Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2001
Being a grocery shopper with a social conscience used to be so easy. All you had to know was whether the vegetables were organic, the chicken was free- range and the beef was hormone-free. Now, thanks to the concerns of marine biologists, fishermen, chefs and others, you can add sustainable seafood to that list.
Increasingly, those who catch, study and serve seafood professionally are saying that many of the ocean's denizens are threatened. Several Bay Area chefs have stopped serving Chilean sea bass, Atlantic swordfish, farmed salmon,
Atlantic cod and other fish that are either endangered or environmentally suspect. Eager to slow demand for some of these species and others, non- governmental groups such as the National Audubon Society and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have assembled seafood guides for consumers with "red light," "yellow light" and "green light" fish.
The debate over which fish, if any, are being harvested or cultivated sustainably has engaged fisheries scientists, government regulators, fish processors and fishermen for several years. But with the complex issue now entering the radar screens of chefs and consumers, some say that environmentalists are oversimplifying matters, misrepresenting data and urging consumers to overreact.
"If you go to a reputable retailer or restaurant and purchase domestically caught fish, you get a darn good guarantee that that fish was caught in a managed fishery," says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.
A DIFFERENT STORY
Others say that the data tell a different story. The most recent report of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that oversees domestic fisheries management, says that 92 domestic fish stocks are overfished, meaning that they are below a prescribed threshold. Those overfished stocks include commercially important species such as Gulf of Mexico red snapper and red drum, Pacific Chinook salmon, Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic monkfish and several types of Atlantic skate and flounder.
"If (federal regulators) were doing a good job, we wouldn't be in this position," says Tom Worthington, a partner in Monterey Fish, a prominent San Francisco seafood wholesaler and Berkeley retailer.
Nobody says the NMFS has an easy task. Unlike chickens, carrots or cattle, the ocean's fish can't be seen. They also belong to an almost unimaginable number of species. Knowing how many are out there, at what age they can reproduce and how long they live is critical to determining a sustainable harvest, but that information is often lacking.
NMFS uses scientists and consultants to assess stock sizes and try to determine when a fishery is overfished. When NMFS determines there is a problem, the appropriate regional council -- a group of appointed experts -- comes up with a rebuilding plan to restore sustainability. The plan may incorporate restrictions on the season, on the type of fishing gear used, or on the size and numbers of fish allowed to be caught. So far, the agency has approved 75 rebuilding programs.
Because this management system has only been in place since 1996, NMFS officials say it's too early to see widespread results. But they point to indications of recovery in New England groundfish, Gulf red snapper and East Coast summer flounder, among others, as a sign that the system can work.
Critics say this is too little too late, complaining that the agency waits until a fishery is in dire straits before it demands any changes.
"They should be proactive rather than reactive," says John McCosker, senior scientist with the California Academy of Sciences and the former director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium. In the case of Pacific salmon, experts say,
few protective measures were taken until the Chinook and Sockeye were entered on the Endangered Species list.
POLICY FAUX PAS
The government also must grapple with the effects of its former policies, which encouraged heavy fishing. Eager to make the U.S. a world fishing leader, the federal government in the late 1970s offered loan guarantees to fishermen who wanted to trade in their lobster boats for big, new, technologically sophisticated rockfish trawlers.
"Imagine our chagrin when we discover that some of these rockfishes don't spawn until they're 40 years old and may live to be 200 years old," says Bill Kier, a consulting fisheries scientist in Sausalito. "So what are we doing capturing them willy-nilly when they're only half sexually mature? Often we go into fisheries without much knowledge of the natural history of the species."
Those pro-growth policies "have all been reversed," says Bruce Morehead, acting director of sustainable fisheries at NMFS. "We're now helping various sectors of the industry downsize."
Too much gear chasing too few fish is a problem in several fisheries. In addition, environmentalists say, modern fishing gear has become more destructive and less discriminating.
Today's trawlers -- what McCosker calls "earth graders" --sweep the ocean floor in areas where they couldn't go before. "We're destroying the structure that many species depend on," says Burr Heneman, a marine policy consultant in Bolinas. "We're flattening that world."
