Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Berkowitz & Legal Sea Food: A Matter Of Trust

It began with a provocative press release which unleashed a firestorm of controversy, as well as plenty of free publicity for Legal Sea Food.  Subsequent sound bites in the media did nothing to quench the flames, and there was even a call for a boycott of Legal.  Two nights ago, the "sustainable seafood" dinner took place and I attended the event, hoping to get closer to the truth of the matter.

Back in December when I first posted about this dinner, I essentially stated that the burden would be on Legal at this dinner to offer answers to all the issues and questions they raised.  If they failed to do so, I felt it would be very detrimental to their cause. Their provocative language had raised red flags but I was willing to wait and see what they had to say for themselves, to let them present their case.  And at Monday's dinner, they did exactly that, explaining their position, answering numerous questions and offering much to ponder.

The dinner itself was held in the wine cellar room, and there were at least 60 people in attendance.  The attendees included members of the Culinary Guild of New England, fishermen and other members of the seafood industry, chefs, member of other culinary organizations, media, at least one politician, and others.  Overall, there seemed to be many attendees who were already in agreement with Legal's position on sustainability.  Then there was also a group of those who were seeking more information on seafood sustainability, who did not know much about the different issues involved.  There were few dissenting voices in the group, though it might have been even more constructive if there were more such voices.

Roger Berkowitz, the President and CEO of Legal, made some opening remarks at the start of the event, beginning with the genesis of the idea for the dinner.  The Culinary Guild approached him about holding an event and Roger suggested a dinner of "blacklisted" fish, those on many seafood Avoid lists.  He wanted to promote a discussion on sustainability because he believes there is not enough information out there and that too many people are relying upon a single source of information.  Roger feels that "discussion is what is needed" and I fully agree with that sentiment.  He admitted though that he had not felt the need to discuss sustainability until more recently.         

He continued, stating that Legal is supportive of moratoriums and quotas, as well as the use of alternative fish species.  He told a tale of how they first started selling monkfish, and how Julia Child helped to popularize that fish.  Legal will not sell Chilean sea bass, claiming that about 85% of the world's catch is illegal.  They also will not sell orange roughy, and are very selective with their swordfish to ensure they do not purchase immature pups.  Roger states "they try to do things in an ethical manner."  He came across as very sincere in this regard, as someone who is truly concerned about sustainability, and my impression only strengthened over the course of the evening.

One of the main thrusts of the evening was over the science of making assessments of fish populations, the alleged "out-dated science" which currently guides the policy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  In brief, NOAA conducts trawl surveys to help determine the biomass of different fish species.  But within the last ten years, these surveys have come under fire, most notably in the "Trawlgate" episode where NOAA admitted their assessments had been incorrect due to problems with the equipment they were using.  Despite the potential problems with trawling surveys, they continue to be used. 

Legal's position is that this trawling method is out-dated, and that better science is currently available but is not being utilized.  Thus, they feel that current assessments of fish biomass are incorrect, and that more fish can be caught sustainably than under the current regulations.  Roger discussed a new type of sonar, Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing (OAWRS), which was developed by scientists from MIT and Northeastern University conducting research for Homeland Security in ways to detect nuclear submarines.  The OAWRS system allegedly can map out a 120 kilometer radius, in four directions, in just 70 seconds.  Trawling surveys usually take about two weeks. 

It was discovered that the OAWRS system could also be used to make fish biomass assessments.  The scientists had NOAA conduct a peer review, and NOAA concluded that the system worked great and would become the next big thing in assessment.  But when it came time to adopt the new system, NOAA stalled for unknown reasons.  Some politicians tried to get a study conducted on the OAWRS but their efforts were recently rebuffed.

The OAWRS system certainly sounds impressive, though I do want to do more research about it before I fully accept what limited information I have been told about it.  But, if accurate, it would be a powerful boost to sustainability by creating more accurate assessments of biomass.  I would like to understand NOAA's reasons for not wanting to adopt this system.  Is it money?  Is it political?  Or do they truly believe the system is not as accurate as some depict?  I would also like to hear from other sustainable seafood proponents on their thoughts concerning OAWRS. 

