Sustainable seafood restrictions have turned unknown species into menu headliners

Diners are used to seeing dishes like grilled tuna, poached salmon and pan–roasted Chilean sea bass on menus. But offerings like kaku ceviche, sautéed barramundi and sablefish confit usually send patrons scrambling to their smartphones to do a quick Google search. Restaurants are starting to offer these previously unknown fish because they come from sustainable populations that aren’t overfished and in danger of becoming extinct.

“Most people know five species of fish, and most of them are threatened,” says Rick Moonen, chef-owner of RM Seafood in Las Vegas and a 20–year advocate of sustainable seafood. Barton Seaver, award–winning chef and author of For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking, believes that this ignorance of less–well–known, but more sustainable, options extends into the back of the house. “In Maryland alone, there are 90 species of fish commercially available,” he says. “But your average chef can probably only name 30 kinds of seafood available globally.”

When Seaver was growing up in Washington, D.C., he spent summers in the Chesapeake Bay harvesting bushels of large male blue crabs that gathered around dock pilings and piers. By the time he was in high school, the seascape had already been drastically altered. “You couldn’t find half a bushel of any kind of crabs anywhere,” he says. “That had a direct impact on my desire to promote sustainable seafood.”

After Seaver had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and had moved back to Washington to cook at well-regarded restaurants like Jaleo and Hook, he loved serving lesser–known locally sourced options, like mackerel and yellow perch. “Those are both Chesapeake Bay fish with healthy stocks,” Seaver says. “They’re relatively inexpensive, accessible, seasonal and local. Those factors combined allowed me as a chef to really sell a story that was compelling to a lot of consumers, even those that hadn’t heard of them.”

Plenty of delicious alternatives are out there for restaurant professionals like Seaver who are willing to look beyond the usual suspects. Mike Minor, executive chef at Border Grill Las Vegas, used to be well–known for his mako shark tacos dressed with cilantro pesto and wild dragon fruit salsa fresca. However, after the fish suffered population declines and registered high amounts of mercury, Minor turned his talents elsewhere. “You’ve got to push yourself to figure how to create that same flavor with a different species,” he says. “Being able to work with new kinds of fish and making them taste great proves that you’re a great chef.”


Now one of the Sin City chef’s signature dishes is a kaku ceviche. Similar to mahi–mahi in taste, the gray–green–fleshed kaku is actually a Hawaiian species of barracuda. “I knew Heart’s song ‘Barracuda,’ but I didn’t know this fish before I started working with it,” Minor says. His purveyor, Honolulu Fish Co., educated him on the fish’s history and how it’s harvested. “They live by the rocks in the shallows and they’re all-hand caught by spear,” Minor says. “That gives me a back story to tell guests at the restaurant. Most people want to have it just so they can go home and tell their friends that they ate barracuda in Vegas.”

Rick Moonen works exclusively with sustainable fish at nearby RM Seafood on the Vegas strip. When asked about his favorite exotic species, he’s hard-pressed to narrow down his answers. “I like cobia, because it has the texture and flavor of veal and you can do just about anything with it,” he says. “But if you’re looking for a Chilean sea bass alternative, you’ll love sablefish, because it has the same texture and fattiness.”  Then he reels off a string of other top picks – South Carolina wreckfish, shad, and sardines.  

No matter what sustainable choices restaurants may ultimately feature, Seaver believes that establishments need to put some extra elbow grease into informing and intriguing diners about new options on the menu. “Be willing to do a little work to sell the species,” he says. “While there are thousands of varieties of fish, there is a limited number of tastes and textures. So, if you’re trying to sell barramundi, you say, ‘It’s a mild–tasting but sweet, succulent whitefish with a thin, crispy skin.’ That’ll sell.”

On the other hand, not illuminating new species to customers can lead to confusion and reluctance to buy. “Barramundi is a scary sounding polysyllabic name,” Seaver notes. “It will languish on your menu if you don’t explain it, especially if it’s surrounded by scallops, snapper and salmon.”  

Over the past decade, the tide has slowly turned as the restaurant community has become more aware of the sustainable seafood movement. “When this dialogue first started, people thought sustainable seafood meant seafood with a longer shelf life,” Seaver says. “Thankfully, we’ve moved on from there.” Even as he promoted sustainable seafood through his cooking and outreach work, Seaver began to see the direct results of the movement in the nearby waters of the Chesapeake Bay where he went crabbing as a boy. “Blue crabs are roaring back, though there’s still a way to go,” he says. “The era of sounding the klaxon warning of, ‘Hey, we’re really in trouble,’ is coming to an end and the era of implementing solutions is beginning.”

