Monday, July 11, 2011

Rant: Turner's Seafood, Sustainability & Cape Ann Fresh Catch

Call me a seafood sustainability skeptic.

I am coming to the realization that no seafood restaurant should actually label itself "sustainable." The issue of sustainability is a morass of questions, ambiguity, speculation, theory and guesswork. It is far from black and white and is rather a vast canvas of shades of gray. Rather than being a choice between sustainable or not, it is more appropriate to think of sustainability as a scale where the top position is an unreachable ideal. By labeling themselves as sustainable, restaurants confuse consumers, making it seem sustainability is a much simpler issue than the actuality. Plus, restaurants all have different definitions as to what constitutes "sustainability" which further confuses the issue.

I think it would be better, and much more accurate, for restaurants to simply state that "their goal is to be as sustainable as possible." That statement grants that sustainability may be an unreachable goal, but it is still an ideal worthy of pursuing. We should support those restaurants, seafood stores and such which are trying to be more sustainable, but we also should push them to be even more sustainable. No one will ever be perfect, but that is not the standard we should hold them up against anyway.

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat for a time with Kathi and Jim Turner of Turner's Seafood, with a restaurant in Melrose and a seafood market in Gloucester. They are also now partnered with Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a Community Supported Fishery (CSF). We discussed their restaurant, seafood sustainability, and the CSF, and both were very open and honest in their responses to my questions.

They consider that the seafood they serve at their restaurant is sustainable, though I am sure others might not consider that the case. It partially comes down to how the Turners define "sustainable" and their view concentrates only on fish populations. In essence, as the fishing industry is heavily regulated, they feel that if fish are permitted to be caught under those regulations, then it is sustainable. In their definition, the Turners though do not address other areas of sustainability concern, such as potential environmental damage. Thus, if those concerns were added to the definition of sustainability, their restaurant would not be considered fully sustainable. They are working though towards increased sustainability.     

If you examine the regular Turner's menu, you will find much of their seafood is from the Atlantic Ocean, albeit that does extend out to Iceland, from which they obtain much haddock.  Their fin fish, such as tuna and swordfish, are sourced from various areas, depending on availability, though they do not carry bluefin tuna. Their salmon is farmed in Nova Scotia, which some people may object to, and they don't use wild salmon because it is only seasonal and they want salmon year round. They also feel that transportation issues with some Pacific wild salmon may decrease their sustainability. Though there are studies showing that transportation often has a minimal impact on sustainability, and that other issues, like resource intensity, play a far greater role.

Their shrimp is sourced from a few different areas, including local Maine shrimp for their popcorn shrimo, Canadian shrimp for salads, and some Mexican wild shrimp. They have used some farmed shrimp in the past, though only saltwater shrimp. For their special seafood festivals, such as the Oyster and Crab festivals, they do source such items from diverse areas, and not just locally. Thus, for some of those items, they might incur the transportation issues that they allege can occur with Pacific salmon.

I inquired as well about the sourcing of their beef, chicken and produce. Some of the produce may be local, but seafood is their primary focus so not as much attention has been directed to the sourcing of their meat and produce. So sustainable meat, poultry and produce are not a major consideration to them at this time. Sourcing local is also not as important to them as obtaining "quality" food. "Quality" is the most important factor for them, and with seafood, freshness is vital to quality. Freshness is directly connected to both the method of catch as well as how it is processed, and the Turners believe this issue does not get as much attention as it should. I would agree that quality often does seem to take a back seat to other concerns, such as local and sustainable. 

To the Turners, the preferred method of catch is hook and line, as they feel it is best when the fish are still alive when they are brought aboard the fishing vessel.  With nets, fish might be caught and remain in those nets over night, or even for a couple days, and could be dead when brought aboard. Dead fish are of poorer quality, and don't possess as long a shelf life. Thus, smaller ships generally provide better quality fish, but hook and line is more expensive for the fishermen. So there are far less hook and line fishermen in Gloucester than other methods of catch.  Jim Turner points to Iceland as a model for the type of fishing community he would prefer to see, and he is encouraging the Gloucester fishing community to become more sustainable.

Since August 2010, the Turners have partnered with Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a Community Supported Fishery (CSF), which is a program of the Gloucester Fishermans' Wives Association. The basic idea is that consumers purchase shares in this program, and then receive regular supplies of fresh fish. This CSF is three years old, and began with some controversy over sustainability issues, and that controversy remains in some respects. The Turners have been trying to institute changes to the program, to resolve problems and make it more sustainable and amenable to consumers.

