Hooked on Seafood: Sustainability Reels It In
Following a blessing of heavy rain the previous day, January 30 dawned sparkling and sunny in Princeton-by-the Sea on Half Moon Bay. A steady stream of visitors filled the idyllic hamlet, where in a typical year it would have been peak crab season, with local fishermen selling the fresh catch from their boats.
But this year there were no crabs. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife had shut down the commercial crab-fishing season due to high levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin.
Yet on that shimmering Saturday, 1,500 seafood lovers from throughout the Bay Area converged on the property of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company in Princeton to attend the SOS Seafood Festival: Sustaining Our Seas. What was previously scheduled to be the first Half Moon Bay Crab Fest had been transformed virtually overnight into a major summit on the state of our seas—and a chance to eat sublime seafood.
SOS Seafood Festival
The festival’s Food Truck City was a seafood eater’s mecca, with sustainable seafood dishes from tempura and calamari to ceviche and oysters prepared under the direction of event sponsor Google’s Regional Executive Chef of Catering Malachi Harland, winner of the 2015 BITE Silicon Valley corporate chefs competition. Off the Grid food trucks and local Princeton restaurants served up more seafood; local wineries, breweries and a distillery offered libations; and live music and crafts booths rounded out the day.
At the center of it all, the SOS Chefs Pavilion— curated by Coastside resident Liv Wu, teaching kitchen program manager for the Google Food Team, and Kerri Stenson, publisher at Edible Silicon Valley—hosted cooking demos by chefs from renowned seafood restaurants, as well as the Seafood for Thought panel of seafood sustainability experts. The overall message throughout the day was unanimous: Local fishermen are affected as much by human activity as they are by nature, fish as a food source is being depleted, and we need to take our entire food system more seriously.
Fresh-Caught Local Seafood
With the local Princeton Harbor’s fishing fleet dedicated solely to crab over many months, the Pavilion audience learned that truly local, seasonal seafood isn’t always available, and that the livelihood of local fishermen is perpetually tenuous.
One rarely eaten sustainable fish that’s plentiful in the winter waters of San Francisco Bay—herring—was featured in the dish prepared by Doug Bernstein, executive chef of Fish restaurant in Sausalito. In his pickled herring open-face sandwich on Danish smørrebrød, the small, silver-skinned fish lay elegantly atop thin rye bread beneath a garnish of roe with shaved fennel and red onions.
Another available local seafood is Monterey Bay black cod. Kevin Butler, chef and fisherman with Moss Landing–based community-supported fishery (CSF) Real Good Fish, transformed the classic unagi roll, traditionally made with eel (ranked “avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch), into a highly sustainable roll with smoked black cod. Company founder Alan Lovewell, a conservation activist who worked setting policy with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), praised this fish harvested in deep waters off Carmel. “Black cod is exciting because it’s incredibly delicious, has great oil content and smokes wonderfully,” he said.
Real Good Fish customer Ted Walter, chef and co-owner of Passionfish restaurant in Pacific Grove, prepared the black cod by grilling it and adding a Korean element with housemade kimchi.
Lovewell noted that most California black cod is shipped to Japan, where it’s highly prized. “Consumers need to understand that we have an incredible abundance right here,” he said, “and we need to support our local fishermen.”
Panelist Kirk Lombard, owner of Moss Beach–based Sea Forager, leads fishing and foraging tours and operates a CSF program that delivers sustainably harvested seafood to drop-off points across the Bay Area. He also sang the praises of herring, a small, plentiful fish that feeds so low on the food chain they don’t bioaccumulate toxins. “All over the world people eat smaller fish,” said Lombard, “but the dominant culture in America is to eat a big slab of fish with no bones.” Pointing out that trawlers catch billions of pounds of sardines to be turned into pellets that will be fed to farmed tuna, he said, “if we just ate the sardines we’d have a highly nutritious creature and the world would be better off.”
Not all farmed fish is unsustainable, though. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s executive chef, Matthew Beaudin, prepared smoked trout with a fennel, citrus, micro-arugula gremolata. The trout was farmed by 2XSea, a San Francisco–based sustainable seafood purveyor that has developed the first vegetarian feed for farmed trout. Kenny Belov, co-owner of Fish restaurant, is a partner in 2XSea and spoke at the event. “I refuse to put commercial fishermen out of business,” said Belov, "so I don’t farm anything that can be sustainably harvested, like salmon, crab and herring.” His solution, albeit small scale, to the grinding of small fish to feed large ones, is his McFarland Springs trout farm in Susanville, California, where the fish eat a diet of algae, pistachio meal, pea protein and flax meal and have no PCB’s or mercury content because of the high water quality.
The reality of most commercial fish farming operations is that “they are in the middle of the ocean creating waste and poisoning everything else,” said Belov. “It takes 10 pounds of wild fish to create one pound of farmed salmon.”
