The Dish on Fish: Steps Towards Sustainability

by Clare Leschin-Hoar

When chef Chris Parsons decided to add fresh sardines to the menu at his Winchester-based seafood restaurant Catch, he had to slip them into his tasting menu lineup, or send them out as treats from the kitchen to his regular customers. He was certain the restaurant wouldn’t sell enough of the sardines to list them as an entrée or appetizer on their own, a status frequently given to more familiar fish like yellowfin tuna or salmon.

Never mind that sardines are actually tasty, that they’re capable of reproducing rapidly, that they are jam-packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, or that they would very likely be the most sustainable choice on Parsons’ menu that evening. The fact is, the sardines were a hard sell, while the Norwegian farm-raised salmon was not.

As a business owner, it’s a dilemma that Parsons faces each time he chooses what fish will appear on his menu. It’s a balancing act between what’s best for his 48-seat restaurant and his ability to make customers’ mouths water, versus what environmentalists tell us could be harmful to fish stocks and the health of our oceans.

Skate is an excellent example of that complexity.

Once considered a trash fish, skate now appears frequently on menus throughout Boston, in part, because it’s being substituted for fish like cod or haddock, whose populations have declined. The waters along the Northeastern seaboard are home to a variety of skate species (which vary in population size), and many are still unassessed by environmental groups. Skate are slow to mature and reproduce, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has distributed 32 million Seafood Watch pocket guides, lists skate in the red “avoid” column.

But ask Parsons’ fishmonger, Ian Davison of Constitution Seafood, about skate, and his response is, “Skate? They litter the shores here.” Admittedly, Davison is not a fan of the pocket guides published by environmental groups. He says there are too many variables for blanket “best choices” or “avoid” labels, and that first-hand knowledge of where the fish comes from is more accurate, and is part of the value he brings to his restaurant customers.

“I know the source on everything I buy,” says Davison. “Because of COOL labeling I know country of origin and method of capture. I know if it’s line caught or drag netted or seine netted or hook-and-line caught. All that information has to come with the product that I buy.” For Parsons, Davison says he is careful to purchase skate that are large in size, locally caught and are bycatch themselves. Which leaves an eater like me scratching my head over whether the skate was a sustainable choice or not.

“Whether they are caught as bycatch or targeted by fishermen, most are caught with bottom trawls, which cause serious damage to seafloor habitats. So, regardless of whether they are locally caught and what size they are, Seafood Watch recommends that consumers and businesses avoid purchasing skates,” responds Geoffrey Shester, senior science manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

For many chefs, it’s engaged purveyors like Davison who turn out to be a prime source of day-to-day information.

“In the past year, there’s definitely been a trend towards sustainability,” says Davison. “Chefs now ask me for a list of sustainable products.  They ask me where do I get it from? Is it on the Seafood Watch guide? ive years ago, no one cared if it were organic or sustainable.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that fish is complicated, and diners looking for a pleasant evening out aren’t always interested in the politics of what’s plated before them. A single species of fish can go by myriad names, and either by accident or through unscrupulous practices fish are frequently mislabeled. Where a fish was caught (e.g., Atlantic or Pacific) and the fishing gear used to catch it are important too. A local fish like haddock can be considered sustainable when caught using a hook-and-line method, but is not considered sustainable when it’s been snagged by a bottom trawler. Local halibut is another example. Pacific halibut is considered well managed, while Atlantic halibut (also listed as East Coast halibut) is considered in dire need of relief. Stocks are extremely depleted and are not expected to rebuild in the near future. But unless detailed information is listed on the menu, or the wait staff is extremely well versed, customers who attempt to order their meal with a crystal clear conscience might be better off ordering the pasture-raised chicken instead.

There is good news in our local waters, however. Fish management efforts have meant that some stocks like haddock and redfish (also known as ocean perch) are rebounding, and stripped bass, which saw a deep decline in the 1980s, is commercially available in Massachusetts.  (In Rhode Island and Maine, however, it remains a recreational fish only.)


