The menu at your favorite local sushi restaurant might as well offer the "endangered species roll." Not the best marketing, but here’s the truth: Certain fish species commonly found on restaurant menus and in sushi coolers have been fished nearly to the brink of extinction. While you wouldn't dream of eating panda bear (would you?), dining on bluefin tuna toro may not be so far off.
The WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) lists bluefin tuna as the sixth most-threatened species in the world (of species in both the sea or on land). That means that it's more at risk for extinction than the giant panda, the mountain gorilla or the Javan rhinoceros. So go ahead and order that rhino steak.
We kid, but experts say that what consumers buy impacts oceans in a more dramatic way than one might expect. The first thing that crosses people's minds when poring over a restaurant menu isn’t generally how endangered their dinner may or may not be, even for those that consider themselves conscious consumers.
It helps to remember, however, that the seafood industry works for us, says David Griffin, who owns Bluewater Seafood, a seafood grocer and restaurant with locations in both Hendersonville and north Asheville. What we eat can either contribute to the further depletion of critically threatened species, or support the availability of more environmentally friendly options.
"Consumers control the market," he says. "If consumers decide that they don't want to eat bluefin tuna anymore, it won't be caught anymore. This business is all about supply and demand."
What's a responsible diner to do? "Educate yourself," says Griffin. There are many lists available, created in collaboration with biologists that help guide consumers — the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute and the North Carolina Sea Grant are some of the most reputable. "You have to look at all of them and be open-minded and use your best judgment to make good choices."
Aquaculture — or fish farming — is also a viable alternative, says Griffin. "It's the future of seafood." More and more items that Bluewater Seafood carries are farmed, often due to the lack of availability of the wild-caught alternatives. "And here in the mountains, we have a great farm-raised trout," he says.
Sunburst Trout Farm offers one local source for the freshwater fish. The farm sits on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest in Bethel, 12 or so miles outside of Canton. The waters in which the trout are raised pass through the Shining Rock Wilderness watershed before emptying into Sunburst’s concrete runways. The trout are fed an antioxidant-rich feed that gives the flesh of the fish a rosy-orange color — and makes the fish healthier for humans to eat, too.
For Griffin, offering ocean-friendly options is as much a practical business technique as anything else. "This is how we make our living,” he says. “We want to make sure that it's going to be around to sustain us 20 years from now."
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program works to empower consumers and retailers to make smart choices, helping to ensure that seafood is available for 20 more years — and beyond.
The California aquarium’s “Fishing for Solutions” exhibit, opened in 1997 to inform visitors about conservation issues in fishing and aquaculture, was the catalyst that helped identify Monterey Bay as a respected resource for seafood information. While developing the exhibit, the aquarium evaluated the seafood it was serving in its own restaurants — and even to its exhibit animals. The aquarium made a commitment to serve seafood from environmentally responsible sources, and in the process developed an approved seafood list, which they updated frequently. Visitors asked for copies, and today the Seafood Watch guide is widely used.
The emphasis on sustainable seafood led to the development of an annual gala celebration, "Cooking for Solutions." Since 2002, the aquarium and Seafood Watch have hosted the event, which brings together celebrity chefs from across the U.S. and beyond to prepare dishes using sustainable seafood and organic ingredients, paired with organic and sustainable wines.
Cooking demonstrations led by celebrity chefs are presented in the blue light of the aquarium, with schools of fish darting around their tanks behind them. Notable chef participants have included Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin, Rick Bayless, Nora Pouillon, Rick Moonen and more than three dozen others. This year's participants included John Ash, an internationally renowned author, chef and educator.Top Chef darling Carla Hall was there, too, along with the Food Network's Alton Brown — and Asheville's own William Dissen, the chef of The Market Place restaurant.
Dissen's sustainable purchasing practices are no secret to the food world outside of Asheville. He was selected as one of the Mother Nature Network's "40 Chefs Under 40," a group recognized for both its talent and green practices. And this year, Dissen was nominated as a seafood-watch ambassador by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
A solution-oriented experience
It's no surprise that Dissen is dedicated to protecting the oceans. His wife, Jenny Dissen, works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, based here in Asheville. "It's scary to talk to all of the PhDs over at NOAA," he says. "They preach fire and brimstone." What do they think of the people who insist that climate change is a myth, our oceans healthy? "They think that they're insane."
For Dissen, it's a significant honor to be recognized as the champion of a cause that he holds dear, and gratifying to spend such an important weekend with some awe-inspiring chefs — some of whom he's invited to come to Asheville to guest chef at The Market Place in fall. Virginia Willis, the kitchen director for Martha Stewart Show and executive producer for Epicurious on The Discovery Channel will visit Asheville in the fall to join Dissen in his kitchen.
But the most gratifying thing about participating in Cooking For Solutions, says Dissen, is the opportunity to absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge which he can bring back home with him to The Market Place and his Asheville peers. "That's how you come up with better ideas and how you grow," he says. "And that's really the whole point of events like ‘Cooking for Solutions’. It's a solution-oriented experience where you can gain new knowledge and try to make the world a better place, one fish at a time."
Dissen says that he’d like to see more restaurants — both nationwide and locally — take on the responsibility of finding seafood purveyors that offer sustainable alternatives. But many chefs, even in Asheville where we’re fortunate to have conscientious vendors, could stand to take their already responsible practices a step further. "I feel like here in Asheville, everyone preaches local and sustainable. A lot of restaurants are farm-to-table, but how many people practice that between the farm and the table?"
Restaurants inevitably produce a lot of waste, says Dissen. They consume a lot of energy and go through a massive amount of food. “But it's our responsibility to try to curb that," he says. "And sustainable seafood is just part of that whole picture."
For more information about The Market Place, visit marketplace-restaurant.com. For more information about Bluewater Seafood Company, visit bluewaterseafood.net. For more information about Sunburst Trout Farms, visit sunbursttrout.com.
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.