The rising trend of “trash fish,” or unusual and underutilized seafood species, on fine dining menus in New York City was discussed last week in The New York Times by Jeff Gordinier. The idea is to, “substitute salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices,” with less familiar species that are presumably more abundant, like “dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.”
Changing diners’ perceptions isn’t always easy, especially about seafood, but there is certainly momentum building for more diverse seafood species. Seafood suppliers are reporting record sales of fish like porgy and hake. Chefs feel good about serving these new species because, “industrially harvested tuna, salmon and cod is destroying the environment.” A new organization, Dock-to-Dish, connects restaurants with fishermen that are catching underutilized species and these efforts are highlighted as a catalyst for this growing trash fish trend. From a culinary perspective, this trend allows chefs to sell the story of an unusual and sustainable species, which more compelling than more mainstream species like tuna, salmon or cod. From a sustainability perspective, Gordinier implies that serving a diversity of seafood species is more responsible than the mainstream few that are “industrially caught” and dominate the National Fisheries Institute list of most consumed species in America.
Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr
While I applaud the desire to eat underutilized species, it seems as if the chefs interviewed don’t know much about sustainable seafood. Below are a few quotes from the article that give the impression that eating traditional species such as tuna, cod, salmon and shrimp is an environmental crime.
“Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices”
“The chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”
“Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an ecofriendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.”
“A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers in New York and around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction.”
A well educated chef should know that there are plenty of salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod that are healthy, sustainably managed, and either certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list as best choice or good alternative. There is no reason not to eat these species so long as you know where the salmon, shrimp, tuna or cod comes from.
Second, none of these species is in any way threatened with extinction – some individual stocks may be overfished, but no commercially important species has ever gone extinct or even come close to it. We all hear about the poor state of Gulf of Maine cod but perhaps these Chef’s don’t know that the Barents Sea cod stock is at record abundance levels (4 million tons compared to Gulf of Maine’s estimated 2,500 tons). So the global marketplace for Atlantic cod is going to have a million tons of Barents Sea cod, and less than one thousand tons of Gulf of Maine cod.
Alaska produces hundreds of thousands of tons of sustainable wild salmon — that is both MSC certified and on the Seafood Watch best choice list. Why can’t these Chef’s serve that salmon?
So it is fine for these Chef’s to brag about how sustainable they are (even if they do fly fish half way around the world with a large carbon footprint), but they should know, and advise their customers that there is plenty of sustainable salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod to be served.