Sardine cakes, jellyfish stir fry, and seaweed brownies are just a few of the unexpected items that seafood lovers are starting to see on menus across the country. Shifting away from traditional seafood picks like salmon and shrimp is no longer just about trying new tastes—it can also be a good strategy to eat healthier, save some money, and help protect the oceans! Experimenting with lesser-known, responsibly procured seafood is on the rise in restaurants, and taking a chance on a new type of seafood when dining out or at home can positively impact the economies of both local producer communities and eaters worldwide.
Our seafood habits
Photo: Postelsia / Data: National Fisheries Institute
Fish and shellfish provide the lean protein and healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA) that are recommended as important parts of a balanced diet. In the United States, ten seafood species represent 90 percent of national seafood consumption. Unfortunately, this data reflects consumers’ general unwillingness to try other lesser-known species. We can’t expect salmon, shrimp, and tuna to feed the world for a variety of reasons, especially since high demand for them has led to overfishing and endangered the futures of entire species. That is why turning to lesser-known species could be a big part of the sustainable seafood solution we need.
Moving away from highly demanded species is part of making responsible seafood choices for our ocean. Eating species lower on the food chain (like oysters and sardines) takes advantage of their naturally high abundance, since it takes less energy to produce and harvest them. For example, harvesting wild tuna can have a much larger carbon footprint when compared to harvesting small pelagic fish like menhaden and sardines. Many lesser-known types of seafood are currently underfished in the United States due to lack of consumer demand. For example, fishermen only landed 26 to 45 percent of what they were allowed to catch from a number of New England fisheries (e.g. redfish, mackerel, whiting) due to a lack of demand from the market. This leaves thousands of pounds of untapped sustainable yield in the ocean and not helping to grow local economies or feed Americans a healthier diet.
The West Coast Groundfish Fishery
“Conservation groups, academics, fishermen, and buyers up and down the supply chain have been working to make U.S/ fisheries some of the most sustainable in the world. The story behind the West Coast groundfish fishery is likely one of the least known environmental success stories.”—Tim Fitzgerald, Director of Impact, Environmental Defense Fund
So how do we right the ship? It takes changes on both the production and consumption sides. There are inspirational fisheries management stories happening in U.S. waters right now. The U.S. West Coast Groundfish Fishery was once so overfished that it was declared a federal disaster in 2000. This designation brought fishery and conservation groups together to work with the groundfish fisheries managers and get it back on track. Since then, the fishery has made a dramatic recovery and is now rated a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. Unfortunately, economic revitalization hasn’t kept up with the conservation success, largely due to consumer preferences. That’s where chefs come in—they have an incredible opportunity to guide diners towards the abundance of sustainable seafood we have in the United States and abroad.
“Customers look to chefs for guidance on what they are willing to eat. If they only see cod, shrimp, and salmon, consumers won’t be more adventurous. Chefs have an opportunity to help people look at seafood differently.”—Vinny Milburn, Supplier and Smart Catch Leader, Greenpoint Fish & Lobster
Chefs can help spur food trends by demonstrating leadership in sustainability, innovation, and creativity. Choosing underutilized seafood ingredients and creating mouthwatering dishes not only leaves seafood lovers satisfied, but it helps to shift culinary practices away from predictable and traditional menu items, broaden their guests’ experience, and provide a platform to share the unique story behind lesser-known seafood.
This diversification concept is not limited to wild harvest fisheries. Aquaculture operations have the ability to work with underutilized species as well. For example, Australis Barramundi, a James Beard Foundation sustainable seafood partner, is producing the lesser-known species barramundi in Southeast Asia.
Our oceans face many threats, and a menu that showcases new species that are responsibly farmed and harvested is an important part of adapting to our changing environment. Adding a little diversity to your menu should be a culinary adventure that can, in turn, positively impact health, communities near and far, and our oceans. We hope that you will be inspired to try the unlikely and support responsible seafood choices and healthier oceans.
If you want to learn more about the diversity of seafood options, check out Environmental Defense Fund’s campaign “Eat These Fish” where you can find more information about East Coast and West Coast local seafood options. Consumers and chefs can also find a list of responsibly harvested species from the Gulf of Maine region on the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s website. Also refer to Seafood Watch for specific ratings for different fisheries. If you have questions or would like support in finding new species for your menu, don’t hesitate to reach out!