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Safeguarding our stock:

Chefs and environmentalists work to protect, restore and conserve marine fish

March 5, 2002

Detroit Free Press Environmental Writer

Restaurant menus usually tell diners how each seafood dish is prepared. Is it breaded? Is it grilled, baked or pan-seared? But what is becoming more frequent these days is to inform diners how the ingredients in each seafood dish were caught.

For instance, at Emily's Restaurant in Northville, the first description of the sea scallops is this: Day boat, diver scallops.

For the wild striped bass: Fresh day boat Carolina Coast wild striped bass fillet.

And the salmon: Fresh organically raised Maine salmon.

Emily's owner and chef Rick Halberg is part of a coalition of chefs nationwide who have teamed up with fishermen and environmental groups such as the Marine Fish Conservation Network and the National Environmental Trust to protect, restore and conserve marine fish. Halberg and others are concerned that if current fishing practices aren't changed, some species of fish may become extinct.

"This world is not going anywhere," Halberg says. "The longer we can sustain these species, the more we'll make this world a better place to live and the better off we'll all be."

The chefs are trying to shed light on the problems of overfishing, the destruction of fish habitat, and bycatch -- the unwanted fish and marine life that is unintentionally caught and killed by fishermen while they pursue desired fish.

Halberg says a lot of chefs are asking themselves and suppliers: "Do you know where this is coming from and how it is being handled?" he says. "I also use free-range veal and organic chicken. You'll now see a lot of restaurants, when you read the menu, say where things come from. It's helping the awareness."

To that end, Halberg tells diners that the scallops and striped bass were caught by day boat fishermen instead of large trawlers that may stay at sea for weeks or months catching as many fish as possible.

Also, the scallops, as the menu notes, were caught by a diver as opposed to trawlers that drag gear along the ocean floor, destroying essential fish habitat.

And the organically raised Maine salmon is not the same as West Coast salmon, which is in danger of being wiped out from overfishing, conservationists say.

Although many chefs have been concerned about overfishing for years, it was only in the past year that Seafood Choices Alliance -- a coalition of chefs, fishermen and seafood suppliers -- was formed. It sends out a quarterly newsletter -- Afishianado -- that alerts chefs to fish whose numbers may be declining.

One fish that is being taken off many menus around the country is Chilean sea bass, whose popularity caused it to be overfished.

Halberg says he took the fish off his menu after hearing from Seafood Choices.
"I responded to that immediately," Halberg says. "People can live without it. We have lots of other great things."

George Kutlenios, owner and chef at the historic Holly Hotel and a Seafood Choices member, says it often is difficult to keep up with fact and fiction on what fish are endangered. He reads trade journals, surfs the Internet when there's time -- but mostly talks with other chefs.

"I like to listen to people who do it for a living," he says. "I ask, 'What are you guys hearing?' "
Kutlenios says he doesn't wake up each morning and ask, "What can we do that's Earth-friendly?" But he does try to educate his patrons on what is going on.
He worries, however, that taking a certain fish, such as the Chilean sea bass, off menus may force suppliers to lower prices so they won't be stuck with any. That, in turn, may be too tempting for some restaurants to resist.
"Sometimes you wonder, 'Is this really helping?' " Kutlenios says.
A philosophy of stewardship
Rattlesnake Club owner and chef Jimmy Schmidt says the effort must be made to ensure that all types of seafood are around for generations to come.
"The whole thing is about stewardship," says Schmidt, who has advocated fish conservation for years, including lobbying trips to Capitol Hill. "We're taking care of the planet for future generations."

This philosophy is becoming more prevalent around the country, Schmidt says, as chefs learn more about overfishing. Cod used to be prevalent on the East Coast, he says, but now is scarce. Same thing for redfish.
"We only use fish that are not being overfished," Schmidt says. "We check the sources of where we got our fish from to make sure they used sustainable fishing methods."

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington, D.C., says his group, chefs, fishermen and other environmental groups advocate updating the 1996 Sustainable Fishing Act. Crockett says the act hasn't been implemented well and some loopholes need to be closed.
He and others support a bill introduced by a California congressman that they say will go a long way toward helping conserve marine fish.

In addition to what is in the proposed Fisheries Recovery Act, the network of 135 organizations also would like trained biologists to ride on fishing vessels to identify and quantify everything that is caught. Right now, no data on bycatch exists.

"This would give us a benchmark to measure against," Crockett says.
The group also would like fisheries management to be more ecosystem-based.
"We know about the declining cod stocks but we don't think about what the cod are eating and who are eating the cod," Crockett says.

Gerald Leape, Marine Conservation Program director for the National Environmental Trust, says technology has aided large fishing vessels in finding large schools of fish.