According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, per capita fish consumption worldwide increased from an average of 22.2 pounds in the 1960s to about 44 pounds in 2013. Not surprisingly, this growth in demand coincided with the collapse of many commercial fisheries. In its 2016 report “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” the FAO noted that the share of fish stocks considered to be within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to less than 70 percent in 2013.
The bottom line, as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch organization states plainly on its website, is that humans have gotten too good at catching fish, which is why the vast majority of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, over-exploited, or essentially dead.
When it comes to seafood nowadays, sustainability isn’t just an issue—it’s the issue. And restaurateurs and retailers have taken notice. In some cases, they’re turning to invasive species, such as lionfish, which are typically found in parts of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. In other instances, ex-fishmongers are focusing on so-called “faux fish”—plant-based alternatives to traditional seafood that incorporate ingredients ranging from quinoa to seitan (also known as “wheat meat”), mushrooms, yellow pea proteins, nuts, and soy.
Today, there are mock raw-tuna alternatives made from tomato, “crab” cakes made with textured wheat protein, algae-based “shrimp,” and a host of other options for those who want the sensory experience of eating seafood without involving actual fish, shellfish, mollusks, or other creatures of the deep. And as R&D dollars and culinary expertise continue flowing into the faux-fish sea, it’s reasonable to assume that these offerings will get better over time. For quick serves that serve multiple types of fish on their menus, incorporating a faux version into the mix might draw vegans and sustainability-minded consumers concerned about the long-term ecological impact of seafood consumption.
Frying times call for healthier solutions
Seafood has always enjoyed a health halo compared with landlubbers like cattle, pork, lamb, and even poultry. Sometimes the distinction is earned, and sometimes it isn’t. Sitting down to a heaping helping of haddock or cod that’s been heavily battered and deep-fried to a crisp, golden brown may be pleasurable, but it’s probably not a healthy alternative to steak or chicken.
On the other hand, several retail brands and many restaurants are now offering fried fish coated in batters that are gluten-free, higher in protein, more nutritious, more sparingly applied, and more flavorful. At The Grand Tavern in Oakland, California, you can get a beer-battered, gluten-free plate of fish and chips, and the Hula Grill in Waikiki, Hawaii, coats its crab-topped ono in a macadamia nut crust. Other establishments are using batters made from buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, and other ancient or ancestral grains.
Taking cues from culinary culture
Perhaps the best places to source ideas for creative, crave-worthy seafood preparations are high-end restaurants and niche establishments that specialize in novel twists on traditional seafood dishes. For instance, the poke-bowl craze remains in full swing, and while it’s exceedingly unlikely that a fast-food or fast-casual chain of any significant size is going to begin serving raw fish anytime soon, it’s still possible for quick serves to offer “poke” bowls featuring cooked fish prepared in novel and interesting ways.
Think about a Niçoise salad featuring cooked tuna, vegetables, and a vinaigrette dressing, for instance. At Neptune Oyster in Boston, there’s a tuna tartare sandwich with roasted veal, cucumber, and spicy mustard that’s a menu highlight—one that, again, could be replicated or recast with cooked tuna. Meanwhile, the Yard House casual chain offers poke nachos with marinated raw ahi, avocado, cilantro, serrano peppers, green onions, and a host of other tasty components.
Clever entrepreneurs have also made something of a pastime of treating fish and shellfish like other, typically less-healthy foods and forms. Witness the “salumi di mare” at Buca Yorkville in Toronto, which traffics in so-called “seacuterie” made with fish, rather than charcuterie made with fatty cuts of pork. Then there’s Project Poke in Fountain Valley, California, which has had some success with a sushi “doughnut” consisting of imitation crab or spicy tuna that’s been piped into rings of rice, then topped with vegetables and served atop a bed of dried seaweed.
So while the world’s robust appetite for seafood poses a considerable challenge, farmed fish, faux fish, and sustainably sourced wild-caught fish can still be deployed on menus in ways that address consumers’ desire for fruits of the sea that are responsibly sourced and delicious.