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Seafood FAQ: Sustainability programs are gaining ground

Seafood buyers find that resource preservation and profitability go hand in hand

The buying clout of 27 Canadian restaurants in the
    Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program makes sourcing
    sustainable seafood easier. - Photo courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2006

Making money and doing the right thing don't often go hand-in-hand, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, now in only its seventh year, is proof that businesses can do both. Moreover, the program influences consumers' buying habits across North America and the sourcing systems of major foodservice providers. It's the old story of David versus Goliath, and David appears to be making headway.

Seafood Watch was founded in 1999 with a mandate to help consumers, restaurants and retailers choose seafood from well-managed fisheries. The rationale was that good buying decisions could help preserve the health of wild species in the face of overfishing.

One of the program's first tasks was to convince Bon Appétit Manage­ment, the company responsible for foodservice at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to follow the specifications on a list that outlined seafood species as "Best Choices," "Good Alternatives" or those to "Avoid" in purchasing for the aquarium's restaurant facilities.

"It was a big adjustment to make, and we started slowly," says Maisie Ganzler, director of communications and strategic initiatives at Bon Appétit.

"Our first directive to our chefs at this facility was, 'Here's the information; try to make good choices.'"

By 2004, Bon Appétit had adopted the Seafood Watch list as a non-negotiable standard at its 400-plus foodservice venues nationwide, including corporations, colleges and universities and specialty venues like museums.

"For a social-responsibility program to have validity and meaning, it's important that it's backed up by science," notes Ganzler. "In that respect, our partnership with Seafood Watch has been crucial to our moving forward with confidence and security that we're doing the right thing."

Purchasing by the list is not simple. Bon Appétit facilities do not serve farmed salmon, because it's on the "Avoid" list, which means that if wild salmon is unavailable, there's no salmon on the menu.

"At first, some of our customers were put out that they couldn't have Chilean sea bass, for example. But when we explained why, they understood and applauded our decision," says Ganzler.

Bon Appétit has not increased its seafood expenditures to make sustainable seafood choices.

"There are great options that are sustainable and inexpensive, like tilapia, catfish and some farmed shellfish," Ganzler points out. "The Sea­food Watch program has significantly changed the way we do business at Bon Appétit and has become part of our culture. It's a program that our chefs and managers are proud to be connected to."

The ripple effect has even reached the Compass Group, Bon Appétit's parent company. Compass Group is creating a sustainable-seafood program for its other North American-based companies, which include Eurest Dining Services, Chartwells, Morrison Management Specialists, Restaurant Associates and Levy Restaurants. The foodservice giant, whose Americas Division is worth $7.5 billion, will be changing its seafood-buying habits in the next three years.

By 2009, Compass Group will replace Atlantic cod with Pacific cod or pollock, reduce its farmed salmon and farmed shrimp purchases by 20 percent, eliminate all other species from Seafood Watch's "Avoid" list and promote the use of the program's "Best Choices."

"One of the things we don't do at Seafood Watch is actively give folks incentives," says George Leonard, science manager for the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program. "We try to educate restaurants and retailers about the issues and hope they change their practices because it's the right thing to do."

The program has distributed more than 4 million Seafood Watch pocket guides to consumers since 2002. The aquarium recently surveyed guests about Seafood Watch, and eight in 10 acknowledged that the program had influenced their knowledge and awareness of sustainability issues and altered their seafood-purchasing habits over the long term.

Recently, Monterey Bay started working with restaurants outside the Compass Group and within six months partnered with 30 restaurants that are committed to adhering to the Seafood Watch list.

That restaurant program has been mimicked in Van­couver, British Co­lum­bia, by the Van­couver Aqua­rium, which started its Ocean Wise program in January 2005 to work with local chefs and restaurant owners to reduce the number of unsustainable seafood items on their menus.

Participating restaurants agree to complete a menu assessment, promote sustainable species and remove at least one unsustainable item from their menu every six months.

"Ocean Wise emerged from the relationship we'd built with the Seafood Watch program, because we felt that while their information is great, it can be difficult for a consumer to find sustainable options at a store or restaurant," says Jason Boyce, manager of conservation programs at the Van­couver Aquarium.

Twenty-seven restaurants have signed onto Ocean Wise and are sharing information about suppliers. Robert Clarke, corporate chef at C Restaurant in Vancouver and one of the founding members of Ocean Wise, is overjoyed with the program.

"We were sourcing our own responsibly harvested seafood products in British Columbia for the last seven years, and it was a difficult process connecting directly with the seafood industry," he says. "We didn't get into this to increase business - we got into this because it's a necessity."

Over the years, Clarke had seen a decline in the quality and size of the seafood he was preparing in this upscale seafood restaurant.

"We started to investigate why this was happening, and the deeper we dug, the uglier the picture got," he says. "For example, the quality of Chilean sea bass was really bad, and then we found out how poorly managed the fishery was and all about the poaching. We've found a local sablefish, marketed as Alaska black cod, that's just as good as Chilean sea bass."

But the biggest change, Clarke says, is the sense of community that's emerged from Ocean Wise, along with the combined buying power of the participating restaurants.

"Seven years ago, when we were trying to source responsibly harvested seafood, suppliers told us it couldn't be done. Now, because we have 27 restaurants behind us, they're taking us seriously."

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

 

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