Three billion. That’s how many people across the globe rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund. However, with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that roughly 85 percent of fish species are either overfished or fully depleted, consumers and the companies that feed them are left treading water in an attempt to support the growing demand for items across the seafood spectrum.
That’s why programs like Seafood Watch, which educates diners, chefs, and restaurants on sustainable sources of seafood, have been popping up. Created 20 years ago by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch partners with more than 300 chefs and foodservice companies to provide recommendations for sustainable seafood species.
Nevertheless, the majority of Americans continue to seek only a handful of fish species on restaurant menus. “There’s going to be a white fish, there’s going to be a salmon, there might be a tuna dish, maybe some shrimp,” says Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for Seafood Watch. “There’s a few species that come up over and over again because we frankly don’t have the palate or the culinary interest to try new things when it comes to seafood.”
To make up for this reticence to eat something new, brands and chefs are taking it into their own hands to introduce guests to lesser-known species, which can protect the health of seafood stocks. The first place they’re starting: flaky white fish.
Though well-known and used in a number of dishes—from fish and chips to fish tacos—many species of pollock and cod fall into Seafood Watch’s “Avoid” category. But because cod’s mild-tasting profile is so consumer-friendly, many brands find it crucial to replace the species with something similar, yet more sustainable. Bigelow suggests starting with a group of fish known as groundfish, which live on or near the bottom of the body of water in which they reside. One popular species brands are turning to is rockfish, particularly those sourced from Alaska or the West Coast. Best served baked, sautéed, or broiled, rockfish has a medium-firm texture and a sweet, mild flavor.
Seafood Watch partner Brown Bag Seafood has been known to use rockfish as part of its rotation of Daily Catches in its Chicago locations. Owner Donna Lee has also experimented with such white fish as barramundi (a lean sea bass that has the most omega-3 of any white fish), hake (a firm, sweet fish with a more subtle flavor than cod), and Lake Superior whitefish, among others.
At The Poke Lab in Monterey, California, owner Joey Nguyen has also worked with local black cod, a sustainable species sometimes known as sablefish that’s high in omega-3s and can be grilled, roasted, fried, or eaten raw.
On a slightly more adventurous note, Bigelow says lionfish is another white variety that has become trendy—and especially sustainable—as of late. That’s because lionfish are an invasive species with no natural predators (thanks to their poisonous spikes). For the past two to three decades, this species has been ravaging local fish populations in coral reefs in Florida and other coastal areas. Though their spiky appearance can scare some customers away, lionfish are a tasty, slightly buttery alternative when grilled or used in ceviche.
However, most restaurants—even fast casuals—can’t get away with serving only white fish species. For a number of reasons, many brands also require darker-meat fish, which often come in the form of salmon and tuna. Fortunately, there are plenty of lesser-known varieties on the market that are sustainable replacements or additions to these popular species.
Depending on the season, this could include steelhead trout from the Pacific Northwest. The abundant species contains meat that’s salmon-like in appearance, with a mild, clean flavor that absorbs other flavors well, says Katherine Miller, senior director of policy and advocacy for The James Beard Foundation, a partner of the Smart Catch sustainable seafood program.
Albacore and skipjack tuna are also sustainable substitutes for the more popular bluefin or yellowfin tuna, most of which are highly endangered and critically overfished. Pacific albacore, in particular, is ideal to source in late winter and into spring, when it’s freshly harvested and plentiful, says Vinny Milburn of Greenpoint Fish & Lobster, which supplies sustainable seafood to brands like Samesa and Wisefish Poke. Though smaller and paler in color, Milburn says, albacore’s density creates a richer flavor than traditional bluefin or yellowfin tuna.
As brands get into even darker—what some would call “fishier”—species, options like mackerel can be a smart addition to the menu, particularly when line-caught from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. Miller suggests using it in sushi for customers who crave a meatier, oilier fish.
To encourage customers to try new species, The Poke Lab creates enticing specials with experimental fish, while also offering the option for guests to try before they buy. “We don’t expect you to buy this huge dish or entrée,” Nguyen says. “It’s like, ‘Here, try a little bit of this fish and if you like it, get an order of it.’”
The Poke Lab’s past fish experiments have included everything from sepia—a squid-like cuttlefish that it used sashimi-style—to Patagonian toothfish (sometimes known as Chilean sea bass), which it mixed with local flounder and formed into patties for fish sliders.
“For most chefs, it’s always easier to prepare seafood that is well known and has been proven over and over again to make customers happy,” Nguyen says. “But it’s this type of experimentation that promotes their use and, in turn, gets them more exposure in the mainstream market.”