Seafood savior?

Chef Barton Seaver talks sustainable seafood at Cornell.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Wednesday night, Cornell University’s Dining Services department held its annual Fall Harvest Dinner, which celebrates the use of local and sustainable products. Before the dinner, interested students heard from Barton Seaver, an award-winning chef from Washington, D.C., who loves seafood. But Seaver’s passion for fish and other ocean life goes beyond how he can cook them and present them to diners. He has become an ardent advocate for sustainable fishing, a direct result of time spent in a seaside village in Morocco, where he experienced the connection between seafood and the lives of those people who live off the sea’s bounty.

The Culinary Institute of America graduate spends his time these days writing and speaking about responsible seafood harvesting as both an ecological and humanitarian issue. His latest cookbook, “For Cod and Country,” offers not only recipes but also insights into the importance of following the sustainable practices set down by organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I “met” Barton Seaver before I even learned that he would be presenting at Cornell. Seaver, a National Geographic Fellow and a Seafood Choices Alliance Seafood Champion, was the subject of an interview with Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler. The interview appears in the magazine’s October issue, which is devoted almost entirely to dining around the world.

In the interview, Seaver offers an interesting take on why America’s oceans have become overfished: people have lost the connection with the sea. “Travelers used to have to cross the ocean in a boat to get to Europe,” he told Bellows. “Now we board a plane, go to sleep and wake up on the other side. The damage we’re wreaking goes unnoticed. But people do value having seafood on their plates. So instead of telling them I’m trying to save fish, I tell them I’m trying to save dinner.”

Supermarkets and fish markets help create an image of plenty, he believes, by selling fish that are endangered. Noting that cod is still a regular item on many menus and in many fish markets, he once told a National Public Radio interview, “The bounty in front of us belies the reality of the seas.” He also places part of the blame squarely on the shoulders of chefs who made culinary stars of “trash fish” like bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass (actually the Patagonian toothfish) and orange roughy, which is a member of the slimehead family of perch.

“Thirty five years ago, those fish names didn’t exist in our cultural lexicon,” he said of these now-endangered fish. But he also believes that chefs can act to save the oceans if they practice what he is preaching, which is basically that variety is key.

Seaver has first-hand knowledge of how simple it can be to give seafood-loving customers what they want without overusing seafood. When he was the executive chef of Hook, a seafood restaurant in D.C.’s Georgetown section, he put 78 different species of seafood on the menu over the course of a year. This is a man to whom I can relate. He sees the balance between the importance of saving ocean life and the need of people to consume seafood, not only for health but for sustenance.

To read Seaver’s interview with NatGeo Traveler, click here.