In some fisheries, trawl nets and purse-seine nets bring up more bycatch -- undesirable or illegal fish -- than the fish being targeted. Sometimes the bycatch can be kept and sold or tossed back alive, but more often it's an unusable casualty. Shrimp trawlers discard far more dead fish by weight than the shrimp they keep, says Heneman.
Not long ago, scientists believed the ocean was virtually inexhaustible. Now they're confronting evidence of its limits. The crash of the Monterey sardine fishery in the 1950s was perhaps the first wake-up call, alerting fishermen and scientists to the possibility that a population could indeed be depleted. Recently, the plight of the heavily fished Georges Bank cod, the Atlantic swordfish and the nearly extinct wild Atlantic salmon have spurred calls for better management.
Internationally, the quick collapse of the orange roughy fishery showed the perils of poor regulation. A deepwater fish from Australia and New Zealand, orange roughy was a hidden treasure until new fishing technology enabled fishermen to find it. Consumers loved its mild taste and firm, white flesh, and sales took off when it was introduced in the 1980s. But "no one understood its biology," says Worthington, the fish wholesaler. "They found this fish and just pounded it, and it takes a long, long time to reach sexual maturity, so it will take forever to recover."
Chilean sea bass, brought to market only 10 years ago as an alternative to the depleted orange roughy, also has fallen victim to unregulated fishing and is now overfished.
But excessive harvesting isn't the only cause of troubled fisheries, scientists say. Habitat destruction -- clearing coastal areas for fish farms or disturbing fresh-water areas through damming, logging and livestock grazing -- can take a huge toll on wild fish stocks, as it has on Pacific salmon.
Predictably, with global population climbing and the world's wild catch leveling off, fish farms have stepped into the breach. Yet some fisheries experts who thought farmed fish might take pressure off the oceans have become aquaculture's biggest detractors.
THE TROUBLE WITH FARMS
Closed systems such as those used for catfish, tilapia, trout and sturgeon are not big offenders, but salmon and shrimp farms are particularly troublesome, says McCosker. Shrimp farms in the Philippines, Ecuador and Thailand have displaced coastal mangroves, the nursery grounds for much of the sea. Both shrimp and salmon farms use pesticides and antibiotics, and their waste pollutes surrounding areas, says McCosker.
"People go to the market and salmon is $2.99 a pound and available every night of the year, and they say to me, 'Salmon problem? What salmon problem?' But nobody is accounting for the true cost of raising these animals --polluting the bottom of the ocean, bringing diseases to wild fish that have no resistance. A true accounting would make (farmed salmon) $100 a pound."
Environmentalists also fear the aftermath of farmed salmon escapes. "We've got a new term that's entered the fisheries -- 'salmon spill,' " Heneman says. "Small escapes are common, but there have been spills of 50,000 fish at a time.
Researchers have documented cross-breeding among Atlantic salmon (the farmed variety) and wild Pacific salmon, and some worry that the crossbred fish won't know how to survive in the wild. "We haven't any idea what the effect is going to be on the wild populations, which are having enough problems," Heneman points out.
For seafood wholesalers, chefs and consumers who want to make socially responsible choices, staying informed can be a full-time job.
Wholesalers like Worthington need to know where and how a fish was caught to know whether it's from a sustainable fishery. Some species, like halibut and sole, are relatively abundant in the Pacific but depleted in the Atlantic. Others are acceptable if caught by one process, unacceptable if caught by another. Monterey Fish sells hook-and-line rock cod, for example, but not rock cod from bottom trawlers. The company sells Pacific swordfish but not Atlantic.
"We wouldn't touch East Coast swordfish with a 10-foot pole," Worthington says. "It's been decimated by longline." Longline gear, which can stretch 80 miles and have thousands of hooks, snares many juvenile fish along with adults.
The recently formed Seafood Choices Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, aims to provide timely information about fisheries to wholesalers and chefs so they can make informed choices. Chefs from several San Francisco restaurants -- among them, Jardiniere, Hayes Street Grill, Bizou, Stars and Le Colonial -- subscribe to the group's service.
The group's Web site, www.seafoodchoices.com, allows viewers to compare the buy-or-avoid seafood recommendations of several different organizations.