This spring, Boston welcomed its first official community-supported fishery (CSF) program. Nearly 1,100 customers signed up with the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF, a collaboration between the Gloucester Fishermen’sWives Association, MIT Sea Grant and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. From the start, local blogs and foodie websites like Chowhounds lit up with the news. The concept was simple: Like its land-based cousin community-supported agriculture (CSA), members pay for their shares up front, shouldering the risk of an empty net with the fishermen, and in return collect their weekly portion of wildcaught groundfish like haddock, flounder, hake, dabs, pollock, redfish and grey sole. Members flocked to filleting demonstrations and swapped recipes and preservation tips. For many, working with a fresh, whole fish with scales, bones and fins rather than a pristine plastic rapped white fillet was an eye-opening experience.

But a few weeks into the program, some public grumbling could be heard. Members were concerned their weekly shares were disproportionately made up of cod, a fish that’s faced massive population declines, and one that many believe might never fully recover. For some members who joined the CSF to eat locally and more sustainably, the frequent appearance of cod in their weekly share became hard to swallow.  Other concerns swirled around the trawling gear the group’s fishermen were using.

“We had a few challenges,” says Niaz Dorry, executive director for the Northwest AtlanticMarine Alliance, and CSF organizer. “We assumed that we could predict what would happen in the ocean, but the water temperature and the migrating cod stocks meant shareholders mostly got cod.We could have gone to bigger boats that went further out [in the ocean], but the principle of the CSF was to work with boats that have a smaller footprint.”

Dorry says that while they are not mandating a change in fishing gear for the eight participating fishermen, it does remain an ongoing conversation.  “The response the fishermen got from the shareholders gave them confidence they could make changes [to the gear] because there’s a body of people supporting what they do,” says Dorry.  This winter, the CSF is adding shrimp shares and will continue offering a fish subscription, though the details are still being worked out.  So is the CSF model sustainable?

“Locally caught seafood is preferable from a carbon footprint perspective because it doesn’t have to be shipped so far, and I think the CSFs can connect consumers with local fishermen and potentially reduce wasteful bycatch,” says Shester. “But just because it is locally caught or caught with small boats does not guarantee it is sustainable. Cod schools. You can still catch a big catch of it, even though it’s been vastly overfished.”

Peter Baker, manager of New England Fisheries Campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, agrees that the CSF is a good start, but encourages members to continue the conversation about fishing gear.

“Ask the CSF how they handle the fish and what sort of gear are they using? If it’s hook and line, you’re getting more value, from my point of view, than a fish that’s caught using a dragger. Freshness matters, but so does using sustainable gear,” says Baker.

Sustainable gear has been a hot topic in the nation’s first official CSF.  Launched in 2007,Maine’s Port Clyde Fresh Catch began as a shrimponly CSF with 29 subscribers. It has since expanded to hundreds of subscribers with multiple pickup locations, and offers Maine shrimp, haddock, cod, flounder, grey sole, monkfish, pollock, redfish and halibut.

To address concerns, the Maine cooperative now requires that fishermen members agree to use more conservation-oriented gear. Glen Libby, the cooperative president and fisherman, sold one of his permits to a newly established permit bank, allowing for research that includes testing square and diamond nets with 6.5-inch and 7-inch mesh as a way to lower bycatch discard rates and to reduce their impact on seafloor habitat. Larger mesh openings mean more juvenile fish can escape.


Not all the fish we consume is wild-caught, of course. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report projects that 2009 will be the first year that human consumption of farm-raised seafood will surpass that of wild-caught. Farm-raised fish is the fastest-growing sector of today’s aquaculture industry.

Plenty of farm-raised fish gets a bad rap, often for good reason. There are issues surrounding feed ratios (the amount of wild-caught fish used as feed to produce a pound of farm-raised fish.) Bluefin tuna ranching, for example, can run as high as 20:1, a ratio environmentalists say is simply unsustainable. Other issues of concern include pesticide use to control sea lice infestations, escapement of non-native species; overharvesting of wild juveniles to enhance a farm’s stock, pollution, destruction of habitat and more.

