American restaurants tend to serve only the kinds of seafood diners are most familiar with. But that is proving to be environmentally unsustainable, and the industry is responding. Restauranteurs are embracing a movement to serve sustainable seafood — steering clear of fish that are caught in a damaging way, taking depleted species off the menu and offering diners relatively unfamiliar species that aren't overfished.
At Nashville restaurant Fin & Pearl, when stone crabs weren't available, server Alanna Quinn-Broadus didn't apologize to diners who came in hankering for them. Instead, she gave them a quick lesson in ocean ecology.
An overpopulation of octopus in South Florida were eating up the crabs, she told them, and that had caused a shortage. She says diners were appreciative.
"They're bummed that the stone crab claw is not available, but they're also like, 'Oh, you're not serving it because the population is low,'" she says. "And then you can say, 'But eat the octopus and you can get your crab claws back.' "
Quinn-Broadus is proud of her job as part-server, part-teacher. "It's entertaining, it's educational, and it's part of the whole mission," she says.
That mission was started by restaurateur Tom Morales, a sport fisherman himself who practices catch-and-release. He opened Fin & Pearl in late 2016, joining a handful of Nashville restaurants making a commitment to serve sustainable seafood.
For example, take their tuna: "Our tuna comes out of Hawaii, which is still a sustainable stock of yellowfin tuna, where the northern Atlantic tuna is depleted, and every tuna you take out is sealing the death of yellowfin tuna in the North Atlantic," Morales says.
Of course, sustainable seafood comes at a premium. Morales educates people about why it's worth the cost in the long run. "I think there's going to be a point of 'Oh heck,' where everybody’s going to say, 'We screwed up,'" he says.
The Rules To Remember
For wild-caught seafood, it's important to know which species are overfished and how they are caught, says Ryan Bigelow at Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, one of the watchdog groups helping restaurants and consumers figure out which fish to avoid.
"We are very good at fishing, maybe too good, and we're able to pull quite a bit of fish out of the water at any one time," Bigelow says.
Seafood Watch also looks at which fish are caught in a way that harms other sea life or the environment. For example, fish that are caught by dragging nets over fragile coral reefs are out. Farm-raised seafood have their own criteria, including the number of chemicals used and the protocol when fish escape.
Bigelow admits this is really too much for the average diner to parse.
"The onus is and should be on the business to provide that information, not for the consumer to have to go fishing for it,” he says. “Pardon the pun.”
However, there are a few easy-to-remember tips Bigelow gives to diners. For the time being, stop ordering eel in Japanese restaurants — though eel sauce is fine, as it doesn’t actually have eel in it.
And avoid bluefin tuna, which are often caught before they have the chance to reproduce. Until those species repopulate, Bigelow urges diners to trying something new.
"Americans don't like to eat a lot of different kinds of seafood. We're not very adventurous with our seafood taste," he says. "It would be nice if people could step outside the safety bubble of their tuna, shrimp, salmon, crab, whitefish."
'Great, Let's Try It'
At Fin & Pearl, for example, the seafood staple Chilean sea bass does not appear on the menu, because it's overfished. Instead, diners are offered lesser known choices. Chef Kevin Powell is getting his first look at a silvery Alaskan inconnu that has just come in from the Arctic.
"Look at the coloration of that thing," he says. "Isn’t it gorgeous? Some nice blues. Man, that is pretty. I love that."
As he cuts into the fish, he thinks about culinary possibilities.
"This is such a white fish, and it’s got very small flake to it, so I’ll probably end up grilling this. I’ll need to come up with a sauce. Something buttery, maybe a beurre blanc of some sort," he says.
Being far from the ocean, many Nashville diners are unfamiliar with existing threats, but they are learning to be flexible. Lynn Tinsey returns often to Fin & Pearl for the rotating catch-of-the-day sandwich.
"I always say, 'Is it a whitefish?' And they're like 'Yep.' And I'm like, 'Great, let's try it,’ " she says. "But I can't remember any of the names."