What bothers some observers about these seafood guides is that they paint with a broad brush. The Audubon guide, for example, puts all swordfish in its "red light" category, although many authorities say the Pacific swordfish stock is healthy. Moore, who represents seafood processors, complains that standards are applied unevenly and that some fisheries' bad practices aren't closely scrutinized because they're sustainable fisheries.
"What concerns me is that (the guides) are couched in terms of 'We're showing you how to buy sustainable fish,' without telling people that what they're really saying is, 'We're suggesting that you follow our moral standards as opposed to others,' " Moore says.
Nevertheless, several local chefs have taken action in their own restaurants.
-- CHEZ PANISSE IS STAYING AWAY FROM FARMED SALMON, sea scallops, any form of cod, including salt cod, monkfish, Caspian Sea caviar and most farmed shrimp.
-- AT LEHR'S GREENHOUSE IN SAN FRANCISCO, proprietor Dean Lehr put icons on his menu three years ago to point customers to seafood from sustainable stocks.
He also encourages his chef to follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium guidelines.
-- JARDINIERE DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS LARRY BAIN SAYS, "This is really about stewardship rather than saying no to any fish variety. It's about exploring the wonderful fish that are plentiful and can be caught in a way that don't do damage. And it's about changing cachet, so that it's no longer sexy to eat the last of an endangered species."
Jardiniere customers these days are likely to find dressed-up versions of squid, anchovies or sardines on the menu and will look in vain for Chilean sea bass or Caspian Sea caviar, which has a bad environmental record.
Rather than banning other fish, however, Bain and Jardiniere proprietor Traci des Jardins have put the kitchen on a point system. Plentiful fish like anchovies cost few points, environmentally questionable fish cost a lot of points, and the kitchen must meet weekly targets.
-- AT FARALLON IN SAN FRANCISCO, which purchases $400,000 worth of seafood a year, chef Mark Franz says he does his best to showcase sustainable fish and to use more threatened or environmentally problematic fish in only supporting roles.
"I want to be as good as I can about it," says the chef, "but there's a history here, things we want to do, and it gets kind of tough to shut down the bank. It's like the power crisis: you do what you can, where you can, but you can't go all the way. I have to run a business."
Worthington, too, says his business would probably fail if he refused to provide farmed salmon, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and other popular fish to restaurant and retail customers.
"When everyone's allowed to sell it, it makes it difficult to step away. It'll just be bought down the street. But if chefs would stop demanding Atlantic (farmed) salmon all year long and switch to something sustainably caught, that would help."
For those whose livelihoods depend on seafood, issues of sustainability will surely be on the table for years to come. For chefs and consumers, the education is just beginning.
Buyer, be aware
The following guide to sustainable seafood was assembled by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Other guides differ on some choices. For details on how these choices were made, check the aquarium's Web site at www.montereybayaquarium.org.
-- -- Albacore/tombo tuna (Pacific)
-- Calamari/squid (Pacific)
-- Catfish (farmed)
-- Caviar (farmed, sturgeon)
-- Clams (farmed)
-- Dungeness crab
-- Halibut (Alaska)
-- Mahi mahi/dolphinfish/dorado
-- Mussels (farmed)
-- New Zealand cod/hoki
-- Oysters (farmed)
-- Rainbow trout (farmed)
-- Salmon (California/Alaska, wild-caught)
-- Striped bass (farmed)
-- Sturgeon (farmed)
-- Tilapia (farmed)
Proceed with caution
-- American lobster
-- Bay scallops
-- Bay shrimp/Pacific pink shrimp
-- English/petrale sole
-- Halibut (Calif./Ore./Wash.)
-- Imitation crab/surimi/pollack
-- Salmon (Ore./Wash., wild-caught)
-- Shrimp/prawns (wild-caught, U.S.)
-- Snow crab
-- Spot prawns (trap-caught OK)
-- Yellowfin tuna/ahi (Hawaii line-caught OK)
-- Bluefin tuna
-- Caviar (beluga, Caspian sturgeon)
-- Chilean sea bass/Patagonian toothfish
-- Cod (Atlantic)
-- Orange roughy
-- Rockfish/Pacific red snapper/rock cod
-- Sablefish/butterfish/black cod
-- Salmon (farmed)
-- Sea scallops (Atlantic)
-- Shark (all)
-- Shrimp/prawns (wild-caught, international or farmed)
-- Spot prawns (trawl-caught)
Seafood resources The following Web sites offer helpful insight for purchasing seafood.
