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email email@example.com.