You’re in a restaurant, out for a special dinner, and you decide you want fish. Staring at the menu you have your choice of shrimp, samon, Chilean seabass (“bar du chili” en francais), or whole red snapper (“vivaneau”). The mango and pineapple salsa sounds good with the salmon, but shrimp cocktail is classic…but maybe you should spring for the roasted whole red snapper that doesn’t even have a price listed because, after all, it’s a special occasion. You know that the Chilean seabass isn’t sustainable, though, so you can pat yourself on the back for not ordering that one.
Except the red snapper (if it is snapper at all – it could really be rockfish, mullet, porgy, or sea bream) is over-fished and bottom-trawled – a type of fishing that tears up the ocean floor; the salmon is probably Atlantic which means it’s farmed and bathed in all sorts of non-delicious chemicals and fed other unsustainably-farmed or wild-caught fish; and the shrimp probably come from Thailand where life-preserving mangroves were destroyed so that farms could be set up for a decade or so until they become unable to support the amount of antibiotics used in the shallow waters in which locals will no longer swim.
With so many factors involved, how can you possibly remember which fish is sustainable when you’re out for a meal? Sustainable seafood organization, Seachoice, wants you to pull out your handy wallet-sized, colour-coordinated list of green “best choices”, yellow fish with “some concerns”, and red fish “to avoid”, or check their iPhone app – two “special evening out” actions that may seem like the equivalent of whipping out your pocket protector and saying, “Hey! Check this out!” You know, in the old days when people used pens.
Most consumers would make a pro-sustainable seafood choice if they could, and a lot would even pay extra money for it. It’s the latter that convinced METRO grocery stores to start indicating Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of sustainable fish on their products. The fact that people care (and that Greenpeace picketed METRO grocery stores one at a time until they got their message across/caused enough disruption of business to warrant a policy change) made them take frozen, fresh, canned, and salted versions of seven threatened species, including Atlantic cod, bluefin tuna, orange roughy, Chilean seabass, New Zealand hoki, skate and shark from their shelves, coolers and freezers. Loblaws (the owners of Provigo and Dominion) and Walmart also promised to sell only sustainable seafood by 2013.
That’s a huge step! Now retailers will actually have to know what they’re selling you, which is a bit more complicated in Quebec since a lot of the documentation on sustainability is in English and comes from the west coast of Canada. Fortunately, OceanWise has teamed up with L’Aquarium du Quebec to create a French version of the wallet guide called “Menu Bleu Marin.”
And you can find farmed, sustainable seafood in Quebec. According to OceanWise representative Teddy Geach, “Generally, these fish are farmed in either raceways or land-based closed system tanks which have less of an environmental impact than open-net pen farming. Closed containment systems such as these allow for treatment of effluent water before discharge, the risk of escape of farmed fish is reduced as well as the risk of parasite and disease transfer.”
At Quebec’s Ferme Piscicole Les Bobines, both trout and char are farmed (they’re fed grain meal), providing local, antibiotic-free fish to Quebec restaurants and consumers. And two weeks ago at the “Charlevoix at Jean-Talon Market weekend” for the Festival en Lumiere, fish farm Les Pecheries Daniel Girard gave a cooking demonstration and samples of their smoked salmon. According to their website they produce Quebec eel, smelt, capelin, herring and sardines, though the salmon, trout, black sturgeon, and scallops that they smoke in-house actually come from other countries. (They don’t mention the sustainability of these products on the website. They do talk a whole lot about “terroir”, though.) Most of the Quebec eel population is also exported to Europe and Asia, and the eel that gets shipped back to the province as frozen teriyaki-sauced unagi for sushi is unfortunately not sustainable.
Unsustainable Salmon and Tuna Sushi
The Quebec farmed fish above are hard to track down at poissoneries and restaurants in Montreal. Finding a source for wild fish – and trusting that the stocks can support commercial sales – is even more difficult. According to Joebeef owner David MacMillan, the smaller fish just won’t sell on a menu. He supports east coast oysters and mackerel (a firm, white-fleshed fish with enough fat – like salmon – to make it juicy and sweet), as great sustainable seafood alternatives. Matane or Nordic shrimp are the local, mangrove-free shrimp option, though research into the stocks is lacking.
