What the sustainable fish movement means to chefs and restaurants

Sustainable seafood gets a spotlight at Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival

Eat more fish, we’re told, but not farmed salmon.

No, scratch that. Farmed salmon is now OK if it comes from the U.S., Canada or Denmark, depending on the farming method.

Trying to be a responsible fish eater isn’t easy.

The variety of guides offering sustainable seafood information are confusing and sometimes contradictory enough to send us back into the pallid arms of yet another boneless, skinless chicken breast.

Let’s look just at Florida fish.

The widely used Seafood Watch guide from California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium says we should avoid the overfished gag grouper caught off Florida’s southeast coast, although Gulf grouper gets a thumbs-up. But the Davie-based Guy Harvey Sustainable Seafood Guide lists all gag grouper on its “eat with caution” list.

“We try to push people away from grouper,” said Greg Jacoski, director of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, explaining that grouper is in limited supply in Florida waters and is often the target of fish fraud in which other species are substituted for the Florida favorite.

Swordfish, once an overfished no-no for conscientious diners, is back in good numbers in Florida’s offshore waters after the fishery was closed for a few years, Jacoski said.

As for red snapper, once the centerpiece of thousands of Florida seafood dinners (and which a decade ago ended up overfished nearly to the point of fishery collapse), avoid those caught off our coast, says the FishWatch guide from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries office.

However, if you can find U.S.-caught Gulf red snapper, like the rosy 15-pound beauty that was lying plumply on chef Aaron Black’s cutting board recently, you’re set for a delicious — and virtuous meal.

Gulf red snapper is rebounding, with limited commercial fishing now allowed.

Black, who helms the kitchen at PB Catch in Palm Beach, is hosting the “Sustain” dinner at next weekend’s Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival. At the Dec. 10 sold-out dinner, he and four James Beard Award-winning chefs will create dishes using sustainably grown and caught seafood.

“We chefs have learned we have to be as seasonal with fish as we are with produce,” said Black, who advises consumers to always ask about the origin of the fish before it arrives on their plates.

“The thing I think is most important is knowing if a (fish) population is properly managed, if its numbers are improving or staying the same,” said Black.

But, says Black, there’s a cost to eating sustainably.

“If you go to a sustainable restaurant and prices are $5 higher, its because the chef is trying to do the right thing,” he says.

Black’s red snapper sports a scannable blue tag from Gulf Wild, a fishing industry group that trademarks its fish. Scanning the tag will tell consumers where in the Gulf the fish was caught, by what fisherman and on what boat.

Guy Harvey restaurants serve their fish with the Gulf Wild tag still attached, said Jacoski, in case diners want a more personal relationship with their piscatorial entrée.

Tracing more fish species from boat to plate is one of the new ideas being explored by a Presidential Initiative on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

“Bluefin tuna is already closely tracked fish by fish,” said Alan Risenhoover, director of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates American fisheries. “We’re working on traceability both domestically and internationally.”

“Fish don’t have much of a chance in our oceans today, due to satellite tracking and other technological advances,” said Steve Gyland, owner of Cod & Capers Seafood, a market and restaurant in North Palm Beach. “We have to set limits on catches.”

In the past 10 years, 39 U.S. fish stocks have been replenished due to fishery management techniques, according to NOAA Fisheries, including Southeast Florida’s pink shrimp, black sea bass and yellowtail snapper.

However, our region still has seven species listed on NOAA’s overfishing list, which means too many are being caught to maintain a healthy population. Among them are hogfish, red snapper (in the Atlantic), blueline tilefish and snowy grouper.

Consumers who don’t want to research where and how their fish was caught can just buy U.S.-caught fish, says Gyland.

“If they’re buying U.S. fish, they can be assured it’s being managed sustainably,” said Gyland.

Our overfishing problem, says Paul Greenberg, author of “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” stems from Americans’ queasiness with fish other than tuna, salmon, shrimp and cod (or in Florida, snapper and grouper) despite the thousands of species in the world’s oceans.

In Florida, dolphin (mahimahi) has replaced our overloved red snapper and grouper, but itself is now in danger. At the same time, other more plentiful Florida fish rarely are sold here due to changing tastes and new residents’ unfamiliarity with, for example, Spanish mackerel.

There’s a small Spanish mackerel fishing fleet in Port Salerno, near Stuart, but its catch rarely appears on area menus or in fish markets. Kingfish, once a staple of Publix fish counters, is also caught off Palm Beach and Martin counties but rarely sold here.

“They catch them all winter long,” said Gyland, “but it all goes to New York for the Puerto Rican market. Nobody buys it here because they think it’s too strong-tasting.”

Black would serve Spanish mackerel, if he could find it.

“Spanish mackerel deserves another look,” said Black, “but it’s hardly ever available, yet it’s delicious. Kingfish, though, is pretty strong.”

One of Black’s favorite challenges is to serve the unusual catch that still ends up on fishing boats, despite more sustainable fishing practices.

“Sheepshead, triggerfish, wreckfish, my purveyors know when they get it, to call me. It’s fish that’s otherwise thrown away or turned into cat food,” he said. “Our customers trust us. We can put a fish like those on the menu that they aren’t familiar with and it sells as well as anything else.”

In his fish shop, Gyland has created a market for lionfish, the spiny, invasive species that’s gobbling up reef fish in Florida and the Caribbean. The fish, usually caught by spearfishermen, has become so popular that he can’t keep it in stock.

“I go through 500 to 1,000 pounds a week,” he said. “It’s gone from being scourge to a resource.”

Soon, lionfish may be even more readily available. The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation is working with scientists to develop a lionfish trap that won’t also trap native reef fish.

This winter, Florida seafood lovers can dine in responsible luxury.

Stone crabs, which are harvested by taking one claw and throwing the crab back to generate another, are more plentiful and cheaper than they’ve been in years.

“They’re the epitome of sustainable Florida seafood,” says Gyland, “and this year we have a glut of them.”

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