Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Chef Richard Garcia: Talking Trash & New Rules Of Seafood Sustainability

Seafood sustainability is a complex issue and there are a myriad of factors to consider when evaluating what is or is not sustainable. It is easy to understand why the people is often so confused about this issue. Even many professionals have difficulty grasping all of the relevant elements. I have written plenty of articles about seafood sustainability and know that I continue to learn more about the subject all the time. Its vital importance to our world means that it needs to be a major concern, especially to the seafood gatekeepers, such as fish vendors and restaurants.

At the New England Food Show, which took from Sunday to Tuesday this week, there was an Education Session on this very subject, hoping to provide some simple guidelines for chefs, restaurant owners and operators. Chef Richard Garcia (pictured above) presided over the session, titled Talking Trash: New Rules Of Seafood Sustainability. Chef Garcia is currently the National Culinary Director of Sports & Leisure in North America for Sodexo USA. Previously, he has worked as a chef in the Boston area and for the last ten years, he has devoted lots of attention to seafood sustainability.

The description of the session stated: "Restaurant owners, operators, and chefs play a very important role in the success (and failure) of seafood sustainability. Learn how breaking the rules of seafood sustainability can help you navigate the confusing and ever-changing guidelines of seafood sustainability that can lead to a more profitable business." I attended this session yesterday and can confirm that Chef Garcia fulfilled his mission, providing concise guidelines which can cut through much of the confusion on this issue. However, I think that Chef Garcia could have omitted his third rule as the first two rules effectively covered the relevant issues.

Chef Garcia began by saying that we should think about seafood as we would any other protein. Most American consumers only eat pork, beef, chicken and lamb though we used to eat many other species in the past. We have narrowed our choices to a small group and that has occurred in the seafood realm too, with a focus on shrimp, salmon and tuna. Chef Garcia stated that "seafood is the only protein we still hunt" though noting that many are moving towards aquaculture. There are problems with declining stocks of some seafood species, but overall there is still plenty of seafood in the oceans.

Approximately 70% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is eaten at restaurants so they have a major role in promoting seafood sustainability. However, not all chefs and restaurants have the time to learn and navigate the complexities of seafood sustainability. Chef Garcia wanted to simplify the matter, and provide three basic rules for restaurants and chefs to follow. These rules are supposed to run counter to some of the old rules concerning sustainability and if restaurants and chefs follow these three rules, they should have few, if any, problems with sustainability.

The first old rule was that we should support global seafood offerings, following some of the guidelines provide by organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the World Wildlife Fund. Chef Garcia's new rule was that you should only buy and serve U.S. seafood. Americans import about 90% of the seafood they consume which is a terrible tragedy. There is so much great domestic seafood that Americans should be enjoying. I've been promoting this very same idea for years, in numerous articles, including my own The 3 Rules Of Eating Seafood. We need to give more support to local fishermen, preventing them from going out of business.

U.S. seafood regulations are some of the toughest in the world and there is a strong argument that any seafood legally caught within the U.S. is sustainable. So by buying and serving U.S. seafood, you don't have to worry about its sustainability. Chef Garcia also strongly suggested that you buy whole fish rather than processed seafood. This can be less expensive as well as decreasing the chances you will be deceived as to the seafood you buy.

The second old rule centers on consuming the most popular seafood types, such as shrimp, tuna and salmon, which account for about 50% of the seafood consumed by Americans. As I've written before, though there are more than 100 seafood species available in U.S. markets, a mere 6 species account for 91% of the seafood consumed here. Those six include shrimp, salmon, tuna, Alaskan pollock, tilapia and Pangasius catfish. Chef Garcia's new rule is that you should diversify your portfolio and consumed many different species, including those more commonly referred to as "trash fish."

Again, this is a rule I fully support and have written about multiple times, such as in my Rant: Stop Eating Cod, Tuna & Salmon. That article quoted Chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas, who said, "One of the best ways to fight overfishing is diversity: People must be willing to cook and eat species besides the familiar ones,..." Trash fish are simply seafood species which are less commonly eaten and many are absolutely delicious. Chef Garcia has held several trash fish dinners over the years and he likes using the term "trash fish," considering it a type of shock therapy, which gets people to listen and ask questions.

This promoted a little discussion as not everyone likes the phrase "trash fish." One woman involved in the Gloucester seafood industry prefers to refer to them as "treasures of the sea" while another chef noted how "trash fish" intrigued him and caused him to start cooking with red fish. I tend to side with the use of "trash fish" as consumers need more education about seafood and anything which gets their attention is helpful. Yes, it can lead to some negative thoughts but that gives you the opportunity to dialogue with consumers, to explain why they should be eating different seafood species.

The last old rule is that farmed fish is best and Chef Garcia believes that aquaculture should largely be ignored. However, he does note that there is room for farmed seafood, especially bivalves such as oysters, mussels and bay scallops. Chef Garcia briefly mentioned some of his concerns about aquaculture and I disagree with a number of his points but don't want to get into a debate on aquaculture here. If you want more info on my position, check out the numerous aquaculture posts on my blog.

Instead, I want to address whether this third rule is necessary or not, based on the prior two rules. The fact is that U.S. aquaculture is a very small industry, providing approximately 2% of the seafood Americans consume. In addition, 80% of our aquaculture consists of bivalves with the majority of the remaining portion for catfish. Many of the negative examples cited by Chef Garcia concerned aquaculture outside of the U.S., from Asian shrimp to Norwegian salmon, and thus are not applicable to the U.S.

If we follow Chef Garcia's first rule, of only buying and serving U.S. seafood, there is little need for this third rule as U.S. aquaculture is such a tiny aspect and most of it is acceptable farmed bivalves. The third rule is essentially duplicative of the first rule so its elimination would have no practical effect. You could go with just the first two rules and it would work just as well.

At the end of his talk, Chef Garcia wanted to emphasize the importance of sustaining U.S. fishermen, helping them survive in these tough times where restrictive fishing regulations can cause hardship. In addition, he stated it was important to support those businesses which contribute to the fishing industry, such as those providing the fuel for fishing vessels. Buying domestic seafood helps all of these related industries and benefits our local communities. I fully support Chef Garcia in this sentiment.

Overall, Chef Garcia did a very good job in providing some simple rules for restaurants and chefs in navigating the complex world of seafood sustainability, especially considering the session was only 45 minutes long. On many points, his thoughts on seafood sustainability are similar to many I have been advocating for years. Personally, I would have omitted the third rule and just went with the first two as U.S. aquaculture is such a tiny industry.

Kudos to Chef Garcia for all his years of support for seafood sustainability.

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