Sustainability | March 2010 | By Daniel P. Smith

From Ocean to Table

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“Sustainable seafood is on people’s radar,” Bowman says. “Companies want to have the right green initiatives to appease shareholders and customers. Restaurants might have already looked at waste, packaging, and energy; sustainable seafood arises as another business decision they can make to show environmental concern and improve their business model.”

The pervasive and diverse attention heaped upon the issue underscores the point that sustainability challenges freshness and quality as a vital priority. In the quick-serve arena, where fish sandwiches and platters account for a noteworthy chunk of sales, sustainable seafood cannot be ignored.

“Quick serves might have largely happened upon this movement by happenstance, but they’re increasingly looking at this commitment as something they cannot ignore,” Bowman says.

Around nine Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant locations in South Carolina, a simple slogan reminds customers, ever so comically, of the precise origin of the restaurant’s celebrated dish: “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp.”

The casual-dining establishment heightened its sustainability efforts in 2008 after partnering with the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

“Using sustainable products ensures we’re getting the best product available, which helps guarantee fresh food and promote a positive guest experience,” Gilligan’s marketing director, Sarah Beckner, says. “That quality and consistency benefits our reputation.”

Two questions, crucial for operators to ask, drive the sustainable seafood issue:

1.) Where does the fish come from?

2.) What was the capture or harvest method?

Traceability is central to any sustainable seafood practice. Restaurants often assume fish comes from one standard location, only to be surprised that the origin of a specific species can vary throughout the year. On invoices from his suppliers, Fish Grill’s Klein reviews the origin of products and demands suppliers notify him of any changes.

“It takes some monitoring, but everything has to hit the mark,” he says, adding that Fish Grill’s status as a kosher restaurant adds another layer of scrutiny to his efforts.

Once restaurants confirm the seafood’s origin, operators can then ask about stock status, fishery management, or the ecosystem’s impact on harvest.

“Restaurants must be diligent about the fish they’re serving and maintain consistent guidelines,” Bowman says.

Westmeyer points to fish from Alaska, a state with a long history and credible record of sustainable fishing practices, as one particularly positive—and easy—option for operators.

“Everything that comes from Alaska is sustainable,” Westmeyer says, “so there’s one quick way to know if you’re getting sustainable seafood.”

Operators can then dig even further. Gilligan’s leadership team, headed by owner Randy Marvin, routinely visits the boats of its local suppliers to get a firsthand look at operations. The staff also conducts regular in-house testing of its seafood, weighing, cooking, and assessing the freshness of items.

“We’re not just taking suppliers at their word; we’re seeing and learning about this with our own eyes. We don’t want them buying product from elsewhere and selling it to us,” Beckner says, alluding to a familiar practice in the seafood industry.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that 67 percent of seafood by dollar value is sold through restaurants, an estimate that suggests quick serves hold valuable leverage to demand that seafood is caught or farmed in an environmentally responsible way.

Many restaurant operators looking to understand sustainability and its applications to their business first turn to a trustworthy advocacy group. Many of the nation’s aquariums host a sustainable seafood program that provides a shortcut for operators seeking helpful resources and personal attention.

“A lot of restaurants simply don’t have the time to get so involved in this issue, so partnering with the right agency will be a big help,” Monterey Bay’s Bowman says. “I would tell any operator to use the available resources and don’t make this issue any harder than it has to be. Identify who’s telling the straight story and work within those guidelines.”

The South Carolina Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative, for instance, has a distinct restaurateur focus, sparked by the recognition of just how much influence restaurants peddle over the nation’s $70 billion desire to enjoy seafood. Since 2002, the aquarium has worked directly with restaurants to help them improve their seafood sourcing. Operators determine their level of involvement and take small steps alongside the aquarium’s staff to produce a sustainability program that works.

“Restaurants are a control point in that they pick and choose what people will be eating,” Westmeyer says. “Our partnership program with restaurants helps arm operators with credible information, so that they can make the decisions best for their establishment and their customers.”

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