You can purchase shares of whole fish or fillets, or alternate weeks and thus receive both.  In addition, there is a new flex share program, where even if you purchase only fillets you will also receive some fish which normally cannot be filleted.  When the CFS program began, it seemed that most of the shares consisted of cod, but the species variety has increased over the last few years.  Now, shares roughly consist of 30% cod, haddock, and pollock, 30% flounder, and 30% other fish, such as shrimp.  Currently, the CFS acquires about 1000 shareholders each season, a number which is limited in part due to the small amount of distribution sites, though more sites will likely be added in the future. In addition, the CFS might expand into some wholesale business in the future.

One of the goals of the CFS is to obtain a better price for the fishermen.  But what about the cost to consumers?  The cost may be higher for some specific species, but for others it may be less. But, even when they pay a higher cost, this may be balanced out by other factors. The consumer will obtain fresher fish than they would at a local store and thet might also obtain species that may not be readily available at their local store. As for the actual prices, a weekly deliver of 4-6 lbs of whole fish costs $20, while 2 lbs of filleted fish costs $24. 

The fisherman in the CFS will likely tell you that it is all sustainable, though I'll return your attention to the comments at the start of this post, that sustainability is a canvas of gray. You'll find people who will contest the sustainability of the CFS for various reasons. But, it does appear that the CFS is more sustainable than it once was, and it appears that the Turners may have contributed to that change. With the Turners continued partnership, maybe the CFS will continue moving towards that ever elusive ideal of sustainability.

I asked the Turners if they were familiar with OAWRS but they were not. They also do not partner with Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, though both work with Gloucester fishermen. Yes, in some respects they are competitors, both with seafood restaurants and both selling fresh fish, so they have some incentive not to work together.  Yet they have shared interests as well, in both encouraging sustainability as well as helping local fishermen.  So maybe it would be beneficial if there was some type of colloboration between them, as well as other local seafood restaurants.

As an example, consider the OAWRS system, championed by Berkowitz, which could use as much support from others as possible. If that system was proven efficacious, it would actually benefit all local fishermen, and not just those that work with Berkowitz. Thus, the Turners, and others who work with local fishermen, have reasons to learn about and support OAWRS. I am sure there are at least several other issues concerning seafood sustainability where collaboration would benefit all parties.

Everyone who seeks seafood sustainability should work together rather than at cross purposes. They should engage in dialogue, in fruitful discussions, in furtherance of their shared goals. Working together, much more can be accomplished than alone. The issue of sustainability is of global concern, so united efforts are necessary to deal with such a massive issue. We need to give our support to those promoting more sustainable products, to encourage them to continue working towards the sustainability ideal. But we also have to push them as well, to continue forward progress in their sustainability efforts.

The basic idea of a CFS is certainly an excellent one, and I feel more positive towards the Cape Ann Fresh Catch than I once did. There is room for improvment, but forward progress appears to have been made and more changes will come. The partnership with the Turners, though less than a year old, appears to have benefited the program and the future looks promising.  As time goes on though, I will still keep my skeptical eye on the Cape Ann Fresh Catch, in hopes that there is continued improvement.

1 comment:

Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance said...

Thanks for covering this issue. I think your are spot on that sustainability is a goal to strive for rather than a static achievement. Sustainability is often thought to only be environmental but rather than just looking at environmental sustainability, I think it helps to look at environmental as well as social and economic sustainability aka the triple bottom line.

While there are certainly gains to be made across the board, Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC) has already raised the bar. Economically over one million dollars has been brought into the community through the CSF as well as creating jobs. Additionally the least environmentally impactful fishermen in Gloucester, the dayboat fleet, are the primary beneficiaries of receiving higher prices through the program.

By these measures, I dont think there are many more sustainable ways to get seafood currently and I personally know the Turner's involvement with CAFC is pushing the bar still higher. Of course I am biased, as I am a colleague, but I have seen firsthand their committment to continued improvement of the program economically for not just fishermen, but consumers, to the environment and to the community. They also have a dedication to quality that in a lifetime of being a seafoodaholic I find unmatched.

Glad you are paying attention to this issue. It is only through nuanced and intelligent conversation that people can learn more and help us all raise the sustainability bar a bit higher.

sean at