Championing sustainable seafood

Ned Bell.

Ned Bell.

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By Kristen Smith, assistant editor

Known in the foodservice community as a passionate supporter
of sustainable seafood, Ned Bell cycled across Canada this summer, reaching out
to local champions across the country holding 24 events to bolster awareness. The
executive chef for the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver’s YEW Restaurant kicked off
the ten-week tour in St. John’s in July, travelling more than 8,700 kilometres
to Vancouver.

The idea for the non-profit
organization Chefs for Oceans was born at a Canadian Culinary Federation
(CCFCC) annual conference in Halifax three years ago. Bell notes that West
Coast and East Coast chefs are often highlighted in conversations about
sustainable seafood because of their proximity to the oceans. “But what I recognized
is that we were having similar conversations across the country about healthy
lakes, rivers and oceans, all of us,” says Bell. “We just weren’t having these
conversations on a national scale.”

He says each event was unique but the message was always the
same.

“My very audacious goal is to have sustainable seafood
accessible to every Canadian within the next decade and, while doing that,
we’re trying to launch a sustainable seafood day on March 18,” says Bell. 

“I learned Canadians really do concern themselves with where
their food comes from,” he says. “I live in Vancouver, where maybe it’s a
highlighted conversation, but people are curious coast to coast to coast.”

According to Ocean Wise, the Vancouver Aquarium’s
sustainable seafood program,overfishing is the greatest threat to
our waters today. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the ocean’s predatory
fish is already gone. A 2006 study in the journal Science, predicted the world’s fisheries would collapse by 2048 if
fishing rates continue apace.

Martin Kouprie, chef and co-owner of Pangaea restaurant in
Toronto, spends a great deal of time scuba diving in oceans and lakes. With so
much life underwater, Kouprie says it’s hard for him ignore that there was a
time when there was even more marine life.

Kouprie says chefs go through a metamorphosis in their
career, first learning about how to work with ingredients, then asking
questions about the ingredients themselves: where did it come from, who
harvested it?

“You have to look for the story behind the ingredient,
whether it’s seafood or a vegetable and if the story isn’t good, or you can’t
get the story, then you know it’s not a product that anybody takes any pride in
whatsoever and you don’t want to serve it,” he says.

Kouprie is on the Ocean Wise advisory board and says the
program has opened the foodservice industry up to new, interesting and tasty
species, such as lingcod, sablefish, spot prawns, lake whitefish and
sustainable trout fisheries.

“There are some new fish that we’re more aware of than we
were ten years ago or twenty years ago, and there are some fish that we’re very
comfortable with eating that are being farmed better,” he says.

At Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi, NL, chef and owner Todd
Perrin uses a lot of seafood, including Atlantic cod, halibut, scallops,
turbot, farmed mussels, mackerel and herring when available, capelin and, of
course, lobster.

“The long-term viability of the restaurant is directly
linked to the sustainability of the ingredients that we use,” he says. “As good
fisheries live or die, so to restaurants.”

Perrin get his fish through a broker from small-scale
fishermen, and for him, sustainable must start with local. “Our basic premise
is we try to go as direct to the source as we can,” he says. “We deal with guys
who are in 45-foot vessels who are catching a variety of species though the
broker that we deal with.”

As it stands, Newfoundlanders cannot buy directly off the
fishing boat, but NL Fisheries Minister Keith Hutchings is considering allowing
people to buy directly from fishermen, which was recommended in a 2010 report.

Perrin notes some people would say some of the species
Mallard Cottage serves aren’t sustainable, but it’s not that cut and dry. “It’s
a bit more complicated than just saying sustainable or not sustainable, I
think,” he says.

“It’s not sustainably caught by everyone who is catching it,
but there are people out there who are catching it line-caught or trapping who
leave as small a footprint on the species as possible, while still harvesting a
legitimate quota,” says Perrin, adding he prefers the word “stewardship” over
“sustainable”.

“My personal definition of sustainable starts with
purchasing what’s on my doorstep,” he says.

Perrin says the way Mallard Cottage defines sustainable and
properly stewarded, often also means the best quality fish available. “Cooking
a piece of fish that’s super-fresh is the easiest piece of cooking that’s
you’ll ever do,” Perrin says. 

Ocean Wise’s species recommendations are based on four
criteria: abundant and resilient to fishing pressures; well managed with a comprehensive management
plan based on current research; harvested in a method that ensures limited bycatch on
non-target and endangered species; and harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats and
negative interactions with other species. 

“Examples of species that are considered abundant are
sardines or mackerel, which had relatively short life spans and reproduce
quickly,” says Theodora Geach, Ocean Wise account representative for Western
Canada.

Geach says she often gets asked, “what’s stopping us from
decimating the population of recommended species?”

“That’s where management plays a really important role; we
want to make sure that regulations are in place,” says Geach, adding this
includes total allowable catch for the year, observing fishing seasons when
species are more plentiful and not spawning and types of gear which limit
bycatch and preserve habitat.

“Depending on the type of fishing gear you’re using, you can
have varying amounts of impact on the surrounding habitat,” says Geach. “If
you’re fishing with some line or pole, rod and reel, you’re just catching an
individual fish at a time and you’re really not impacting the surrounding
habitat,” says Geach. 

Kouprie says there are as many ways of presenting fish on
the plate as preparing vegetables, noting one of his cooks at Pangaea in
Toronto smoked lingcod, turning it into bacon.

“It just takes a little bit of imagination like that to get
the full potential out of these fish,” says Kouprie.

“The one thing about sustainable seafood is it sometimes
cost more, marginally more, but at the same time you’ve got a fish that’s being
handled better. It’s not being brutalized by rolled around in nets. It’s being
hand caught and taken off the hook by hand,” Kouprie says, adding the flesh is
not pulpy. “Even though you pay a little more, you actually get a better yield
and a longer shelf life.”

Geach says there are a number of inexpensive sustainable
options, such as mussels, sardines and mackerel, and some items operators
should expect to pay more for, such as halibut and salmon.

“I don’t think we should be devaluing our seafood; we expect
to get a lot of food really cheap, but I don’t think that should be the case
because it does take a lot more effort and I think once people realize why the
are paying a little bit more, they are willing to pay a little bit extra for a
sustainable seafood option,” she says.