-- To obtain a downloadable copy of "Seafood Watch: A Guide for Consumers" or "Seafood Watch Chart," log on to www.mbayaq.org/efc/efc_oc/dngr_food_watch. asp.
-- To obtain a downloadable copy of "The Audubon Guide to Seafood," log on to www.audubon.org.
-- Seafood Choices Alliance Web site allows comparison of several seafood guides, log on to www.seafoodchoices.com.
-- The Natural Resources Defense Council publishes a chart on its Web site that distinguishes threatened fish from those that are better choices for consumers. Log on to www.nrdc.org.
-- Ocean Trust's Web site offers a detailed critique of several seafood purchasing guides. Log on to www.oceantrust.org.
Many experts say the following species are currently threatened by overfishing and poor management, although changes are in the works to help these populations recover. Rockfish/Pacific red snapper/rock cod
-- Although there are more than 60 species of rockfish along the West Coast,
they reproduce slowly and have been overfished.
Chilean sea bass
-- Heavy, unregulated fishing is wiping out this slow-growing, deep-ocean species. In 1998, the illegal catch was 10 times the legal catch.
-- New England sea scallops are overfished, and scallop catches elsewhere are being monitored carefully.
-- Some shrimp farms have been built by destroying mangrove forests and other coastal habitats where wild shrimp and fish feed and breed. Shrimp caught off Georgia with turtle excluders on their nets are better choices, as are trap-caught spot prawns.
-- Although ideal for fish and chips, loose management, overfishing and destruction of undersea habitat have threatened the cod population.
Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Chart
Those species that meet these three characteristics are considered most environmentally sound: 1. Abundant numbers of wild fish; 2. Low levels of wasted catch; 3. Caught or farmed in environmentally safe ways.
-- All catfish is farm-raised. Catfish eat a vegetable-based diet and are raised in freshwater ponds with little impact on the environment.
-- Almost all albacore in markets is caught in the Pacific with hook-and- line methods, resulting in little or no bycatch.
-- Calamari (also called market squid) naturally live just one year and breed quickly, so a sustainable population can be maintained.
-- The fishery is well-managed and healthy. Only large male crabs may be caught and there's no fishing allowed during the breeding season.
-- North American bivalve aquaculture does not appear to have significant environmental impacts and in some cases can improve local water quality.
-- Alaskan halibut are caught on longlines out of reach of birds and sea mammals, and the fishery is well-regulated.
GRILLED ALASKA HALIBUT WITH ROASTED RED PEPPER
You can cook the red pepper and the fish under the broiler if you don't feel like lighting the grill. For the best flavor, use a red pepper grown outdoors such as those you find at farmers' markets rather than a hothouse pepper.
1 large red bell pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil + olive oil for coating the fish
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 halibut fillets, 6 ounces each
4 teaspoons minced Italian parsley
INSTRUCTIONS: Prepare a charcoal fire.
Grill the pepper over the coals until blackened on all sides. When cool enough to handle, peel and seed the pepper. Cut into 3 or 4 pieces and put in a food processor.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over moderately high heat. Add the garlic and saute until it just starts to color. Add the garlic and oil to the food processor. Puree until well blended, then add the vinegar and puree again.
With the machine running, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil through the feed tube until the vinaigrette is smooth and creamy. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Coat the halibut lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over coals until the fish just flakes, 8 minutes or more, depending on thickness.
Make a pool of vinaigrette on each serving plate, top with the fish and garnish with parsley.
