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Smart choices to save the sea

Matt Ibasfalean loads crab pots onto his uncle Bryan Ibasfalean’s boat on Wednesday at Cortez Bait and Seafood in Bradenton. The season opens today.

TYLER TJOMSLAND | Times

Matt Ibasfalean loads crab pots onto his uncle Bryan Ibasfalean’s boat on Wednesday at Cortez Bait and Seafood in Bradenton. The season opens today.

Choosing earth-friendly foods is increasingly complicated for consumers, and selecting seafood may be the trickiest of all. Scientists estimate nearly 75 percent of the world's fisheries are at capacity or overfished due to increasing demand and more efficient commercial fishing technology.

In October, National Seafood Month, Floridians have good reason to be preoccupied with such issues. Today marks the opening of stone crab season, Florida's poster child for sustainable seafood because the crustacean is not killed for its claws. And on Wednesday, the Florida Aquarium unveils an ambitious program to educate consumers, restaurateurs, purveyors and commercial fishermen about seafood sustainability. Modeled after Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, the new Seafood Now program aims to guide consumers and professionals through the rocky shoals of ethical seafood choices.

According to Seafood Now organizers and other industry experts, there are plenty of local, ethical options in the Gulf of Mexico, provided everyone does their homework and, above all, asks questions.

"We'd like everyone to wake up tomorrow and be sustainable," says Tom Wagner, the aquarium's public relations manager. "But this is about business people trying to come up with good business solutions, so that in turn consumers start to make good, educated decisions."

Tyson Grant, executive chef of St. Petersburg's Parkshore Grill, has been tapped as the program's voice of independent restaurants. Through monthly sustainable seafood events, workshops and a sustainable seafood festival next July, Seafood Now hopes to educate the public. But Grant's job is to get other restaurants involved, so that, through strength in numbers, restaurants can exert pressure on the fisheries.

"It comes down to where we as restaurants spend our dollars."

Grant realizes that this in turn is a reflection of how customers spend theirs. Seafood Now allows restaurants to advertise their level of participation on menus. All levels of participation include a commitment to serve no seafood on Seafood Watch's "red list," but some levels have even more stringent standards.

"If the public doesn't know I'm trying to offer sustainable seafood, I just look like a really expensive restaurant," Grant asserts. "In this market, price wins. That's why I got involved — it's all about awareness."

Grant says if he had his way, he wouldn't have salmon or tuna on his menu (the former primarily because of how much wild fish it takes to raise a pound of farmed fish, the latter because of overfishing). But these days if you don't offer these species, people complain.

"Customers should know that there's no one fish that's good year round, except properly farmed fish," Grant said. "But even with aquaculture there are bad farms and there are good farms. I wish customers would come in and ask about seafood."

What's sustainable?

The word sustainability may be part of the problem. Many consumers are hazy about its meaning.

Ryan Gandy, a research scientist who runs the stone crab monitoring program at Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, says it's not just simple math — are the total number of a species on the ascent or decline? A sustainable fishery needs to have a management plan, do stock assessments and have the ability to track how management affects the fishery.

In short: "Do you have those pieces of the puzzle in place to allow you to make the necessary decisions to continue a fishery that can thrive? We have those in place for stone crabs."

Bingo. So stone crabs are all right. What about the gulf's other jewels?

In the past couple years, responsible diners have avoided gag grouper. But red grouper? Have at it. Red tides and overfishing drastically depleted the stock, but through limits on commercial fishing, red grouper has bounced back. Restaurants like the Columbia have once again started serving red grouper, and diners should feel fine about eating it.

Roy Crabtree, Southeast Regional Administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, has more good news. He cites tremendous progress with red snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish in the Gulf of Mexico.

"These are the ones we've had the most concern about. I don't believe any species in the gulf are undergoing overfishing at this time. From a consumer standpoint, anything that we're managing in the Gulf of Mexico should be sustainable — even the ones that are overfished like gag grouper or red snapper, which are in rebuilding plans. No one should be hesitant to eat these fish or feel guilty about doing so."

Wild, and pricey

Billy Moore, retired owner of Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde, may exuberantly embrace the gulf's native species like stone crabs, but he tempers it with this caveat. He sees farm-raised and imported tilapia, shrimp, catfish and clams on the rise, saying profits are diminishing for purveyors of wild seafood from the gulf.

"Price has become the single biggest driver of product. And Florida lobster, grouper, scallops — items that you can't farm, are very expensive. You can pay $20 a pound for grouper, or you can buy filet mignon for $10."

But, he says, "There's still clientele who wants good native seafood. There's a group of people who know their grouper, snapper, scallops," and who are willing to pay for high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.

