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Scales of Justice

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Scales of Justice
Seafood Trawlers of Charleston, South Carolina. Photos by Christopher Shane

In the Battle for Sustainable Seafood,
Chefs Join the Front Lines

In port cities up and down the summer Southern coast, marshland Spartina grasses shift from vivid spring green to deep viridian, signaling warmer waters. The ocean beckons, for sport, relaxation, beauty, and sustenance. Cages descend, seine nets scrape the ocean depths, fishermen gig by moonlight and drop lines into creeks and rivers. Sun and pluff mud offer nature’s spa treatments as we wait for something to bite. A chicken neck, a string, and a little patience are all that’s required to nab a blue crab while seagulls, dolphins, and pelicans stalk fishing boats hoping to score a meal from those processing their catch. The search for seafood makes equal opportunists of us all.

Mark Mahefka of Abundance Seafood's Fish Catch
South Carolina Fish Trawlers.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a dwindling but dedicated group of mariners continue to face the ocean’s elements, departing for days at a time to carry on an age-old craft, foraging the sea to satiate the world’s ever-growing appetite for seafood. They pass cruise ships at dock, floodgates of tourists that disperse into seafood eateries like schools of fish evading a predator, slurping down oysters, gobbling shrimp, cracking open crab claws, and savoring the “local” seafood. But is it really local? Or fresh? Or sustainable?

What if that nice fellow with his “fresh local shrimp” stand on the side of the road actually sells Indonesian shellfish raised in stagnant, fetid, chemical-treated ponds? That gorgeous red snapper on your plate? Perhaps it was caught two weeks ago in El Salvador, shipped north through a Florida port, routed on a refrigerated truck to a processing plant in Atlanta, transferred to a coastal distributor, and then delivered to a restaurant kitchen.

Despite our fanciful notions of weathered salts bringing in the local bounty from waters just offshore, the hard truth is that local seafood markets are merely subsidiaries of a global seafood market. Over 75 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported (shrimp clocks in at an astounding 95 percent). For those of us who seek the local, fresh, and sustainable, whom can we trust? Is there an app for that?

“Over eighty percent of the seafood that is consumed in the United States is consumed through restaurants,” says Shelley Dearhart who runs the Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SSI) at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston; it follows then that chefs can make a difference.”

SSI began in 2002 with the mission of helping culinary professionals make informed decisions when sourcing seafood, all in the name of our ocean’s health. Restaurants wishing to participate submit a menu to Dearhart and specify plans for sourcing each item. Dearhart then gets to work, culling information from a worldwide network of scientists, statistics, and fishery management experts who work in unison to monitor fish populations as well as the environmental impacts of fishing industry practices. SSI then scores participating menus according to their sustainability. Chefs receive a binder full of detailed information on each fish they intend to source, with recommendations for more sustainable substitutes.

“When I got the binder back,” says Chef Drew Hedlund of Fleet Landing Restaurant, “it was like a bible, very informative and clearly a huge investment of time. It’s funny, chefs always think they know everything, but it turned out that the salmon we were buying at the time was a lot less ‘green’ than I thought it was. That was an eye opener.”

Fleet Landing is an SSI Platinum Partner, garnering the highest rating of sustainability. This means they’ve gone to serious lengths to source responsibly, striving to serve as much bycatch (sometimes called “trash fish”) as possible—perfectly tasty but lesser known varieties like jolthead porgy and triggerfish. Hedlund goes the extra mile by targeting fish that arguably need to be removed from local waters.

Mark Mahefka of Abundance Seafood's Fish Catch
Chef Drew Hedlund of Fleet Landing Restaurant serves as much bycatch–perfectly tasty but lesser known fish–as possible.

“The lionfish is an invasive species with venomous spines, so there aren’t many predators out there who eat them. They reproduce almost constantly. We try to take them off the reef, featuring them as much as we can.”

