Utilizing sustainable seafood

Operators are looking to underutilized, sustainable species when sourcing seafood.

By 
Dana Moran, Managing Editor

hake fish plate

No longer are there plenty of fish in the sea. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits. That’s why many operators are going beyond produce in their sustainability efforts and turning their efforts toward lakes and oceans.

That seafood might not look exactly like what customers are used to. Hake, pollock, dogfish and redfish often are on the menu at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where Keith Tyger, executive chef for AVI Fresh, is sourcing underutilized, hyperlocal species for his foodservice program.

“[One supplier], every box of fish I get from them has a QR code, and I can [scan it and] print out a sign that gives the captain, the vessel and where the fish was caught,” he says. “It’s great for the students, because they can see directly: This is the fisherman they’re supporting.”

That type of connection to the food has lead to a bevy of comment cards and emails from students about the influx of local fish, says Tyger. When he arrived at Wellesley, he noticed a lack of seafood on the school’s menu—and found most of the product that was sourced was caught in Alaska, processed in China and flown back to the U.S. He began making a gradual change, starting with a featured fish, one day of the week.

“One thing I learned with both doing our sustainable beef and pork program and now the sustainable seafood program, it’s much like getting in the pool in the spring,” Tyger says. “You need to dip your toe in the water first.” For land-locked operators who want to expand their programs, Tyger recommends looking to frozen product that’s sustainably fished; fresh-caught seafood might require some flexibility with price points due to higher expense.

Sustainable doesn’t necessarily mean wild-caught. While in the past, farmed fish, especially salmon, carried a stigma of disease and low quality, farmers and suppliers have responded to consumers’ demands for a better farm-raised fish, says Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program director. “If you look at what we produce in the U.S.—farm-raised catfish, farm-raised trout, the global shellfish industry—there’s a lot of very environmentally responsible aquaculture out there,” she says.

Widely referenced by chefs, Seafood Watch is in the process of a major standards revision, which it conducts every four to five years with help from public input to stay current with environmental changes, and will issue the results in 2016. Along with new conclusions surrounding the overuse of foraged species such as sardines, anchovies and small squid, the carbon footprint of seafood distribution will be included for the first time. Currently, Seafood Watch’s sustainability analysis ends at the farm gate or the dock, and isn’t able to account for transportation on boats, airplanes or trains.

Thanks to his ability to maintain a chain of custody back to the seafood’s origin through his vendors, Jerry Roundy, foodservice director at 390-bed Providence St. Peter Hospital has kept familiar items such as pink shrimp, cod and tuna on his menu while becoming the second North American hospital to achieve Marine Stewardship Council Chain of Custody certification, which encompasses fives principles from certified purchasing to how the company stores its seafood.

While the price point for these items sometimes is a bit higher, the Olympia, Wash., operator says he hopes to eventually achieve cost savings with his supplier by growing the program throughout the 38 Providence hospitals in five states.

“Providing sustainable products is a good marketing tool, as well as helping your employees understand that they are a big part of stewardship,” he says.

Sustainability may be a selling point for adult diners, but what about those whose palates are slightly less sophisticated? Joanne Lennon introduced whole-muscle fish—as opposed to heavily processed product—to the Chicopee School District in Massachusetts this spring, and found that many students were afraid to try the unfamiliar product.

“It’s not like eating pizza,” the director of food service says. “It’s not like eating, even, fishsticks.”

Her solution: Promote, promote, promote. On sustainable fish days—which Chicopee is expanding to monthly starting in September—Lennon decorates the dining hall, and students receive a sticker that says “I tried it!” High-school students are asked to return to the register to provide verbal feedback; fish tacos and redfish coated in breadcrumbs have so far been popular hits.

“You have to get to the kids, because it’s such an unfamiliar product, and it’s something that they don’t have at home,” says Lennon, whose district of 8,000 students serves 65 percent free and reduced meals. “You have to repeat it several times.”


Operator resources

Gulf of Maine Research Institute
gmri.org
Works with fishermen, retailers, chefs and consumers to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of the Gulf of Maine.

Marine Stewardship Council
msc.org
Ecolabel and fisher certification program.

Monterey Bay Seafood Watch
seafoodwatch.org
Color-coded consumer guide and app. Green items are "best choices," yellow indicates "good alternatives" and red means "avoid."

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