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Special Feature: Balancing act

Legal Sea Foods sparks sustainable seafood dialog

Gulf of Maine cod was one of the species featured at Legal’s controversial dinner. - Photo by James Wright/SFB
Steven Hedlund
March 05, 2011

Its purpose was to trigger a dialog on sustainable seafood among a mix of stakeholders, from fishermen and marine scientists to professional chefs and food writers. But the four-course dinner hosted by Legal Sea Foods at its Park Plaza restaurant in Boston on Jan. 24 did more than that — it garnered a rash of press, both good and bad, over the use of so-called blacklisted species.

Co-hosted by the New England Culinary Guild, the event was designed to raise awareness of the “outdated scientific findings [that] unfairly turn the public against certain species,” according to Legal Sea Foods.

Featuring fritters made with black tiger shrimp, cod cheeks and prosciutto-wrapped hake, the dinner gave Roger Berkowitz, Legal’s president and CEO, an opportunity to explain that the company sources these three species from sustainable fisheries and farms, even though seafood-buying guides, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, urge consumers to avoid eating those species. The shrimp comes from a farm in Vietnam that Berkowitz has inspected himself, and the hake and cod are caught locally via hook-and-line in the Gulf of Maine. (Prior to the event, the Seafood Watch program added haddock, Atlantic pollock, summer flounder and hook-and-line-caught Gulf of Maine cod to the good alternatives list.)

At the dinner, Berkowitz emphasized the importance of balancing out the sustainable seafood debate.

“We’ve become a country that reacts to the people who yell the loudest, and sometimes that means whoever has the most money to get a particular point across,” says Berkowitz. “Who has the ability to drown out the other side? And so a lot of that gets lost in rhetoric.”

Berkowitz says the sustainable seafood debate is often one-sided: “If you take a look at some of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] out there, I think that they look at the fishermen as being defenseless, because they really don’t have the money or resources to fight back adequately. They’re out fishing. I think the NGOs understand that. Look, it’s always easier to pick on someone who’s defenseless. And that’s where the debate has been one-sided. When you have people picking up a [seafood-buying] guide and saying, ‘I can’t eat this because of this,’ they don’t hear the other side because the other side can’t afford to get their point across.”

Berkowitz was impressed with the diversity of the crowd. Sixty-two people attended the dinner, including University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth fisheries scientist Brian Rothschild, Steve Murawski, former chief scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service and now a University of South Florida professor, and Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust.

“When you get guys like Brian Rothschild [sharing their knowledge] — that’s information that people normally don’t get. I think that’s important,” explains Berkowitz. “It’s not listening to lobbyists or PR people go back and forth. This is the source. This can’t be made up. I think that when [the food writers] heard stories of what the fishermen are going through and how difficult it is with all the regulations — it’s an eye opener. People assume that fishermen go out, fish and make a ton of money. Then when you hear what they’re up against, you have to appreciate how a piece of fish gets on the plate.”

Though some food writers wrote off the event as a misguided publicity stunt, Berkowitz was pleased with the dialog it created and is optimistic about the future of the sustainable seafood movement. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “But people were [respectful] of one another. Good questions were asked, and good explanations were forthcoming.”

Berkowitz is open to hosting a similar event in the near future. “I was left at the end of the dinner thinking, ‘A little education can go a long way,’” he says. “So if we can ever get that mix of people — the fishermen, the scientists, the press — together in one room to ask questions and do some honest and thought-provoking debate, I think that the industry can’t help but win.”


Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

March 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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