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Behind the Line: Hope floats

SS Plastic Dining Room aims to raise funds for the School of Fish Foundation

By Lauren Kramer
February 05, 2011

Shannon Ronalds is a man with a dream for the future of the seafood industry: to keep it alive. The Vancouver, British Columbia, resident has been troubled that more chefs worldwide aren’t open to learning about sustainable seafood choices.

“I figured they need to be empowered to do the right thing when it comes to buying sustainable seafood, and that they should get this education at culinary school. This way, once they enter the marketplace, they know not only of the need to serve sustainable seafood, but also how to find it,” he says.

In March 2010 Ronalds created the School of Fish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to incorporate information about sustainable seafood choices into a culinary school’s curriculum that would be slotted in with a seafood program. The information already exists, created by organizations including OceanWise, SeaFood for the Future and SeaChoice. Ronalds’ goal is to put it in a manageable, accessible form that’s useful to student chefs.

“My intention is to add value and extend the schools’ seafood programs,” he says. “For example, as the student chefs learn how to fillet a fish, they might also be learning what questions to ask their suppliers about how the fish came to them, questions about catch methods, quotas and country of origin.”

Ronalds became aware of seafood sustainability when he worked at Vancouver’s upscale C Restaurant as assistant manager between 1998 and 2000. The job brought him in close contact with corporate chef Robert Clark, who at the time was trying to source seafood from local fishermen and understand harvest methods.

Clark had noticed a correlation between the quality of seafood and how it was harvested. In 1998 he started analyzing what seafood he used at the restaurant, and why he was using it. For example, he removed Chilean sea bass from his menu in 1998 in favor of sablefish, because he couldn’t get any answers from international suppliers as to where and how the sea bass was harvested. He wanted his diners to know where their seafood was coming from.

Clark’s seafood-buying decisions were supported by Harry Kambolis, who owns C Restaurant, and Ronalds was educated and inspired by the pair.

But Ronalds’ call to action came more recently, when he heard the prediction of Dalhousie University researcher Boris Worm, Ph.D., in Nova Scotia, that by the year 2048 there will be a worldwide collapse of ocean fisheries. Industry representatives and government officials called Worm’s study misleading and alarmist, and subsequent studies rejected the 2048 study. Nevertheless, Ronalds, 34, was motivated to do something.

“He might be wrong of the dates,” he says of Worm’s study, “but there’s a bigger picture there. I don’t want my 10-year-old daughter saying that in her lifetime she remembers seafood, and that it was pretty good. I need that prediction not to come to fruition."

Ronalds’ unique response was a floating, portable dining room that, with a short-term operating license and a menu of sustainable seafood, would be a novel place for small groups of diners to enjoy a meal on the water around the world. Proceeds from the SS Plastic Dining Room, which floats upon a base of plastic soda bottles, funded the School of Fish Foundation.

Ronalds calculated that he would need to raise $100,000 per city to execute the goals of the foundation at various culinary schools. He anted up $35,000 in personal funds to create the first dining room, which was built in two weeks by a Vancouver dock-builder who used 1,700 soda bottles, a Plexiglas floor and sides supported by cedar posts. After jumping through hoops at city hall to get the necessary 14 permits, Ronalds opened the SS Plastic Dining Room in Vancouver last July and August, with kitchen services and menu creation by C Restaurant.

Up to 12 diners at a time stepped on board for a $200, three-course seafood meal that raised a total of $12,000 in its 60 days afloat. “We were 60 percent full in that time,” says Ronalds. “But we did really well in terms of awareness. We had restaurateurs calling us from all over the world, asking if we would do this in their cities, too."

When the SS Plastic Dining Room closed in September, Shannon’s plan had been to take the fundraising initiative to Auckland, New Zealand, for a Jan. 15 launch, followed by Newport Beach, Calif., and Cape Town, South Africa. But he was unable to obtain the funds to build a new plastic dining room or ship the original one to Auckland in time. The New Zealand launch has been postponed for another year while Ronalds turns his attention to a launch in Newport Beach in July.

“We’ve lined up the seafood supplier and the restaurant whose kitchen services we’ll use, but we still need lighting sponsors and a construction team,” he says. “Right now we need sponsors and support from grant-giving organizations who understand our mission and will commit to making it happen.”

Ronalds hopes to move the plastic dining room from city to city. Given sufficient funds, a sustainable seafood curriculum can be created and ultimately sold to culinary schools, thereby supporting itself. The creation of that curriculum is still a year away, he says, but if it succeeds, the next generation of chefs will learn the importance of sustainable seafood.

The SS Plastic Dining Room has attracted attention all over the world, heightening awareness of Ronalds’ goal. At home, his efforts are being noticed, too. “There’s one person out there who thinks what I do is cool,” says Ronalds. “That’s my daughter.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia 

February 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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