There are other sustainable issues besides fish populations and biomass, such as environmental aspects.  Those issues did not receive as much attention during the event but were addressed in part. One of the primary points made was that the local fishing industry is so heavily regulated that habitat destruction is not a significant issue.  For example, trawling is regulated, preventing its use in areas where it might cause harm. Roger also addressed the issue in a discussion on the sourcing of his black tiger shrimp, an item on many Avoid lists.

Roger admitted that Asian shrimp farming has had its share of problems, including the destruction of mangrove swamps, though he believes there are other factors which have also destroyed such swamps. But, Roger has strict guidelines for any shrimp farms with which he will deal, to ensure they are sustainable.  He is even journeying to Vietnam in the near future to check out the farms, to ensure they meet his standards.  I am not sure how much more Legal could do in that regard.  It sounds like they are doing their best to ensure that the shrimp they purchase is sustainable.

I asked Roger for his best advice to consumers, those who may not understand all of the issues, on selecting sustainable seafood.  His response was for the consumers to ask questions, of restaurants, retailers and such and then to consider their responsiveness.  Do they have answers?  Are they hesistant about providing information?  Or do they seem quite knowledgeable?  Roger's advice is good, and what is often given by other proponents of sustainable seafood.  Ask questions, lots of them.

The end of the discussion turned political with a speech by Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Massachusetts State Representative for the 5th Essex District which includes Gloucester, Rockport and Essex.  Though some good information was provided, there was plenty of typical political rhetoric as well, much preaching to the choir.  I am not sure capping off the evening with such a politically charged speech did justice to the event. 

In the end, it comes down to a matter of trust.  I have spoken about the trust issue before, and its relevance won't vanish. So, at this dinner, one of the most important questions to me was: Can Roger Berkowitz be trusted?  Roger is intelligent, personable, witty and charismatic so it is very easy to like him.  Yet he also had plenty of answers concerning sustainable seafood issues and they sounded reassuring.  He comes across as sincere in his advocacy of sustainable seafood, desirous of promoting the best scientific evidence.  Sure, he is also a savvy businessman, but falsity on this issue could easily backfire on him and tarnish his reputation. It seems to make much better sense for him to truly be a proponent of sustainable seafood.

At this point, I choose to trust Roger Berkowitz on this issue.  That doesn't mean I won't keep investigating the issues, asking questions.  We can never get complacent, and I certainly plan to do more research into the OAWRS system.  I also would like to follow up with Berkowitz once he returns from his trip to Vietnam. This dinner certainly gave me more information to contemplate, which is always a positive thing.  Hopefully, it will lead to more discussions in the future on these issues.


Natalie Sztern said...

on the Celebrity Cruise ship I took one night listed on the menu was Chilean Sea Bass. Knowing I had heard it was endangered I asked about why it was on the menu and was told it is the 'farmed Chilean Sea Bass."
Now I don't know much about farming fish; but how does one know if what is on a menu could be a farmed version of what is now endangered in the wild?

Roz Cummins said...

Thank you for your report on the “Blacklist” dinner. I noticed that you asked what more Mr. Berkowitz could possibly do beyond visiting the farms in Vietnam from which he sources his shrimp in order to see if the shrimp are being raised in a sustainable fashion.

Fortunately, Mr. Berkowitz has several options:

1.) He could learn about concerns regarding shrimp farming overseas by reading Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood ranking on imported, farmed shrimp ( He’ll begin to get a picture of what issues to watch for when he does source shrimp by exploring this peer-reviewed accumulation of data on the state of shrimp farms outside the United States.

2.) He could buy wild-caught American shrimp, supporting local shrimpers from Maine or shrimpers in Louisiana who are struggling in the post-oil spill environment, spending his money here and supporting local fishing communities rather than spending his money overseas, or

3.) He could buy shrimp that are farmed here in the United States. Here is a description of shrimp farmed in the USA:

Be sure to click on each category within the seafood ranking reports to see specific details about considerations such as inherent operational risks, feed, pollution, risk to other species, and ecological effects.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Natalie:
Ask questions of the restaurant, and seek responsive answers. The key is trusting where you eat.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Roz:
Thanks for your comments. First, I am sure Berkowitze is well aware of the issues involving Asian shrimp. As far back as 1999, Berkowitz discussed those issues in a sustainability speech he gave. Second, Berkowitz does also purchase Maine shrimp.

We can hope that the sustainability efforts of Berkowitz in Vietnam could lead to improvements in other shrimp farms there too.