It’s an important topic within the American restaurant community, because of the country’s massive annual seafood intake. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average American ate almost 16 pounds of seafood in 2009, which added up to almost 5 billion pounds overall. This makes the U.S. the third–largest consumer of seafood in the world, bested only by China and Japan.

Advocates warn that sustainable fishing needs to be addressed now if we want future generations to still have access to a bountiful diversity of seafood. “Some environmentalists predict that all world’s fish stocks will go belly up by 2048 if we don’t change our evil ways,” says Jim Chambers, a longtime fisheries biologist for the U.S. government and owner of Prime Seafood in Kensington, Maryland. Since 2004, the sustainable fishing proponent has been running a dock–to–kitchen operation that provides seafood to prestigious Washington restaurants like Michel Richard Citronelle and the award winning CityZen. Chambers drives directly from the fishermen to the chefs with fresh catches of species like branzino, wahoo and triggerfish. “I try to guide chefs into buying decisions that promote sustainable populations,” he says. “It’s my job as a purveyor to get them away from species that are in deep trouble.”


During his years overseeing the nation’s marine fish habitat protection program, Chambers gained a newfound understanding of the devastation that improperly managed commercial fishing wreaks on fish populations. “If you fly from Brazil to South Africa at night and look down, you’ll think you are passing over Las Vegas,” he says. “All the lights below are fishing vessels. They’re out there 24 hours a day, every day of the year. They’re clear–cutting the ocean.”

Deciding to forgo putting at risk species on the menu and serving sustainable options instead is easier said than done. “Oftentimes even those who want to do the right thing don’t have access to the information that they need to make informed choices,” Seaver says. An easy first step is to take the free Green Chefs, Blue Ocean online course at Introductory information about sustainable fishing is served up in seven 10-15 minute videos. “It’s a great way to develop a fluency in the issues surrounding sustainable seafood,” says Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director at the Blue Ocean Institute, which developed the tutorial.

Since 1998 the institute has also been offering industry professionals and consumers a complimentary Ocean Friendly Seafood guide (download it at, which ranks fish in five color-coded categories based on their overall environmental health. Dark green means the fish is highly sustainable and very healthy, while red indicates that a fish population is at risk. This isn’t the only guide out there. Seafood Choices Alliance and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch both offer their own guides to help professionals make sustainable choices. “It doesn’t matter which one you use,” says Moonen. “What matters is that you’re addressing the issue.”

For buyers on the go, the Blue Ocean Institute offers the FishPhone texting service. Simply text FISH followed by the species you’re interested in (Example: FISH barramundi) to 30644. The automated service will automatically respond with the fish’s color rating and a brief reason as to why it received that ranking.

Once you decide to buy sustainable options, it then becomes a matter of tracking down appropriate products. If area purveyors don’t have such options available, a number of companies specialize in them. I Love Blue Sea and Clean Fish both sell sustainable seafood directly to industry professionals, while FishChoice aggregates sustainable seafood sellers across the globe and then connects registered buyers to them.

The sustainable seafood movement isn’t just about what new species you should be discovering and exploring. Advocates actively work to excise endangered options from menus. One of the most–at risk species is orange roughy. These deep ocean fish don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re more than 20 years old (they can live to be up to 120 years old), and they spawn small numbers of offspring, so overfishing has quickly decimated their ranks. Atlantic bluefin tuna also stands on the brink of collapse because of overfishing. They, too, are often caught before they’re old enough to spawn.

Purveyors are often put in a tough spot. If they’ve decided to offer sustainable options to their customers, what do they do when they’re asked to provide options they know are at risk? For Santi Zabaleta, owner of A&H Quality Foods in Kensington, Maryland, which specializes in sustainable options, the ethical considerations outweigh the financial gains. “Selling nonsustainable fish isn’t worth it for us,” he says. “People have come to us that are willing to pay a premium for threatened species and out–of–season seafood, but we won’t do it. We live off the ocean. If we deplete it, we’re in trouble.” Concrete business practices like Zabaleta’s demonstrate that the sustainable fish issue is gathering energy. “It’s still an uphill battle,” McLaughlin says. “But it’s exciting to see how awareness of this issue is growing.”

Early adopters of this environmental movement can boast menus full of exciting new options for diners. Whether this means offering barramundi, barracuda or branzino, there is a diverse and delicious range of newcomers to draw from. Moonen believes that the best way to make sustainable seafood an industry standard is to convince people one bite at a time. “Hopefully, after people eat a fish they’ve never heard of for the first time, they’ll start asking chefs at other restaurants for them,” he says. “It’s those little conversations that create a larger momentum.”