PER SERVING: 290 calories, 36 g protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 14 g fat (3 g saturated), 54 mg cholesterol, 93 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
STEAMED MUSSELS WITH PERNOD & AIOLI
1 large garlic clove
Sea salt, to taste
1 egg yolk at room temperature
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice, to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup minced shallots
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons Pernod or other anise aperitif
4 pounds mussels, well scrubbed
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
INSTRUCTIONS: To make the aioli: Pound the garlic and salt to a paste in a mortar, or mince to a paste with a knife. Put the egg yolk in a small bowl with 1/2 teaspoon warm water. Whisk well, then begin adding the oil drop by drop as for mayonnaise. When the emulsion has clearly formed, you can add the oil faster. Whisk in the garlic paste, a few drops of lemon juice and more salt as needed.
To prepare the mussels: Heat the olive oil in a large pot over moderately high heat. Add the shallots and saute for about 3 minutes, until softened. Add the wine and Pernod, increase the heat to high and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 minute to cook off the alcohol, then add the mussels, cover and steam until the mussels open, about 3 minutes.
Transfer the mussels to a large bowl, leaving the mussel liquor behind.
Whisk 1/2 cup of the mussel liquor into the aioli, then pour the thinned aioli over the mussels. Add the parsley and toss well.
Divide the mussels and their sauce evenly among warmed serving bowls.
PER SERVING: 400 calories, 15 g protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 33 g fat (5 g saturated), 85 mg cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
DOUG'S GRILLED ANCHOVIES
A wonderful appetizer, made with the least expensive of fish. You will need a rack, such as a flat hinged grill basket, that can hold the anchovies and sit directly on your grill's cooking rack. That way, you can remove all the fish at once when they are done, rather than having to lift off each small fish individually. The heavy, round cast-iron rack sold for grilling peppers on the stovetop is perfect.
1 pound fresh anchovies
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced Italian parsley
4 lemon wedges
INSTRUCTIONS: Scrape the skin side of the anchovies with a knife to remove the scales, then fillet as follows: Hold each fish under cold running water and slit open through the belly. Remove the head and the internal matter. Grasp the skeleton by the tail; it should lift out easily, but you may need to cut it away from the flesh in places. Open the fish flat like a book.
Oil the rack that you will cook the anchovies on. Arrange the anchovies skin-side down on the rack and brush them with olive oil. Season with salt and garlic.
Prepare a hot charcoal fire and put the grill's cooking rack in place.
Put the anchovies on their rack on the grill's cooking rack and cook until the skin crisps and the flesh turns white. They do not need to be turned.
Serve the fish directly from the rack or carefully transfer them to a serving platter. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.
PER SERVING: 45 calories, 7 g protein, 0 carbohydrate, 2 g fat (0 saturated), 20 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
SPAGHETTI WITH CALAMARI
Cooking the squid slowly for a long time makes them very tender and produces a rich sauce.
1 1/4 pounds fresh squid, or 3/4 pound cleaned squid
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
Sea salt or kosher salt, to taste
1/2 cup red wine
1 pound plum tomatoes, grated (see Note)
2 dozen fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 pound spaghetti
INSTRUCTIONS: To clean squid: Pull the head from the body. Cut off the tentacles just above the eyes and squeeze out the hard beak at the base. Cut the tentacles in half. With your finger, pull out any interior matter from the body, including the quill-like cartilage. Rinse the interior, then pull off the thin mottled skin.
Cut the bodies into 1/2-inch rings. Put the tentacles and rings in a sieve or colander and rinse again.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the onion and toss to coat with the oil. Cover and reduce heat to cook the onion gently without browning. Cook for about 15 minutes, until it is very soft. Uncover, increase the heat to moderately high and add the garlic and hot pepper flakes. Cook for about 1 minute to release the garlic fragrance.
Add the squid, season with salt and cook, stirring, until the squid turn white, about 2 minutes.
Add the wine and simmer for about 2 minutes to cook off the alcohol. Add the tomatoes and basil. Bring to a simmer, cover and adjust heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, until the squid are very tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm over low heat while you cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente. Drain and return to the warm pot. Add the sauce and toss well.
Divide among warmed serving bowls. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, if you like.
Note: To grate tomatoes, cut them in half lengthwise. Remove seeds with your fingers. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the tomato halves to a pulp; discard the skins.
PER SERVING: 835 calories, 30 g protein, 100 g carbohydrate, 32 g fat (5 g saturated), 198 mg cholesterol, 51 mg sodium, 10 g fiber.