Ask Chef Emily: Sustainable Seafood Edition

What do you look for when buying fish? You look for a story.

 

Sea-Robin--lindsay-morris

Dear Chef Emily, I’ve heard a lot of buzz around “sustainable” seafood. Can you tell me what exactly this means and what are the best fish I can buy? Thanks!

It’s Sustainable Seafood Week in New York, so this question couldn’t come at a more perfect time. What I don’t have is a perfect answer. Cheryl Dahl, executive director of Future of Fish, said at a recent Sustainable Seafood Industry Lab I was part of said, to look into sustainable seafood, one must “fall in love complexity.” Therefore the first thing we must do as we take a peek below the surface is release desire for a simple solution. There is no pocket pamphlet comprehensive enough, no buzzword sufficient, no regulation fraud-proof enough, no magic filet to point at and say this is sustainable.

Barton Seaver, chef, ocean conservationist, National Geographic fellow and director of Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at Harvard University asks us to ask ourselves first: What are we trying to sustain? The fisheries, he contends, are not a place out in the ocean humans visit to extract protein of one stripe or another, but rather a community of fishermen and women and their families, who on Long Island, are our neighbors, friends and peers.

Also, I can send you to Whole Foods. Under the leadership of Carrie Brownstein, theirs is one of the most robust set of sustainability standards required by a retailer. Additionally, Brownstein has made all of the standards and requirements public so you the customer can keep track.

But I think the answer you seek is this: seek out storied seafood.

But I think the answer you seek is this: seek out storied seafood. Buying anonymous seafood should make you feel uneasy. Start at the dock if you are near one and the farmers market. Ask the person selling you the fish from their boat to tell you the story of this fish. Do they wake up at 2 a.m. to make the tide? Are there nets? Where are the fish coming from? Peconic Bay? 50 miles off shore? 100? What do they, the fisherman, like to eat? Share with them why you are asking: because you want to know you are supporting a sustainable fishery as a member of the community.

The next best thing is to seek out retailers that have done that work for you and are transparent with their methods so between picking up the kids, and planning dinner and lighting the grill, you don’t also have to keep tabs on the behavior of an industry so complex a quick peek will never be more than dizzying.

Find trust in transparency and traceability that is there if you want to read more deeply. Trust that there are hundreds of like-minded and responsible people out there working hard to keep you and your community in good fish for generations to come, because that is their heritage and their story, too.

And when you’re ready, ask me how to cook up what you bought!

Click here to see Chef Emily’s answers to all your questions.

Have a question about food and cooking? Email me at [email protected] to see your answer online!

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Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.