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Maximizing sustainable seafood

Sysco SHAPE February 2018

Chefs, operators explore underutilized species in the face of seafood sustainability concerns.

Widespread concerns about overfishing are prompting many in the foodservice industry to take steps to address this critical issue by menuing more sustainable fish and seafood options.

A growing number of chefs and operators are steering away from species that are under pressure from overexploitation and focusing instead on seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that won't threaten the future well-being of those fish stocks. Increasingly, this has led to the use of underutilized species that previously had not found a place on restaurant menus.

In its What's Hot 2018 Culinary Forecast, the National Restaurant Association underscores the importance of the issue, ranking sustainable seafood fifth on its list of Top 20 Food Trends. Of the 700 chefs polled for the NRA's annual survey, 62 percent depicted sustainable seafood as being a “hot trend.”

Sustainable seafood is described as seafood that is either caught or farmed using methods that address the long-term vitality of individual species. It also encompasses policies that promote the health of the oceans and fisheries-dependent communities.

But while “the world is moving in the right direction with regard to sustainability,” growing consumption of fish and shellfish will continue to put pressure on some seafood populations, says Michael Oshman, chief executive and founder of the Green Restaurant Association. “We're still harvesting fish from the ocean in unsustainable ways.”

Seafood demand increases

Consumers interested in pursuing more healthful dietary habits have been helping to drive increased consumption of seafood, which tends to be nutrient dense and a good source for fat-soluble vitamins A & D, omega-3 fatty acids and others. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average per capita consumption of seafood rose to 15.5 pounds in 2015, up 0.9 pounds from the 14.6 average per capita consumption level in 2014.

As a result, interest in sustainability is swelling as Americans — in particular younger consumers — learn more about the issue and demand increased transparency from menu makers. Research firm Datassential found that 16 percent of all consumers have consulted seafood purchasing guides from groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium for guidance on sustainably managed species. And while a modest 9 percent of baby boomers say they have checked sustainability monitors, that figure rises to 24 percent for millennials and Gen Z consumers.

In general, 57 percent of all consumers consider themselves somewhat or very knowledgeable about the origins of the seafood they purchase.

Meanwhile, 22 percent of operators polled say they have consulted those groups for sustainability-related issues, while 63 percent consider themselves somewhat or very knowledgeable about the origins of the seafood they serve.

Attention to this trend is gradually impacting the way menus are written. The word “sustainable” — or similar terms like “sustainably sourced” — is mentioned on 1.1 percent of restaurant seafood menus today, Datassential says. However, this has been gaining momentum since 2013, during which time it has grown 176 percent, up from 0.3 percent.

Underutilized fish

One way of relieving some of the pressure on overfished species is to replace them with underutilized alternatives on the menu. William Idell, assistant dean of Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts says underutilized fish are “the future. People want more seafood. The global demand has gone up, and if we rely on the same wild-caught species, it won't be beneficial to the oceans. We need to turn people on to more varieties of seafood. It will allow the [overfished] populations to stabilize over time.”

Idell, who is based at the Providence, R.I., campus of Johnson & Wales, suggests that chefs substitute regional species whenever possible. For instance, he notes that native species such as spiny dogfish, scup, sea robin and tautog make good candidates for local menus.

Nevertheless, not all underutilized species are always available, so chefs must be flexible and learn how to use a variety of unusual seafood, says Jeff Clark, Conserve Program director for the NRA.

Nor should a restaurant kitchen expect to handle all fish in the same way. For example, Idell says, chefs must be trained to break down some fish like scup, which yields a smaller filet and tends to be bony. “You might want to use it differently, say in a crudo or poke. It can be more work, but chefs are creative people.”

While it is important to familiarize staffers with the individual qualities of underutilized species, it makes equal sense to inform customers of a restaurant's sustainability goals. “They might wonder why sea robin is appearing on your menu instead of cod,” says Idell. “You need to have a connection with your customers and tell them what you're doing. You need to build awareness through in-house marketing or social media about why you're menuing underutilized species.”

Marketing sustainability

Before attempting to educate staffers and customers, chefs and operators should educate themselves by consulting with suppliers, associations and organizations like the National Fisheries Institute, Clark says. “Don't go into it blind. It's an extremely complicated issue.”

Many consumers and operators, for example, harbor misconceptions about seafood sourcing, sparking debates between advocates of wild-caught versus farm-raised seafood or line-caught versus net-caught fish. “Pay attention to where, when and how seafood has been caught,” says Idell. “And look for someone in your community you can rely on to cut through the misinformation.”

In addition to speaking to suppliers and seafood organizations, he recommends that chefs connect with local fishermen, in much the same way that they have begun to connect with local farmers.

Meanwhile, experts agree that overall awareness of the issue is trending in the right direction. “People want to make a difference and feel good about the food they're serving,” Clark says. “So they're supporting more sustainable methods. They're learning to treat the resource like you would a farm, rather than a mine.”

Oshman agrees. “Don't you want your kids and grandkids to be able to enjoy the same fish that you're enjoying?” he says. “Overall, awareness of the sustainability issue is moving forward. That train has left the station.”

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