Sustainable Seafood Takes Hold in Silicon Valley
Across the globe, the movement to support local and sustainable foods continues to gain momentum. In the realm of seafood, one of our most threatened resources, the sustainable food movement is having marked success.
Fishermen, suppliers, chefs and food service companies across the United States and much of the world now support and encourage the use of sustainable seafood. And in the style of Silicon Valley, our local food community includes many of the “early adopters.”
What is sustainable seafood? At the most basic level, the Monterey Bay Aquarium defines it as seafood “from sources, either fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long-term without jeopardizing the affected ecosystems.” In other words, sustainable seafood comes from fisheries (wild or farmed) that provide a long-term, quality supply of fish to market with minimal environmental impact.
In the opinion of most scientists, the need to prioritize sustainability in the production and harvesting of seafood is very real. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium—which has become a recognized leader in this field—85% of global fisheries are at capacity or overfished, and fishery collapses are common across the globe. Even in the case of aquaculture farms, environmental damage from poorly managed salmon and shrimp farms also have potential to harm wild ecosystems.
In the 1990s the food world began to take notice of declining fisheries. Nationally recognized chefs like Rick Moonen of RM Seafood joined programs like Give Swordfish a Break, led by the National Resources Defense Council and Sea Watch. For Moonen, it was a simple decision to support sustainable seafood.
“I saw major changes in size of available fish. It used to be 200-pound swordfish, then 100 pounds, then just pups.” At that point, Moonen and many other chefs “began paying more attention to fish populations … and more and more chefs are on board.”
Give Swordfish a Break was a very successful national campaign for sustainable seafood and soon after, in 1999, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, working with dozens of other conservation groups, created the Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch inspects global fisheries for sustainability and then classifies fisheries as “Best Choice/GREEN,” “Good Alternatives/YELLOW” and “Avoid/RED.” These guidelines are made available to consumers and businesses via the web and mobile apps, but the pocket guide consumers see at many markets is the most popular medium, with over 40 million copies distributed to date.
The success of Seafood Watch comes from a unique partnership between NGOs, scientists, media, chefs, suppliers/fisherman and food service professionals all coming together to support sustainable seafood. To get the word out, the Monterey Bay Aquarium annually hosts Cooking For Solutions, an event that brings chefs and food service professionals together with consumers, scientists and media to enjoy fine cuisine made with sustainable seafood. The goal is to educate both chefs and consumers that delicious dishes can be made with sustainable seafood.
Locally, Silicon Valley chefs and food service companies were early supporters of sustainable seafood and the Seafood Watch program. One of the key early adopters was Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), led by Fedele Bauccio. Starting in 2002, BAMCO began purchasing seafood according to Seafood Watch guidelines.
At first, there were challenges. As Bauccio notes, working with suppliers “the biggest challenge was getting country of origin, catch and transportation method info … we were asking suppliers for info that no one else had ever cared about.”
And for consumers, the main challenge was, and is, education.
“In the beginning, the challenge was converting guests who were used to unsustainable but delicious species. At the time Chilean sea bass was very trendy and everyone wanted it in catering (it’s moist and doesn’t dry out easily so it’s great for big groups). Another popular item with guests was farmed salmon, because it’s so inexpensive. However, when our chefs would explain the environmental impacts of eating these fish and offer delicious alternatives, guests were easily persuaded to try something else,” says Bauccio,
Nowadays, as support for sustainable seafood grows, BAMCO is focusing on providing its customers with sustainable and local options.
“Our chefs served more than 50 species of local seafood last year, exposing diners to all kinds of new tastes they might have forgotten about or never had, and that makes me very happy,” says Bauccio.
And the Bay Area does provide consumers with dozens of sustainable seafood choices. Salmon, shellfish, squid, halibut, abalone and Dungeness crab are just a few popular ingredients from local, sustainable sources. As David Hunsaker of 31st Union in San Mateo notes, “We only purchase seafood that is caught within the coast of California. We always have Monterey Bay squid on the menu. Pacific halibut ceviche sells out almost every week. When Dungeness crab season starts we always have it on our menu—but the day the local season ends the crab is taken off our menu. We want to support our local fishermen at all times.”
The Left Bank brasseries and LB Steak restaurants in Silicon Valley also support sustainable seafood, working with CleanFish, a local purveyor of sustainable and responsible fish. Says Joel Guillion, culinary director of Left Bank and LB steak, “We always support sustainability, with passion and enthusiasm, to protect authenticity and availability” of local seafood.
“Any restaurant group cannot hope to be credible in the foodie mecca that is greater Bay Area region and not be aware and committed to being part of making a difference,” Guillion continues. “Our chefs have had the added pleasure of discovering, over years of responsible seafood menus, that sustainability is also a way to make a delicious difference you can taste. We give up nothing in our work with CleanFish. We only continue to add to our quality with the responsible integrity of delivering on fish we can all trust.”
And new seafood restaurants in Silicon Valley also support sustainable, local seafood. At The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Chef Yu Min Lin says “We have been using sustainable seafood since the opening of The Sea in last November. I also try to source locally as much as possible.” The Sea features sustainable dishes like Half Moon Bay Halibut T-Bone, with Half Moon Bay butter beans and tomatoes from Happy Boys Farm.
“It all comes down to doing our part in maintaining a balanced and healthy relationship with the ocean. All we need to do is to make smarter choices today and have more to enjoy for the years to come.”
Throughout Silicon Valley and beyond, support for sustainable seafood continues to grow. As Chef David Hunsaker says, “I think in the coming years customers will look for sustainable seafood just as they would items that are organic. Sustainable is really only taking hold on the coasts, but in the coming years it will move towards the middle of America.”