Chef Jon Cropf of the newly renovated Vendue is also dedicated to serving up bycatch such as barrelfish, but he also ventures into the realm of locally farmed fish. “There are two angles to sustainability: wild and farmed,” says Cropf. “A lot of people here oppose farm-raised seafood, but they haven’t met Rick Eager at Swimming Rockfish Farm.”

Eager raises red drum, shrimp, and tilapia on his property on the Toogoodoo River just west of Charleston. He uses no chemicals, no hormones, and no antibiotics. His natural system of flow-through ponds prevents water stagnation while ensuring that neither waste nor sediment enter or leave the farm, and SSI approves his fish farming operation as sustainable. Ultrasonic waves from specialized water treatment filters combat summer algae blooms. Varying frequencies blast into the water, causing the algae to jiggle, burst, and sink to the bottom where it dies from lack of access to oxygen and light. This gentle low-wattage technology keeps the water clear without chemicals. When the fish have reached a proper weight, Eager harvests them by seine net, plops them into a large tank on the back of his pickup truck, and delivers them, still swimming (thus the name of his farm), to local restaurants.

Mark Mahefka of Abundance Seafood's Fish Catch
Mark Mahefka's Fresh Catch of the Day.

“Live fish delivery is the freshest fish you can serve to your customers,” Cropf points out, contrasting Eager’s product to wild-caught fish that may have been on ice for days or even weeks before reaching its destination.

Still, not everyone is convinced of the merits of fish farming. Local fisherman Mark Marhefka eyes such operations with suspicion. No matter how environmentally sensitive Eager’s program may appear, the fact that the fish are fed commercial feed whose first ingredient is genetically modified soybeans is objectionable to those who routinely forage the sea and depend on a wild fishery for their livelihood.

“I’m sorry, but farmed fish never tasted like anything but mud to me,” says Marhefka as he unloads his catch dockside at Shem Creek.

“All sorts of natural factors contribute to the way a fish tastes—different climates, different food sources. A fish has to go and eat other fish to taste like fish. If a fish eats corn and soy, then that’s exactly what they’re going to taste like. And if you’re feeding smaller fish to larger fish in order to grow them in captivity, where is that protein coming from? Should we deplete our oceans to grow seafood? It doesn’t really make sense.”
Mark Mahefka of Abundance Seafood's Fish Catch
Mark Mahefka of Abundant Seafood

Marhefka believes in sustainable harvesting of the ocean’s natural resources. He supports the establishment of protected offshore marine areas where fish can thrive and reproduce with no interaction from commercial or recreational fishers.

Scores of locals routinely ply the gravel road to Marhefka’s shed on Shem Creek, wondering what’s fresh that day and asking for advice on how to cook it. Some belong to his CSF (the fishing equivalent of a CSA). He encourages participants to try new things, opening their eyes to less endangered species and educating them on fisheries management, sustainability, catch limits, and seasonality. “The great thing is seeing a kid’s eyes light up when he learns something new, and boom, suddenly I’m not the rapist of the ocean anymore!”

Marhefka delivers to many of Charleston’s top chefs, including Nico Romo of Fish Restaurant, an SSI Platinum Partner whose menu is 100 percent sustainable. Romo was just named “Sustainable Ambassador” by the esteemed Monterey Bay Aquarium (an honor granted to only twenty-five chefs nationwide each year). He accepted the award fresh off the heels of attending a James Beard Boot Camp dedicated to exploring issues surrounding sustainable seafood.

Chef Nico Romo of Fish Restaurant in Charleston, SC
Fish Restaurant's Award-Winning Chef Nico Romo

“It’s a conversation we all need to have,” says Romo. “How do we determine which fish we should catch and which fish are still in danger? What can we do as chefs to help, to raise awareness, to teach the customer? It’s a chef’s duty to take a fish that nobody knew about or wanted to eat before, to figure out how to make it taste great, to put it on the menu, and to sell it at a price tag that makes it worth their while for fishermen to go out and catch it.”

“The great thing about Charleston,” continues Romo, “is that customers are not scared of trying anything. People come to this city for its foodie reputation. They come to our restaurant trusting that we are fighting for good product.”