Small Bites for Sustainability
Google’s Wu reflected on the realities of this season without crab and the dwindling populations of fish due to overharvesting. She pondered, “Can we still harvest the last wild food from the waters of this planet while making it a renewable harvest so the local economy of the fishermen is sustained?”
Representing fishermen from the entire West Coast was panelist Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). He reminded the crowd that “fishermen are some of the original conservationists; they depend critically on natural resources sustaining themselves.”
Panelist Casson Trenor, a former Greenpeace activist who campaigned to reform seafood policies at gargantuan retailers such as Costco and Walmart, is co-founder of the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant—Tataki, in San Francisco, now with three locations. His passion for conserving wild fish runs so deep that his fourth restaurant, Shizen, offers only vegan sushi. “It’s about eating less seafood,” said Trenor. “I see eating as a spiritual experience, and our choices have ramifications,” he continued. “It’s time to have a lighter footprint overall . . . eat more vegetables.”
Panelist Sheila Bowman, Seafood Watch manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, emphasized the importance of educating consumers. “Americans know very little about what lives in the oceans,” she said. Then holding up a six-ounce can of tuna, “They can’t picture that the 600-pound fish they see when they visit our museum is a tuna.” She pointed out that one of the biggest impacts humans have on sea life is that “we are eating species out of the oceans at an incredible rate—and extinction is forever.”
An estimate recently released by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future said there might not be any fish left in the oceans by 2050.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans make a shift toward eating double the amount of seafood of the previous recommendation—to two times a week—as a healthier source of protein and omega-3 essential fats.
Finding a balance between the increase in seafood demand and the rapid decline in sea life is a serious challenge that casts its net well beyond fishermen and the seafood industry to restaurants and retailers, marine conservationists and the entire global population of seafood consumers.
What Else Can We Do?
While certain fisheries are losing ground, others are rebounding. Panelist Cindy Walter, co-owner of Passionfish with her husband, Ted, is the daughter and granddaughter of Monterey fishermen and a nationally recognized sustainable seafood advocate. She recalled the 1997 shutdown of the decimated rockfish fishery and the announcement that it would be closed for 75 years. But several years ago it reopened, “thanks to the fishermen working so hard to protect these species.”
Walter said that 75% of all seafood sold in the United States is sold in restaurants, and that “every dollar you spend is the gateway to the ocean.” The message repeated through the panelists’ comments was that consumers need to ask chefs, fishmongers and grocers about the sustainability of their fish.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Bowman said, “Nobody is buying wine without six adjectives in front if it, so you need to get some adjectives in front of your fish. You’ve got to get more information.”
The Seafood Watch recommendations are for fish that are “well managed, caught or farmed in ways that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife.” For wild-caught fish, that means selective fishing methods that avoid bycatch—catching species other than those being targeted. The most sustainable method is hook and line, with the fish caught singly. “It’s like the equivalent of artisanal eating,” said PCFFA’s Sloane. Another sustainable method is trolling, which drags lines with hooks at slow speed at the surface of the water. With the right bait and hooks, and harvesting at the right time of year, there is very little bycatch.
While fishing regulations in California are among the most stringent in the world and the Seafood Watch smartphone app has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times, experts are pointing to climate change as contributing to the troubles at sea. According to scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, ocean-warming temperatures appear to be having an effect on ocean life as fossil fuel burning causes the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide, which threatens the productivity of life-giving plankton. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has reported that as sea surface temperatures rise the abundance of fish in the cool “California current” has declined dramatically for four decades.
The domoic acid found in crabs was produced by large algae blooms along the West Coast, which “may be related to the unusually warm water conditions we've been having,” said Raphael Kudela, professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
While our collective efforts to help to slow climate change may not be measurable in the short term, sustainable seafood advocates have encouraging news about consumer trends. Management rules for ecosystem-based fisheries were put in place in the late 1990s, and today nearly all U.S. fisheries meet Seafood Watch criteria for sustainability.
Still, more than 80% of seafood in the United States market is imported.
Reveling in her good fortune of living in nearby Moss Beach next to “powerful, beautiful mother ocean,” SOS Festival curator Wu asked that we “conserve the bounty of the sea while supporting the local fisher families who harvest our seafood and whose livelihoods depend on it.”
Lombard suggested trying your hand at foraging. “If you catch one eel or one perch, it will inform everything else you know about seafood,” he said. “How much more are you going to appreciate the guy who went out for three days to put a piece of black cod on your dinner plate?”
Anne Weinberger is a freelance writer and garden designer living in the East Bay.
The Sea Forager’s Guide to Northern California, by Kirk Lombard (coming August 2016, Heydey Books)
Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Post-Modern Experience, by Milton Love (Really Big Press)
Sustainable Sushi, A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time, by Casson Trenor (North Atlantic Books)