Let’s start with understanding how important seafood is to the future of feeding the world. Compared to other animal proteins, and even many plant-based foods, most types of seafood have a more favorable environmental impact profile when looking at things like land use, freshwater use, feed conversion, energy use, and CO2 emissions. And while there is some concern with things like fuel use in wild capture fishing and feed production in aquaculture, ongoing research and development and resulting innovation continue to help the seafood industry move toward enhanced sustainable practices.
Seafood is simply one of the most environmentally friendly resources we have for providing wholesome, nutritious, and affordable protein; never mind food that is versatile, delicious, and exciting. So, what can you do as an operator to have a positive impact on the overall sustainability of seafood while ensuring an enjoyable dining experience?
Here are 10 things to consider and discuss with your vendor as you work to incorporate more sustainable seafood on your menu.
1. Familiar cuts aren’t always the best choice. Take Scarlet Snapper, for example. Fish caught in Indonesia under an ongoing fishery improvement project are now harvested at a larger size to avoid catching juveniles. These yield much larger traditionally cut fillets, but can be cut on the bias and into portions, providing you with a prime sized 6 or 8 oz. portion, even if its shape is not that of a natural fillet.
2. Take a nose to tail approach to seafood. Prime sized center cut loins may give you the plate coverage you desire, but oftentimes, utilizing 2-4 ounce portions instead can help reduce your food cost, reduce cooking time, and still provide the plate coverage you need. Maximize yields in processing and in the restaurant kitchen by finding a way to use as much of the fish as possible. This reduces waste and extends the amount of healthy protein available.
3. Consider alternative species that are in abundance. For example, Atlantic Pollock (aka Saithe). Harvested sustainably across the entire North Atlantic, Saithe’s flesh in the raw tends to be darker than that of cod or haddock, and its flavor slightly more rich, but it cooks up bright white and offers the same flaky, delicate texture (and at a nice price).
4. Consider plate coverage versus food waste. Work to balance the wow factor of “bigger is better” with offering portion sizes that result in a clean plate. Your mother will be proud.
5. Tell a story. Seafood is a wonder; how it gets from the depths of the world’s oceans to our table is a complex and exciting tale. Many fishermen are part of multigenerational families who care deeply for the fisheries from which they generate a livelihood, and who work to ensure they are harvesting and handling their catch in the most responsible way possible. Pay it forward by featuring a story on one of them in your menu.
6. Local doesn’t just mean buying what’s close by. Local in the seafood world means sourcing and marketing species that are “local” or native to specific well-managed fisheries. Conservation efforts in the Western Atlantic in recent years has meant there is no locally caught cod in New England, for example. However, Iceland’s cod fishery is among the most responsibly managed fisheries in the world. In fact, seafood is so important to Icelanders that fish (not presidents) are on its coins.
7. Minimize SKUs and consolidate specifications. This simplifies handling and menu planning. For example, use the same shrimp size, rather than two different sizes, for a lunch item as well as a dinner option.
8. Consider frozen options to help reduce shrinkage. Over the years, various harvesting practices including the rapid chilling of seafood, as well as advances in processing, packaging and freezing technologies, have led to exceptionally high-quality frozen seafood options. After nearly forty years in the business, I was recently fooled when eating frozen farm raised Atlantic salmon. It was so moist, rich, and delicious, I lost a bet that it was fresh.
9. Prioritize preservation. If you’re running a fish special and you don’t sell all of what you expected for the night, don’t throw away what’s left over. Our culinary director, Emmett Ledbetter, suggests that operators confit the rest and make fish cakes the next day, or sous vide the product and then freeze it.
Another technique that’s starting to get more popular is dry aging fish. You can prolong the life of the product for months.
10. Lean on your vendors to help provide basic information and training for your wait staff, including how to answer basic questions from guests about the seafood on your menu. Seafood’s profile is akin to fine wine. How you describe its qualities (dense versus delicate, rich versus mellow) as well as dispelling common myths such as “farmed fish is bad for me,” can help entice your guests to try something new. Be a part of spreading un-fake seafood news.
Regardless of whose definition of “sustainable seafood” is the right one, and in a world that is increasingly divided, food, and especially seafood, is a unifying force for good. A great meal brings people together across generations, ethnicities, and means. It builds community, nourishes our bodies, and heals our spirits. What is more sustainable than that?
Kim Gorton is president and CEO of Slade Gorton & Company, Inc., an importer and distributor of premium fresh and frozen seafood products sold broadly across retail and foodservice channels throughout North America. With a legacy as America’s original seafood family, Kim represents the third generation at Slade Gorton. She is passionate about making wholesome, delicious, safe and sustainable food more accessible to all by bringing seafood from around the world to America’s table. Kim currently serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood industry trade association in the U.S., and has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. She is also a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization.