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."
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 email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.