Even in San Francisco, Seafood Sustainability Is Suspect

Categories: Doggy Bag
Mass_Sardine_Shot.jpg
Sardines are an anytime food.
Today, San Francisco magazine published an amazing investigative piece by Erik Vance. Vance doesn't just accept local chefs' commitment to sourcing what they call "sustainable seafood" ― he checks up on their claims.

There is a booming demand for sustainably caught fish. ... But at the same time, many of our most famous chefs continue to put unsustainable choices like ahi tuna, monkfish, and farmed salmon on their menus, while their most respected suppliers keep selling red-listed fish to whoever wants it. Even the many chefs who go out of their way to ask the right questions of the people they get their fish from can be misled by the half-truths told all along the supply chain. 
Vance's central character is Kenny Belov, the co-owner of Fish in Sausalito. Belov isn't just a restaurateur. His concerns over the gap between the perceived and actual sustainability of seafood has propelled him into becoming a wholesaler, an anti-farmed-salmon advocate, and a trout farmer. Belov makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program look like it's dabbling in half measures. (The chart's "yellow" section? He thinks it's bogus.)

In an accompanying piece, Nic Buron evaluated the menus of 18 local restaurants that claim to sell sustainably caught seafood; on almost every single menu, he found numerous misstatements and fish from red-listed species, and uncovered incidences of supplier greenwashing.

The feature is a remarkable piece of journalism, supported by great graphics and charts. I did have a few concerns with the piece. Belov's strict definitions of sustainability aren't the same as the more nuanced stance of well-respected suppliers like Monterey Fish Market, who end up being portrayed like panderers. And the net effect of the menu evaluation is to cast aspersions on the honesty of chefs, who are likely to be so busy they can't possibly investigate all their suppliers' claims, day after day.

However, the overall message ― that sustainability-conscious diners and chefs are sold far too many threatened species and seafood caught through environmentally destructive means ― is compelling. And given the speed at which the oceans are being depleted, it's a chilling one, too.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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8 comments
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Gary
Gary

I wonder what this guy thinks of ranched salmon from Alaska? Google search "Alaska ranched salmon" if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about...

Jesus Toast
Jesus Toast

Yes, it seems that sustainable, etc. are just meaningless buzzwords in the Bay Area these days because so many people now want to hear them. In fact, I started to comment on this blog's Sushirito blurb yesterday but got foiled by an intermittent connection and laziness, but meant to point out that the quote "the ingredients are fresh/organic/local " appears below a picture containing rice, Tuna, Salmon, Hiramasa, Yuzu Tobiko, Avocado, Asparagus, Cucumber, Shaved Red Radish, Green Onion without any questioning of this claim. At least Sushirito's website claims they get local/sustainable/organic whenever possible. I was actually too lazy to finish my post because I didn't really want to rag on Sushirito, but rather an author who would report those claims, and see the ingredients, and not ask any questions. Why am I complaining about this on your post? I don't know, I guess I'm just a horrible person.

Ollieschuh
Ollieschuh

When a "sustainable" restaurant can't stay in business in San Francisco for two years, the irony is thick. One day the fish will rise up and fly away. Only a few are on board with this, but it'll happen I tells ya!

Guy
Guy

Note that the concept of "sustainability" is doled out by special interest groups. I have yet to see a scientific accounting of sustainability.

For example, why is farmed salmon not sustainable? Would the detractors prefer thousands of ships use energy to go out hunting salmon and haul them back to a port?

Right now, sustainability is a slogan. And too many people lump it with "locally raised" and "organic." Organically grown everything is not sustainable; it uses far too many resources at too high a cost.

JRDN
JRDN

For every pound of farmed salmon raised, it takes around 5 lbs of fish to create. Farmed Salmon are fed pellets made from fish. The ships are still out there regardless, they just aren't farming salmon. So we get both the pollution from the ships and we lose 4 pounds of fish for every pound of salmon farmed.

"End of the Line" - a great documentary about this issue.

Gary
Gary

Correction, it takes less than 2 lbs of fish to create 1 lb of farmed salmon. But you just ignored the fact that it takes a hatchery fish (of which most "wild" fish are made from) two or three times that amount. A wee bit hypocritical...

Richie Nakano
Richie Nakano

"And the net effect of the menu evaluation is to cast aspersions on the honesty of chefs, who are likely to be so busy they can't possibly investigate all their suppliers' claims, day after day."

Yes they can. If you claim to be local/sustainable/organic/green, you have no excuse. What could be better than to give the responsibility for investigating these sorts of matters to young and upcoming linecooks?

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