Sustainability | March 2010 | By Daniel P. Smith

From Ocean to Table

Sustainable seafood programs among quick serves are growing. Here’s how to get started.

When Robert Klein opened Fish Grill in 1986, sourcing of his seafood products stood as a top priority—even if the “sustainable seafood” term had yet to wiggle into the quick-serve industry’s lexicon.

“To me, it was all about quality,” says Klein, who now directs four Fish Grill locations in Los Angeles.

A decade ago, Klein heightened his attention to sourcing and began an aggressive investigation into ways he could further enhance his restaurant’s sustainability efforts, just as the movement gained traction.

Klein first sought education, traveling more than 300 miles north to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California-based aquarium among the first advocacy groups trumpeting the sustainable seafood message. He later dug into research from credible organizations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, and began asking more direct questions of his buyers and sourcers. As a result, he outlawed serving blue fin tuna and Chilean sea bass, two dishes littered with sustainability warnings. Today, 80 percent of Fish Grill’s menu meets sustainable criteria.

The move toward sustainable seafood, Klein says, made sense on a variety of levels.

“In the short term, I saw customers becoming more knowledgeable and seeking higher quality and health benefits on the table; I had to

match those expectations,” he says. “Then, knowing that I’m in this for the long haul, I knew that if fish stocks were to decline, prices would only rise and put stress on the business.”

Klein’s fast-casual eateries are characteristic of a sweeping industry trend. Sustainable seafood is here to stay and, many experts and operators agree, it’s a positive endeavor for restaurant operators seeking to balance consumer expectations, environmental concerns, and sound business principles.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sustainable seafood is “when the population of that species of fish is managed in a way that provides for today’s needs without damaging the ability of the species to reproduce and be available for future generations.”

No longer mired in obscurity, sustainable seafood emerged as a discussion point among scientists, government agencies, and restaurant industry insiders alike. Most telling of its validity is that the dialogue has morphed into action.

A widely cited 2006 study in the journal Science suggested that the loss of biodiversity was obstructing the ocean’s ability to produce healthy seafood, leading to projections that seafood could be absent from dinner tables by 2048. Though many charged the report with sparking unreasonable alarm, the study succeeded in highlighting the emerging environmental concern and, most importantly for quick service, its potential impact to business.

The following year, the NOAA told the United States Congress that 25 percent of U.S. marine fish are overfished or depleted. Similar estimates have prompted scientific concern about ocean health, particularly in the face of rising dinner table demand and record-level U.S. seafood imports. After all, Americans enjoy their seafood, consuming about 15 pounds of seafood annually, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

As seafood demand increases, so does the importance of sustainable practices. For restaurant operators focused on long-term business objectives, the use of certified products remains the best way to ensure a stable and consistent seafood supply.

“Many restaurant operators are realizing how important a healthy seafood population is to their business model,” says Megan Westmeyer, the sustainable seafood coordinator at the South Carolina Aquarium.

In recent years, industry reports have consistently named sustainable seafood a top trend, a movement chiefly driven by influential chefs and fine-dining trendsetters. Likewise, industry trade shows, workshops, and forums have all addressed the topic in rising numbers.

“As a key talking point, sustainable seafood is beginning to sink in, especially on the heels of other food movements, such as organic, fair trade, and cage free,” says Sheila Bowman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium developed its Seafood Watch program in 1997, among the nation’s first widespread efforts to broadcast the sustainable seafood message. From Chicago’s famed Shedd Aquarium to Good Catch, a London-based collaborative that promotes seafood sustainability in foodservice, several conservation groups and prominent aquariums in the U.S. and abroad have accelerated the discussion with their own education efforts and media coverage.

In recent years, the movement has accelerated both in and out of restaurant industry circles.

Over the last decade, McDonald’s solidified its sustainable reputation with its Filet-O-Fish sandwich, primarily made from Alaskan Pollock, a species certified by the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards. In December 2008, Yum! Brands and Long John Silver’s, the industry’s largest quick-serve seafood establishment, released its first corporate responsibility report, highlighting the brand’s longstanding commitment to sustainable seafood.

In 2005, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, required all of its shrimp suppliers to adhere to “best aquaculture practices.” The message also rushed into the collegiate ranks. Since 2006, the dining program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has only served sustainable seafood, such as wild salmon, Pacific cod, scallops, and halibut, at its campus outlets.

Just how far has the sustainable seafood message come in the last decade? The 2006 animated movie Happy Feet discussed the issue of overfishing and protecting the world’s oceans. The movie’s DVD also included a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch guide.

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