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At the End of the Line
Worried About Overfishing, Chefs Take Sustainability From Ocean to Plate

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Barton Seaver has bags under his eyes for a reason: Besides the exhaustive work it takes to get any new restaurant up and running, he spends his nights surfing the Web to determine which fish he can serve his customers with a clean conscience.

Seaver, 28, who officially opened the Georgetown seafood restaurant Hook just last week, preaches the sustainability mantra with conviction. He has become convinced that at a time when scientists are warning that commercial fish stocks could collapse altogether by 2048, he and other chefs need to prepare meals that do not deplete the world's oceans.

"For all of human history, we've seen the ocean as an endless, vast resource," Seaver said in an interview at his sleek, beige-tone restaurant, which sports oversize ocean photos on the walls. "This is a fundamental sociological change we're talking about. Basically, what we're trying to do is create a relationship to our oceans through food."

Seaver has joined a growing number of chefs in Washington and elsewhere who, motivated by a mix of ethical and pragmatic concerns, are trying to serve only fish that can reproduce at the rate they're being caught.

Americans are eating more fish even as the nation's stocks are struggling. Between 2001 and 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, per-capita annual U.S. seafood consumption rose from 14.8 pounds to 16.2 pounds; more than half of that was eaten in restaurants. But according to an analysis by Rebecca Goldberg, a scientist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, roughly one in three U.S.-managed fisheries is already overfished or getting there.

That presents a challenge for chefs who, after all, aim to please their customers.

"Why are fish unsustainable?" says Seaver, who also extends the sustainability commitment to Hook's other ingredients. "Because they're popular. What makes restaurants work? Popular dishes that people come back for."

So chefs engage in a high-stakes sales pitch, replacing crowd-pleaser dishes such as Chilean sea bass -- which is actually Patagonian toothfish, a species that has been decimated by outlaw fishing vessels -- for less-familiar fish that are more abundant.

At the Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown, head chef Rob Klink stopped serving Patagonian toothfish five years ago despite customers' demands for it; reading G. Bruce Knecht's book "Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish," published last year, reinforced Klink's decision. "We're here long term," he said. "There's no reason for us to be using anything that can't be sustained."

Klink serves Alaskan sablefish instead of toothfish because both are mild-flavored and absorb sauces well. When swordfish stocks plunged worldwide, he opted for Hawaiian wahoo, which is also on Seaver's menu at Hook.

"It sells now, but it didn't sell for two years," Klink says. "We just kept putting it out there."

Such practices can have an impact: Between 1998 and 2000, the conservation groups SeaWeb and Natural Resources Defense Council ran a campaign called "Give Swordfish a Break," persuading more than 700 U.S. chefs and three major cruise lines to stop serving North Atlantic swordfish. In response, Clinton administration officials closed swordfish nursery areas in U.S. waters and pushed for stronger international management rules. The fish recovered: In 1998 it was down to 65 percent of sustainable levels; by 2002 it was up to 94 percent.

Many chefs serve farm-raised fish on the grounds that farming operations do not deplete wild fish stocks. Since the 2005 ban on U.S. imports of beluga caviar, Klink offers American farm-raised caviar instead. Barramundi, an Australian reef fish that is farm-raised in Massachusetts, appears regularly on the menu at Oceanaire.

Last month, Equinox downtown started serving ribs from pacu, a farm-raised Chilean fish with a diet of berries and nuts. The fish's ribs, which chef Todd Gray serves with a maple-balsamic glaze and fennel coleslaw, taste as smoky and tangy as meat ribs, but lighter.

Other farmed fish, however, have their own environmental downside. Farmed salmon remains popular with U.S. consumers because it's cheaper than wild, but scientists and environmental activists say the open-water fish farms that produce them can pollute the ocean while consuming vast amounts of smaller, wild fish as feed for the salmon.

"People generally assume whatever they're served in a restaurant is okay," said Michael Hirschfield, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Oceana. "This is dangerous when it comes to some popular farmed fish, like salmon, since they are raised in ways that cause tremendous problems in the ocean."

Attempts to buy only sustainable fish often put American chefs in the position of being international brokers, taking cellphone calls from island fishermen who relate what they've hauled up that same day. Because bluefin tuna -- a fatty, open-ocean fish popular with sushi purveyors -- is in trouble, Seaver buys blackfin tuna from a three-person fishing cooperative in Tobago. The fishermen call Seaver to tell him what they've caught; if he gives his okay, the fish arrives in Washington within 24 hours.

"These guys can't catch enough fish to make them go away," Seaver said. The Tobago fishermen spent a week showing his chef de cuisine, Joshua Wigham, how instead of using trawlers that often unintentionally kill hundreds of other fish, they bring in catches with an individual hook and line.

Some fish, no matter how similar the names, are not exact substitutes for each other: Blackfin tuna is leaner than bluefin, has a sweeter flavor and picks up smokiness from the grill. While chefs often compare one species to another -- Klink describes barramundi as "like a meaty striped bass" and sometimes pairs it with a meat sauce -- they also try to highlight the virtues of lesser-known fish such as mackerel.

"When a guest comes in and says, 'Can I have the Chilean sea bass?' it's our responsibility to say, 'No; this is why,' and offer a solution," Seaver said.

When it comes to finding sufficient supplies of sustainable fish, East Coast chefs sometimes have more difficulty than their West Coast counterparts. That's because fish stocks in Alaska are thriving, and some Western fisheries are doing better than ones in the East. Christopher Pauls, head chef of Mare restaurant in Boston, said that when he moved from San Francisco two years ago he found it harder to live up to his promise of an all-organic restaurant.

"Now I try to get whatever I can, where I can," Pauls said.

He and others consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list, at http://www.seafoodwatch.org, outlining which stocks are depleted from overfishing or contaminated by pollution. A year and a half ago, the aquarium started advising 44 restaurants, nearly all of them on the West Coast. The aquarium has printed and distributed more than 22 million wallet-size guides based on the watch list, and it runs an annual conference. Hook includes a guide produced by the Blue Ocean Institute, with every customer's check.

Sheila Bowman, who runs the aquarium's Seafood Watch outreach program, said some restaurants realize their patrons are judging them on their corporate responsibility. "These are businesspeople," she said.

For many chefs, though, the commitment hasn't exactly resonated with diners.

"To tell you the truth, the customers would never know the difference," Pauls said of his seafood policy. "Sometimes people come in and ask us a question about it, which is really satisfying."

But many marine scientists and international officials say the efforts are changing public attitudes. "More and more people are pulling out those little guides," said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the World Conservation Union. "We've got to be patient."

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