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A Taste for Sustainability

I recently had the great honor of serving dinner to Secretary of State John Kerry and numerous assembled dignitaries at the U.S. Department of State’s Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C. I did not serve salmon, tuna, or cod. Instead, I selected for the menu an appetizer of Gulf of Maine lobster from whale-friendly traps, a seaweed salad featuring Thimble Island kelp, and Acadian redfish—all from the proud and storied fisheries of the North Atlantic region.

Smoked gulf of Maine lobster from whale-friendly traps with kelp and fennel salad. Photo courtesy Shannon Shaffer.
Smoked gulf of Maine lobster from whale-friendly traps with kelp and fennel salad. Photo courtesy Shannon Shaffer.

As a chef, one of the best things about seafood is its variety. When approaching dinner, seafood allows us to break free of the monotonous chicken-beef-turkey-pork rotation and entertain an ocean of opportunity. Yet, most Americans don’t ever dip our forks into more than a few favored species: shrimp, salmon, tuna, and, increasingly, tilapia.

This limited palate is not just a culinary tragedy; it fuels the rampant overfishing of the world’s oceans and our own diminished health.

We put unnecessary pressure on a few highly demanded stocks by focusing our appetites on a limited number of species while literally tons of healthy, delicious protein is discarded as bycatch or fraudulently mislabeled because it lacks a market. In many ways, this is not a failure of fishers, but a failure of a system that is driven by demand rather than by supply—a limited consumer palate, not availability, catch method, or stock health, determines what is profitable. At the same time, we limit the availability of fresh, healthy local seafood that could be used to nourish our communities.

This doesn’t have to be the case. At my former restaurant, I played with an enormous variety of marine species, serving whatever our fishers could catch. Once, when they didn’t catch anything, we even served (and sold out of) the bait. We did so by building a connection between dinner and diner through the power of story.

Attaching story to fish—letting people know where their fish was caught and how it got to the table—is key to shifting to a system that is responsive to nature. By building demand for and availability of what my partners at Future of Fish call “storied fish”, we can incentivize responsible fishing behaviors and better manage our consumption so that we reward fishers and farmers that respect the limits of what the planet can provide.  In this manner, we actually grow the abundance of healthy food choices; after all, a resilient ecosystem nourishes people far better than a degraded one.

Happily, while my restaurant may have been an anomaly back then, there has been a proliferation of efforts that use story as a tool to bring value to undervalued species, along with living wages to fishers and local, healthy food to communities.

Similarly, story can help build demand for innovative and responsibly produced farmed fish, which will be an essential complement to wild-caught fish in meeting the planet’s growing demand for seafood. Aquaculture, if done well, offers the potential for boundless variety (see the recent National Geographic feature and Future of Fish’s recent report on “Breakthrough Aquaculture” for some examples). By building demand for undervalued species and supporting innovative production methods, we can ensure aquaculture is driven by environmental and geographic concerns (what is best produced where) rather than by our currently myopic seafood selection criteria.

The seafood that I chose to feature for the State Department dinner reflected this need for greater diversity of palate and was purposefully presented so as to celebrate stories of provenance, of community, and of environmental responsibility. It was heartening to see the collective will of those who were in the room to reexamine our relationship with our ocean; an effort focused on how to create a future for ourselves on this blue planet that is defined by abundance rather than scarcity. Our health, and that of our children, depends on it.

Acadian Redfish with summer caponata, pistachio and crisp herbs. Photo courtesy Shannon Shaffer.
Acadian Redfish with summer caponata, pistachio and crisp herbs. Photo courtesy Shannon Shaffer.