Recipes by Chef Nico Romo
of Fish Restaurant in Charleston, SC

Tuna Tartare
Crawfish Croque Madame
Seared Scallops with Coconut Rice and Strawberry-Tamarind Glaze
Bouillabaise with Kaffir Lime Leaf

Chef Nico Romo of Fish Restaurant's bouillabaisse
Chef Nico Romo's Bouillabaisse with Kaffir Lime Life.

Good product can mean lots of things. Should we value freshness, the environment, or economy? Do we have a duty to ensure that the numbers of fish of any edible species remain at a level that allows future generations to enjoy them as food? Does it matter whether fish comes from a local dock or half a world away? These questions raise many implications for those who source and serve the world’s seafood, but despite their ample supply of opinion, the questions are not left solely to chef or fisherman. The diner will decide.

What Can You Do?

As a consumer,
how can you make more informed seafood choices?
Here are some options to consider.

Mark Mahefka of Abundance Seafood's Fish Catch
Nets for the Catch of the Day
  1. THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT.
    Monterey Bay’s free app Seafood Watch is a useful tool. Search by name of fish to help determine whether it is deemed sustainable, tolerable, or an absolute no-no. On the “avoid” list is orange roughy, which, considering it can live to be 100−150, is like eating your grandmother.
  2. ASK FIRST.
    Any fishmonger or server worth his or her salt should be able to explain the origins of a given seafood, where it was sourced, how fresh it is, or why it has a slightly higher price point. Conscientious chefs educate their staff accordingly. If the answer seems uninformed or evasive, take your business elsewhere.
  3. JOIN A CSF.
    Marhefka’s model for a community-supported fishery is a win-win for both fisherman and customer. Customers learn to appreciate seafood by season, try new things, and gain a fisherman’s insider knowledge of seafood cycles.
  4. SHOP AT WHOLE FOODS.
    Look for seafood purveyors like Whole Foods who have been dubbed official corporate partners of Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch Initiative. You’ll find that the folks behind the counter really know their fish. Find a purveyor you can trust.
  5. CHECK OUT THE NEAREST AQUARIUM.
    Monterey Bay took the lead, and other aquariums have followed suit in launching sustainability awareness programs. In addition to the South Carolina Aquarium’s SSI program, Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium launched its Serve and Protect initiative last fall. Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium has the WAVE Foundation. Louisiana’s Audubon Nature Institute (the aquarium in New Orleans) has launched GULF: Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries. Virginia’s Aquarium offers a “Sensible Seafood Program” pocket guide. North Carolina’s collective aquariums promote their “Local Catch” project.
  6. TRY SOMETHING NEW.
    As the saying goes, there are a whole lot of fish in the sea. Break out of your comfort zone and give salmon, swordfish, and tuna a well-deserved break. If you see “sugar toes” (blowfish) on the menu, smoked mullet, or even scorpionfish (which makes a great ceviche), put your faith in the chef and go for it.
  7. BUY LOCAL WHEN POSSIBLE.
    Ever since the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, American fisheries have gone to great lengths to restore previously threatened fish stocks. Our policy makers and fishermen are working together to provide a clean, safe, sustainable, turtle-friendly product and to minimize bycatch. When in doubt, buy American.
  8. USE THE WEB.
    In addition to Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch, The Environmental Defense Fund website has a very informative Seafood Selector Chart, as does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at FishWatch.
  9. EAT MORE VEGETABLES.
    There are other ways to get your Omega-3s (like drizzling flaxseed oil over kale, or munching on pumpkin seeds) and proteins. Ease off the ocean just a tad, and she will thank you for it.
  10. READ UP.
    Three excellent books for your bedside table: Four Fish, which won Paul Greenberg a James Beard award; Fish Forever by Paul Johnson, an excellent guide that is full of seafood recipes; and End of the Line by Charles Clover, a sobering read that will cause you never to take seafood for granted again.
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Featured in June.July 2014

Mentioned in this post:
Christopher Shane, Nico Romo