Question: ”Sustainable seafood” is one of those restaurant buzzwords that a lot of people kick around these days—but I really don’t know what it means. Is it worth making an effort to serve sustainable seafood in my restaurant?

Answer: Fish may only make up a small part of your menu, but it’s a big deal. According to a 2011 study, Canadians eat fish almost four times per month on average. Health benefits and taste are cited as the most common reasons for eating fish and shellfish. Beyond that, 73% of Canadians are concerned with buying and eating seafood and fish that’s environmentally sustainable.

Problems with conventional seafood

Well, that’s great. But overfishing is a serious problem, with worldwide fishery collapses being predicted by 2048. It’s estimated that 90% of all large, predatory fish are completely gone from the oceans.

Other problems with conventional fishing include bycatch—that is, catching unintended species that are then wasted—and marine/aquatic habitat destruction.

So there you go. We like fish, but we’d like fish that isn’t going to kill the environment.

So what does “sustainable seafood” mean, anyway?

According to Ocean Wise, a  program run by the Vancouver Aquarium, for seafood to be sustainable, it needs to meet four criteria:

  • Stocks need to be abundant and resilient to fishing pressure
  • Populations need to be well-managed based on current scientific research
  • Fish and seafood must be harvested in a way that limits bycatch
  • Fish and seafood must be harvested in ways that limit damage to aquatic habitats and other species

For fish that’s farmed, aquaculture operations need to operate with a minimal footprint on existing wild stocks—which means no pollution, disease, or habitat destruction that can affect potentially vulnerable wild fish.

Species to avoid

Ocean Wise provides a regularly updated list of sustainable seafood species. According to their list, there are a number of species that should be avoided—including, alas, many popular sushi and grilling fish:

  • Caviar from beluga sturgeon
  • Chilean sea bass
  • Atlantic razor clams, surf clams, and cockles
  • Canadian snow crab
  • Grouper
  • Unagi (eel used in sushi)
  • Sole and flounder
  • Lake trout from any Great Lake except for Lake Superior
  • Lobster from Atlantic Canada
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Snapper
  • Salmon farmed in open net pens, or wild salmon from California, Oregon or Washington
  • Swordfish if not caught on a handline or with a harpoon
  • Yellowtail

Sustainable species

The list of unsustainable species is pretty long—but there is fish you can serve without worry. You may need to check on the method of harvesting the fish, but, nicely, Ocean Wise provides a list of suppliers you can refer to. These species include:

  • Atlantic sea bass caught with a handline or trap
  • Icelandic smelt
  • US catfish
  • Arctic char
  • Alaskan King crab, Canadian/US dungeness crabs, blue crab
  • Alaskan turbot
  • Mackerel
  • Mullet
  • Mussels and oysters that haven’t been harvested by dredging
  • Lake Erie pickerel
  • Scad
  • European/Mediterranean sea bass, also known as bronzini
  • Tilapia from closed-system farms
  • Wahoo
  • White perch and Lake Erie yellow perch

How to buy sustainable seafood

That’s actually not too difficult. Either connect with one of Ocean Wise’s suppliers, or look for fish and seafood that bears certification from a third-party, non-governmental body like Ocean Wise, the Marine Stewardship Council or Seafood Watch. You can also ask individual suppliers yourself about their harvesting methods, and make sure that what they’re doing is sustainable.

Communicating with your patrons

Let your patrons know what you’re doing with info in your menu or at the tables. Customers will be less likely to insist on trendy Chilean sea bass, for example, if they know the reason you’re not carrying it. Consider having an evening event where you introduce diners to types of sustainable fish that may be unfamiliar.

What do you think? Is sustainable seafood worth it? Do you serve it in your restaurant?

Image credit: George Parrilla