While ocean-based farm-raised salmon, ranched bluefin and farmed freshwater eels all land squarely in the “avoid” category, plenty of farmraised seafood gets a thumbs up, including some products farmed right here in Massachusetts. Bivalves, like clams, oysters, scallops and mussels, are inherently sustainable. They’re filter feeders, and benefit estuaries and bays. Pat Woodbury’s in Wellfleet and Duxbury’s Island Creek oysters and clams are excellent examples of farm-raised sustainable seafood.

So is Australis’ Barramundi, located in Turner Falls, Massachusetts.  This buttery, mild, farm-raised fish native to Australia took home the 2009 Seafood Champion Award from the Seafood Choices Alliance.  They’re grown in closed circulating systems, which means no chance of escapement. The feed ratios are low, and a low stocking density means the fish are not overcrowded.

Other good choices for farm-raised fish include U.S.-raised rainbow trout, catfish, tilapia and abalone, and Arctic char raised in the U.S., Canada, Norway and Iceland.


While there is a difference of opinions among experts about the exact number of worldwide overfished stocks, the trend is clear: That number is on the increase, and many environmentalists agree we’ve reached a point where urgent action is needed.

So what can you do?

Our advice is to ask questions. It sounds simple, but the more you ask, the more you’ll understand the issues, and your questions go a long way toward getting chefs and fish buyers to understand that these issues are critically important to all of us. So before you order, here’s exactly what you should be asking:

What type of fish is it? Is that tuna overfished bluefin or the better choice of pole-caught albacore?

Where was it caught?Was the halibut caught in the Pacific, where it’s still well managed, or in the Atlantic, where it is in dire need of relief?

How was it caught?Was the fish caught using a hookline, which is a good choice? Or a longline, which sounds similar but is not. Longlines can run 60 miles in length and can carry literally tens of thousands of hooks.

Was the fish farmed, and if so, how? In open-net ocean pens, which carry the risk of sea lice infestation, pollution and escapement? Or was it farmed in a closed circulating system? And what is its country of origin? Environmental laws in the U.S. are far more strict, which means you’re making a better choice if it’s U.S. farm-raised.

And is the fish vegetarian or carnivorous? Does it take four pounds of ground fishmeal to produce one pound of farm-raised fish for our consumption? If so, that’s a good one to avoid.

One of the best ways to eat fish that’s healthy for you and more environmentally sound is to diversify your eating habits. We all like tuna, shrimp and salmon, but there’s a current movement towards thinking of these items as special-occasion meals instead of everyday nourishment. Fish like sardines, anchovies, mackerel and most smaller fish,
both fresh and canned, are abundant and are low on the food chain, which means unlike tuna or swordfish, they carry less risk of containing mercury, while still providing you with plenty of omega-3s. Even better, you’re consuming fish that can reproduce at a young age.

Sure, we’re asking you to spend more time contemplating the fish you select from the menu or fish counter, but think of it as time well spent. It’s a small effort that will go a long way in halting the depletion of our oceans.

Food-writer Clare Leschin-Hoar has covered stories about sustainable fish for TheWall Street Journal, The Christian ScienceMonitor, National Culinary Review and more. She’s currently snacking on sardines at her home in Mansfield.


So let’s be real: While part of the confusion over seafood is knowing what’s OK to eat from a conservation point of view, there’s health facet to consider as well. Is the fish high in mercury or PCBs? Does it contain high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids we covet? Is it good for me? In an effort to simplify some of the answers, a list of Super Green
Seafood was released in October, and guides consumers to the best choices for themselves and the oceans. The list is the result of collaboration between the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Environmental Defense Fund and scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Albacore Tuna (troll or poll caught from the U.S or British Columbia
Mussels (farmed)
Oysters (farmed)
Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
Pink Shrimp (wild-caught from Oregon)
Salmon (wild-caught from Alaska)
Spot Prawns (wild-caught from British Columbia
Rainbow Trout (farmed)
Artic Char (farmed)
Bay Scallops (farmed)
Crayfish (farmed from the U.S.)
Dungeness Crab (wild-caught from California, Oregon and Washington)
Longfin Squid (wild-caught from the U.S. Atlantic)
Pacific Cod (long-line caught from Alaska)

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