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Savvy Serving of Seafood

By Staff | Dec 23, 2011

In the coming weeks, when diners go to certain Sanibel Island restaurants and inquire which menu items are good in the way of seafood, they’re likely to receive recommendations that will not only satiate an appetite, but also appeal in terms of supporting practices pertinent to the ecologic sustainability for many species of fish.

Seafood Savvy is an initiative inspired by Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START). While the Florida-based, not-for-profit organization is highly regarded for their role in advocating strategies to mitigate the ecologic and economic perils wrought from algae blooms (such as red tide), in Sanibel, START is additionally known as a steward for a wide range of programs involving conservation and marine education.

Researchers from START assert that some 90% of large fish species, like tuna and cod, have disappeared from oceans. The increasing worldwide demand for seafood and impacts from commercial overfishing practices prompted the organization to create the program, but leave it to the brains on Sanibel Island to make improvements on the state model.

Local START President, Bruce Neill, PhD., who also serves as Executive Director/Co-Founder of Sanibel Sea School, has essentially created a consortium, currently comprised by a handful or local restauranteurs and a retailer of seafood. Neill says the idea is to get people to start making healthier choices.

To put it in proper context, Neill says more than 80% of seafood in America is imported. In many countries, there is lack of emphasis or enforcement relating to fishing practices. In some cases, commercial enterprises use 20 to 30 mile-long lengths of monofilament lined with hooks to catch fish. They catch a lot more in the process, including turtles, dolphins and birds.

In other cases, vast expanses of heavy nets are dragged along the ocean’s bottom, wreaking havoc, when not destroying, what had previously existed as a habitat.

Neill says there are also issues relating to bi-catch, such as what occurs with shrimpers. Fish and other marine life are often pulled-up in shrimp nets, crushed, killed and cast away in the process. These non-targeted captures are referred to as bi-catch.

There are also hazards associated with farm fisheries, both in terms of the hormones and antibiotics used to spur growth as well as the manner in which species are cultivated. Neill describes expanses of water used as pins for the raising of tuna or salmon. While the proliferation of a species in one particular area poses concerns in marine impact, Neill takes into account how much fish is consumed in the feeding process. He says it takes 15 pounds of fish to produce a single pound of tuna; with salmon, 4 pounds of fish is needed to produce 1 pound of salmon.

So, Neill says certain question arise when making determinations about sustainable seafood. Are the fish farmed in a healthy way? Are the fish caught in a method that is environmentally approved, or in a manner that minimizes the impact of bi-catch?

The answer to such questions helps determine whether or not a species of fish can be considered as a sound choice in terms of sustainable seafood.

“Of course, if you question most people as to what ‘sustainable’ means, they don’t have a clue,” says Neill, and indeed, one doesn’t typically find such distinctions on a restaurant menu either.

But that’s about to change. Though the Seafood Savvy initiative, wait staff are being trained on what constitutes “best choices” in terms of seafood selections.

Waiters, as Neill says, are important to the process. From research he supervised, Neill says many diners rely on staff recommendations on menu choices.

Wait staff may ultimately advise how Rainbow Trout, Pacific Halibut, US Farmed Barramundi or Alaska Wild Salmon are much better than choices than, say, Chilean Sea Bass, Orange Roughy, Atlantic Salmon or Grouper.

Over time, effort will be made to expand the scope of the program to include wholesale seafood vendors and retailers, who Neill says, have benefitted from “ignorance” in the market. Basically, he maintains that wholesale firms more or less foist whatever they have on to the market place and most don’t consider the details of where the fish came from or the manner in which it was grown.

He believes as consumers become more aware of the need for sustainability and issues impacting all sea life, they will make better choices and drive demand for smarter operating processes. That may lead to a day, when retailers will only buy from approved wholesalers, as well as a day, when wholesalers only work with approved fisheries.

That’s way down the river, for now, Neill says the goal is “to begin to have people use sustainable component… to put that into the equation… or have that conversation.”

A slight change in the way one orders off a restaurant menu is something Neill says is something relatively easy and actionable in terms of one approaching conversation. He thinks these type of programs fare better than fear mongering about the future. “You can use all the scare tactics you want, but you’re wasting your breath,” says Neill.

Then again, Neill’s studies have drawn some scary conclusions, including, that by 2048 so many species of the fish typically consumed will no longer be in existence. As populations are so difficult to track, Neill says, “We only know their in danger when we can’t catch them anymore.”

On the positive side, Neill says our nation is historically very good at identifying problems and taking corrective actions, it’s just that ocean conservation has been a little behind other processes. Sanibel Islanders are taking a new direction in what has been otherwise unchartered waters given the level of involvement and aims of the Seafood Savvy initiative.

For now, emphasis on sustainable seafood is on the menu at Doc Ford’s, Timbers Restaurant & Fish Market, the Lighthouse Cafe and Bailey’s General Market.

To learn more about Seafood Savvy and sustainable seafood practices, contact Bruce Neill through START at (941) 953-4545 or through Sanibel Sea School at (239) 472-8585. Information is also available online at start1.org/