For those people looking to make sustainable choices, Graeme Parkes, vice president of fisheries for MRAG Americas, a marine resources consulting firm in St. Petersburg, suggests buying American (more stringent fishing and farming standards than many places), buying wild (many farmed fisheries have adverse environmental impacts), knowing where your fish is from and how it's caught.

If that sounds like too much work, he suggests, "Find a supermarket or restaurant that you know has a good policy of sourcing their seafood from sustainable sources. Then just exhale."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

2011-2012 stone crab season

PRICE: The season's first stone crabs will be available to consumers Sunday. Until the first boats come in tonight with crabs, purveyors and restaurateurs are loathe to set firm prices. Pelican Point Seafood in Tarpon Springs is estimating an initial price of $14 a pound for medium, $17 a pound for large and $20 a pound for jumbo. Billy's Stone Crab in Tierre Verde is tentatively looking to last year's pricing at its restaurant: $16-$17 a pound for mediums, $27-$28 a pound for jumbos. The seasons ends May 15.

THE CATCH: According to Jim Mysliwiec of Billy's Stone Crab, crabbers in Homosassa and Crystal River checked their pots at midweek with disappointing results. In cold weather, stone crabs tend to curl up on the bottom of the ocean and refrain from jumping into the traps.

2010 STATS: The stone crab industry last year brought in nearly 2.6 million pounds of crab at an estimated total value of $24 million.

Gulf species sustainability report card

Based on data from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, Fl-Seafood.com, and local marine experts, here's how common Florida species stack up when it comes to sustainability.

BEST

Catfish (farmed) — 470 million pounds are produced annually from catfish ponds in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Clams (farmed) —They are farm raised on Florida's east and west coast, mostly by farmers who lease coastal water bottoms and plant seed clams under nets or in mesh bags.

Mackerel (king and Spanish) — Both are abundant and their fisheries have low habitat impacts.

Mullet — Striped mullet swim in large schools and are often caught with cast, beach or haul seine nets, with minimal bycatch or habitat damage.

Oysters (farmed) — Seafood Watch gives farmed oysters the "best of the best" rating, but gulf oysters only "good alternative" status.

Spiny lobster—Florida's spiny lobster are off the Keys and around the southern tip of the state and are harvested using special traps, landed live and sold whole, as tails or as meat, fresh or frozen.

Stone crabs — The catch has been stable for some years at about 2.5 million pounds.

Tilapia — While more expensive than some imports, domestic farmed tilapia is likely to be raised in a low-density environment with recirculating water. Those farmed in open systems are environmentally problematic because of escapes and pollution.

GOOD

Amberjack—Although it has been a species of concern, greater amberjack is doing better now. It's fast growing and reproduces at a young age, both good traits.

Blue crab — After a significant drop in the stock in the late 1990s, blue crabs have had a rebound in recent years, according to the state. Still, habitat loss is a concern.

Grouper (red and black)—With numbers on the rise, Seafood Watch has put these back on the table.

Shrimp — American farmed shrimp get "best choice" status from Seafood Watch, but wild-caught Gulf of Mexico brown, pink, rock and white shrimp are good alternatives.

Snapper (yellowtail, gray, lane, mutton, silk) — With red still on the "no go" list, these snapper species, which may go by different names at market, are good bets.

Sturgeon (farmed)—Yes, wild sturgeon are one of the species responsible for bodychecking boaters, but sturgeon aquaculture is on the rise in Florida, with meat and caviar finding its way into local restaurants.

AVOID

Grouper (gag) — Determined two years ago to be overfished, there is a rebuilding plan in place.

Pompano — It's overfished in the wild and it can be farmed but it takes so many pounds of fish in feed to get a pound of pompano that it's unsustainable.

Snapper (red) — The population is recovering from overfishing but it needs more time and less pressure from diners to really bounce back.

Tilefish — A long-lived, slow-growing deep water species, it is most often longlined. Golden and blueline tilefish's status varies by region, but it is generally considered to be overfished.

Laura Reiley

Sustainability report card

Based on data from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, Fl-Seafood.com, and local marine experts, here's how common Florida species stack up when it comes to sustainability.

Among the best choices

Stone crabs: The catch has been stable for some years at about 2.5 million pounds.

others: Catfish (farmed), clams (farmed), mackerel (king and Spanish), mullet, oysters (farmed), spiny lobster and tilapia

the good

> Amberjack, blue crab, grouper (red and black), American farmed shrimp, snapper (yellowtail, gray, lane, mutton, silk), sturgeon (farmed)

avoid

> Snapper (red),

grouper (gag),

pompano, tilefish

For a more comprehensive look at the seafood on this list, go to links.tampabay.com

Smart choices to save the sea 10/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 1:25am]
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