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Tracking your fish from sea to plate

During May’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, Houston chef Bryan Caswell pulled a small metal tag from his pocket. It had been attached to a Gulf Wild-branded red snapper he had brought to Atlanta for the festival, and it contained a tracking number.

When I got home I plugged the number into the Gulf Wild website (www.mygulfwild.com) and learned about this snapper’s passage from sea to plate. It had been caught about 50 miles off the Texas coast by one Kenny Guindon, a second-generation fisherman piloting the Falcon — a 42-foot longline-bandit vessel that had been named “Boat of the Month” by National Fisherman magazine.

This sophisticated tracking system is one way that distributors are working with chefs and restaurateurs to ensure the seafood that shows up on your plate has been responsibly harvested from a sustainable fishery.

Today’s diners want fresh seafood like never before. In Atlanta, two of the biggest restaurant openings this season are seafood spots. Ford Fry’s The Optimist in west Midtown has been packed since opening about a month ago. Fifth Group will open Lure this month, and the online food community is already dissecting its menu.

But this increased demand comes at a time when seafood fisheries around the world are collapsing and fish farming has emerged as a major environmental hazard. Consumers, increasingly aware of these issues, want to know their dinner has come from a sustainable source. But that’s a lot trickier than it sounds.

“There’s so much information out there, and it’s hard to wade through it all, ” says David Bradley, Lure’s chef. “In different regions different species are caught with different gear. So mahi mahi from Chile and Ecuador now is considered a ’species to avoid’ because of the way it’s harvested. But the mahi we’re buying are landed in North Carolina, and these fish are considered a good alternative.”

I ran into just such an issue recently when I ordered a surprise tasting menu at Woodfire Grill and was served bluefin tuna. After the meal, I called manager Rick Blumberg to ask why the restaurant would serve an endangered species and not warn customers. He immediately provided the paperwork. This particular fish had been caught in domestic waters and was part of a very small catch from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery.

Regional MSCs, appointed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are made up of academics, non-governmental organization representatives and fishing industry representatives, and they determine the maximum sustainable yields and quotas each season for different species in domestic waters. Their recommendations change with the fish populations. So south Atlantic red snapper, which had been out of play for more than a decade, is now available in small quantities.

“The fish are abundant and beautiful, and they taste better than I can ever remember, ” writes The Optimist’s chef, Adam Evans, in an email.

All the same, Adams and others chefs today have a greater interest in educating consumers and getting them to try new kinds of fish. There’s only so many $32 portions of snapper a restaurant can sell.

“Fish has gotten a lot more expensive, especially wild-caught fish, so chefs are looking for fish our grandparents and parents may never have eaten, ” says Joel Knox, owner of Atlanta’s Inland Seafood, a major supplier of fresh seafood to the Southeast. Species like amberjack, black drum and triggerfish that used to be considered by-catch are now finding their way to menus.

“It is a challenge these days, ” says Joe Truex, chef/owner at the new Watershed on Peachtree, where customers expect fresh seafood at a moderate price. “We have to work with fish that is lesser known, like drumfish. People love snapper and grouper, but what they really love is fresh. It’s up to me to sell fresh. There’s a trust factor involved.”

Other chefs are selling fish parts beyond the boneless fillets of yore. “I’m seeing lots of cheeks and collars on menus, ” says Knox. “Also, more chefs are buying whole fish, selling the fillets and then [scraping the carcasses] for tartares. I was at One Eared Stag for my birthday, and [chef] Robert [Phalen] made a fish head in a miso broth. It was sublime; I ate every bit of it.”

But a lot of diners might balk at drum and not even entertain the thought of fish head soup. For them, there is freshwater trout. Lots and lots of trout.

“The rainbow trout we’re getting from Georgia is great, ” says Bradley, the Lure chef. “It’s one of the few freshwater fish we can get. I think people are going to love our preparation.”

—————–

California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium operates Seafood Watch and recommends which seafood to buy or avoid.

The program says its findings are science-based, peer-reviewed and use ecosystem-based criteria, allowing consumers to “learn the best questions to ask when buying seafood or eating out.” More information can be found at www.montereybayaquarium.org, under the heading “Save The Oceans.”

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog


10 comments Add your comment

Reds

July 2nd, 2012
8:07 am

So. Freaking. Cool. I love that you can do this. I love that you questioned the bluefin tuna. I love everything about this piece.

indigo

July 2nd, 2012
10:50 am

These certified fish sold at restaurants sell for a hefty price. If you can afford it, enjoy.

But the rest of us need some serious guidance from Mr. Kessler concerning how to shop at the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market or a Super H location. You get the best selection by far of whole fish there, but knowing how to buy it- checking for freshness, etc., is a challenge. Langauge barriers sometime encountered do not help. There are some economical choices; John, help us out. These markets now give origin and whether wild or farmed.
It would be great if they information on when caught, when received. But hey, if you can get Spanish Mackerel when it’s fresh, that’s good eating.

BeezieB

July 2nd, 2012
11:02 am

I’d like to have a tasty seafood meal and do some good: anyone know where I can chow down on invasive species like lionfish or asian carp?

jonnymack

July 2nd, 2012
11:36 am

Monterey Bay has an app (Seafood Watch) for the iPhone that allows you to quickly look up whether the fish you are about to buy is on the avoid list or not. I find it to be pretty handy.

Jenny Turknett

July 2nd, 2012
1:10 pm

Jonnymack, that’s a great app (and it’s free). Thanks for sharing. BeezieB – interesting point. There was a story on NPR a while back about lionfish and Asian carp. I remember at that point they were relatively difficult to find. They even interviewed Whole Foods rep, who indicated that the store had no plans to carry them.

Mark Schultz

July 2nd, 2012
2:57 pm

I think you should check your facts.
1. There is no MSC certified Bluefin tuna and you have the organization completely wrong – http://www.msc.org.
2. If you compare fish farming to any land based agriculture production, including vegetables it is much less of a “major environmental hazard” if done correctly and many farms do it correctly.
3. There is a lot of miscommunication about seafood and you are not helping the situation, please
check your facts before you write something for the public.
Thanks,
Mark Schultz

Crabdaddy

July 2nd, 2012
6:13 pm

I tracked a couple of nice king fish and some dolphin from the Gulf Stream this past weekend. Delicious.

Fish Dealer

July 3rd, 2012
10:41 am

MSC is NOT a US NOAA Fishery Management Council. Your facts on both are completely confused. I hope that you issue a correction after you have properly researched and fact-checked the topic. MSC’s on Bluefin Tuna from the USA??? I think we have another chef exaggerating the truth for the sake of their menu pastoral narratives.

Reds

July 3rd, 2012
11:08 am

I am no expert on it by any means, but if the chef was able to provide the paper work that stated that it was ok, then is it possible that there are multiple organizations that do this?

Jenny Turknett

July 3rd, 2012
1:58 pm

John is away for a few days and I’m sure he can provide a more detailed update on the documentation provided by Woodfire Grill when he returns. He can reopen commenting at that time, as well.