This weekend more than 300 chefs and food professionals from across the country will convene in Charleston to address big questions about the sustainability of our nation’s food supply at the Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit.
One of the most important issues to be discussed at this annual gathering of the culinary community is protecting our seafood supply.
Seafood is a regular part of our national diet in the United States, and globally the numbers on consumption are staggering. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 3 billion people depend on seafood for their sole or main source of protein. A half a billion people depend on it for their livelihood. For the sake of environmental, economic and food security in both the developed and developing world, we can’t afford to miss our opportunity to safeguard the world’s fish stocks.
The good news is that the sustainable seafood movement is gaining momentum. Two stories illustrate this and show how the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) empowers fisheries, commercial buyers and consumers alike: Patagonian toothfish and spiny dogfish.
Consider the Patagonian toothfish. This once unpopular species became a blockbuster in the 1990s under the more marketable name of Chilean sea bass. But the fish became popular amidst serious concerns by the scientific community about illegal fishing, overfishing, bycatch and other issues, and responsible chefs removed it from their menus.
Then a single fishery decided to make the necessary environmental improvements to pursue MSC certification, the world’s leading and, according to independent studies, the most credible standard for seafood sustainability. In 2004, the South Georgia Patagonian toothfish longline fishery became the world’s first toothfish fishery to meet the MSC’s rigorous standard. Other toothfish fisheries soon followed.
Today, more than 60 percent of the world’s toothfish catch comes from fisheries that are either MSC certified or under assessment for certification. Now, chefs are putting toothfish back on the menu, rewarding their customers with this delicious fish as well as rewarding the fisheries that invested in significant change to preserve the resource.
Spiny dogfish offers an interesting parallel. The North Atlantic fishery for dogfish was considered at risk 10 years ago, but has successfully been rebuilt to the point where the MSC certified the fishery last year. Today, this formerly maligned fish is gaining attention as a delicious, plentiful species that, while still domestically undervalued, could become the next big catch if the public can be persuaded to try it.
At least two thirds of the fish eaten in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants, and chefs exert a huge influence over our seafood choices. They can feature sustainable species in their restaurants, remove endangered species, and encourage customers to try underutilized species that are fished sustainably. A reliable certification of sustainability enables them to make informed decisions about what and what not to serve.
The MSC certification program has emerged as the most credible and commonly used standard for seafood sustainability and traceability in the world. Today, more than 20,000 product lines in 106 countries bear the MSC eco-label, indicating the fish is from, and fully traceable back to, a sustainable fishery. More than 11 percent — 10 million metric tons — of the global wild-caught seafood harvest is either certified or in assessment to the MSC standard. In the U.S., more than half is certified.
The MSC is proud to participate in the Chefs Collaborative summit this weekend to engage with some of the most respected — and responsible — chefs in the country. Not coincidentally, dogfish and toothfish will play key roles in two sessions on seafood sustainability.
The first will explore how to turn unfamiliar species into enticing and delicious dishes to tempt the public. A representative from the MSC-certified spiny dogfish fishery will be there to showcase some stunning dogfish preparations. The second will look at the expanding options for sustainable seafood, from monkfish to Chilean sea bass.
As the culinary community gathers in Charleston, let’s all do our part to enjoy seafood while protecting the world’s supply. Whether ordering a longtime favorite fish or choosing less familiar fare when we see it on the menu, be sure to ask if it’s certified for sustainability.
Kerry Coughlin is the regional director for North America, Latin America and the Russian Far East, and a member of the global senior management team, with the international Marine Stewardship Council.