An important foodie event: Chefs for Oceans at Terroir 2015

May 20, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

One of the most powerful things we can do to improve the quality of the food we eat is to ask, “Where does it come from?”. Seafood is a nutritious protein with a great many delicious varieties, but careless or greedy fishing practices have wiped out many species or nearly so.

A Canadian organization, Chefs for Oceans, has started the conversation of how we can get back to fishing and eating in a sustainable way. What’s “sustainable”? Turns out, that term means different things to different people. Terroir, a Canadian hospitality symposium, holds an annual get-together with many special events open to the public. The Terroir Symposium created the program and in collaboration with Ned Bell/Chefs for Oceans, initiated this year’s conversation and debate. I was happy to be hosted to experience it!

These were the participants in the Toronto-based conversation:

Ned Bell (Chefs for Oceans) Chefs for Oceans, Vancouver (and also Exec. Chef at the Four Seasons, Vancouver)
Marie-Claude Lortie LaPresse, Montreal
Roderick Sloan Arctic Caviar, Norway
Ann-Marie Copping Oceanwise, Vancouver
John Bil Honest Weight, Toronto
Alex Cruz & Cyrill Gomez Societe Orignal, Montreal
Lori Wolfson Innovation Norway
Janice Ryan WWF St. John’s (Fisheries Advisor), St. John’s
Eric Enno Tamm This Fish
Ruth Salmon Can Aquaculture Alliance, British Columbia
Mike Meeker Meekers Aquaculture, Georgian Bay
Jay Lugar (Geoff Doylan) Marine Stewardship Council, Halifax
Gordon Slate Shorefast Foundation, NL

Fishing is an interesting form of commerce in that it’s both a local industry and an export. Shockingly, Canada exports so many of its fish, very little is left for actual Canadians to eat. This is especially true for their rock shrimp. The USA also exports the bulk of their seafood.

Chain restaurants and grocery stores impact the seafood industry, in that they don’t have a broad enough selection. This means that the same few varieties of of fish that are available, eaten over and over, get fished out.

John Bil pointed out that flavor is more important that “local” eating to most people and that frozen food has a weird perception by the public. I agree with these points wholeheartedly. Indeed, I made a statement to the dais group of how flavor is what restaurant patrons are looking for and to that end, there are some obstacles to ordering “trash fish” or “bi-catch”. When people go out, every occasion is not “fancy”. Not every place you go to has fresh fish. Unfortunately, menus with more descriptive copy are currently out of fashion — which I decry! Restaurant chefs don’t usually grill up an unfamiliar fish for “family dinner” before service for the servers to taste the obscure protein. (Cheaper dinners are the norm.) So, what can be done to let the buyer know what he’s getting? My observations were met with stony silence. A few minutes later, I heard a chef mutter that he didn’t have to tell people what a fish tasted like. It was disheartening.

There were also disagreements between those on the panel with MSC (Marine Steward Council) certification. It’s kind of like organic certification: there are a lot of politics involved and the evaluation points don’t cover all the things with which a consumer should be concerned. One grocer proclaimed that he “won’t let an organization tell (him) what he can and can’t sell.” He was eager to sell heritage fish.

No Canadian fish gets fed hormones, so that’s something to keep in mind! The panel noted that the US doesn’t have the standards in place yet to have organic fish.

Several of the panelists righteously proclaimed that we the consumers need to be willing to spend 3 times as much on our food to support fishermen and farmers, which I’d say was tone-deaf. People struggle to put food on the table for their families! It’s not that they don’t want to eat well, but a box of something starchy is cheaper and more filling than some delicate fish that has to be handled with expertise. The panelists were firm in wanting to convey to the public, “stop asking for bargains”.

There was a sudden moratorium on cod fishing in Canada beginning in 1992. Before, the price per pound was ridiculously low when cod was plentiful, but then it got over-fished too quickly for stock to replenish. The thought with the moratorium was that the cod would come back to the teeming numbers that brought Europeans over to North America starting 1,000 years ago with the Vikings. It didn’t happen.

Every fishing boat on the water equals 10 jobs in a community.

Each Canadian province has regulatory power over processing.

There are lots of not-good infrastructure at the points of harvest in Canada to get produce and fish to local restaurants, partly due to distribution policy and costs. Also, labor costs can be high. As a result, fishermen routinely send fresh fish to Asia to be processed and sent back. Even if labor costs came down, there’s the question if the roads would allow quick, local processing and distribution.

There is lots of seafood fraud in the market. Traceability is key.

Journalist Marie-Claude Lortie had been a poli sci major, just as I was in college before I went to law school. She, too, got into food writing. When one time she had to review a “hip, young” seafood restaurant, the experience jolted her. The restaurant was serving lots of endangered fish and the servers had no idea where the fish came from. Her review was withering. The chef retaliated with nasty t-shirts featuring her picture. She declared that she “does not want to leave (her) brain at the door.” She wittily remarked,

“What, do they want me to write reviews of restaurants serving white tiger, panda and say, ‘Mmm . . . chewy!’?”
— Marie-Claude Lortie

North Americans eat 2/3 of their fish outside the home. Chefs on the dais were wondering why, musing that perhaps it’s because fish are stinky. I say that even with the common advice of looking for clear eyes, gills, a non-fishy smell, etc., it’s hard for people to pick out a good fish. Also, there’s no wiggle room for shopping and eating: unlike beef, if you get invited out that night, goodbye Mr. Fishy.