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.

“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.”

Gilligan’s Beckner says the experience the South Carolina Aquarium staff brought to the table was remarkable.

“They’re the pros at it, and they bring an amazing background to the relationship,” Beckner says of Westmeyer and her staff. “They helped us with the educational part, they reinforced why we should be doing this, and they helped us identify new options for our menu with sustainability in mind.”

Many operators with a sustainable mindset then pair the information of advocacy groups with information from other sources, including suppliers and government agencies. Noting the rise of sustainability as an important issue to restaurant operators, suppliers have increasingly made their sourcing information available and sought partnerships with advocacy groups.

Gilligan’s leadership team, headed by owner Randy Marvin, routinely visits the boats of its local suppliers to get a firsthand look at operations.

“I don’t know of a supplier that’s gone as far as only serving sustainable seafood, but in most cases they’re making sales sheets and categorizing what they sell,” Bowman says. “Most realize that effective sustainable seafood practices are a win-win all around.”

Though discussion of sustainable seafood has multiplied, consumers have only sparingly heard the message. In the 1990s, McDonald’s developed a sustainable program for its Filet-O-Fish sandwich while Long John Silver’s pledged similar efforts. Although both industry giants initiated the programs—in part—to strengthen their supply chain, neither constructed a broad marketing campaign around the issue.

Experts suggest operators make customers aware, educate staff, and think outside of the tackle box.

“Restaurants are in the unique position to encourage new options and spread out consumption to different species and that’s something they can take advantage of,” Westmeyer says.

Restaurants can prepare different seafood in a delicious way and introduce fresh species to customers’ palettes. Common alternatives include tilapia, catfish, and striped bass, while more obscure options, such as sheepshead or amberjack, can draw consumer interest.

By preparing a new seafood dish with flair, Westmeyer says, restaurants can gain a following for their unusual menu options and build a special around the item. Additionally, operators can enjoy cost savings since underutilized species often have a lower wholesale cost given supply overruns.

“In the short term and long term, there’s much benefit to adopting a sustainable seafood program,” Westmeyer says.