These are not what are found at most restaurants, however, because the price tag is higher than for imported jumbo tiger prawns. McMillan wouldn’t allow the prawns on his menu anyway, even if they were deemed “green” by Seachoice, arguing that, “if it’s on a plane, how is it sustainable?”
(Not local) Portuguese and Greek Sardines
Portuguese restaurants can get away with an inexpensive grilled or broiled sardine appetizer, but just try putting capelin or smelt on the menu. First of all the entire kitchen would smell and then imagine all the couples out on dates picking bones out of their teeth. Some people think that’s sexy, but maybe there’s a reason my seafood dinner dates are few and far between…
Sardines at Poissonerie La Mer
If you feel like a romantic at-home dinner for one where nobody will judge your table manners or the kitchen smell, finding sustainable fish at Montreal poissoneries still isn’t easy. If you do find sardines, they’re often from Europe, which would break McMillan’s sustainability rule. The Long Island New York wild porgies (dorade grise) on sale at La Mer this week aren’t listed on the seachoice website or iPhone app at all. The fresh whole fluke is, however, and it’s very much not sustainable. La Mer only currently indicates Seachoice sustainability green, yellow, and red choices on their fish for their wholesale operations, so hunting through their retail outlets requires asking a few questions to which the fishmongers may not have immediate answers.
Not Sexy Grilled Sardines For One
All the city’s fish shops are going to sell unsustainable fish, since that’s what customers want. The Atlantic salmon is cheaper than the Pacific salmon (though not even the “organic” kind is necessarily sustainable). You can find Atlantic salmon at every poissonerie in the city, salmon tartar seems to be an appetizer at half the city’s restaurants, and almost every sushi restaurant is serving the same pre-frozen slices of unsustainable sashimi. Sorry to all lovers of SushiShop or your neighbourhood all-you-can-eat, but that stuff is killing the oceans, and do you really want corn syrup and artificial colours in your sushi? An all-you-can-eat sushi dinner shouldn’t be taken as a personal challenge to stuff as much unsustainable fish into yourself before it disappears forever. Please don’t make that joke. It’s not funny, even if you’re French and we don’t understand each others’ senses of humour.
Imagine a world where everyone told their fishmonger they would only purchase sustainable fish. Imagine if the fishmonger listened and bought only MSC- or Seachoice-certified fish. Bring on the fish fry, right? Except, MSC messes up sometimes. During a “Take A Pass On Chilean Sea Bass” boycott, some of the fish somehow gained MSC certification. And a small sticker on a tuna filet doesn’t justify a certification – the stickers don’t tell you how the fish was caught, where it’s from, or if it’s wild or farmed. That’s similar to not indicating whether a chicken is organic and free-range or the caged, non-organic, broiler type (as delicious as Romados is…), but in the case of fish there are more antibiotics involved. There’s also the possibility of affecting wild stocks and the fact that anywhere from 1kg to 9kg of wild fish may be used to create 1kg of farmed fish, according to Canada’s other major sustainable seafood organization, OceanWise. Seachoice even says that for a top of the food chain species such as bluefin tuna, up to 50kg of wild fish may be used to produce 1kg of farmed.
The other big problem with grocery store certification is that if everyone starts buying up MSC-certified frozen wild Alaskan salmon dinners, suddenly that fishery won’t be quite so sustainable either.
The MSC has been accused of using its certification to offer consumers the best of the bad options. The MSC may not be great, but compared to letting bottom-trawled fisheries and mangrove-wrecking farms go unchecked, they’re not that bad. And really it’s only a small percentage of the certified fish that’s questionable. If all the environmentalists pounced on the MSC they’d just have to create a new organization from scratch. So the MSC lives on with seafood lovers hoping to change it from inside.
The key to eating sustainably with the information that we have now is to diversify, eat lower on the sea-food-chain, and enjoy in moderation. The above-mentioned mackerel, sardines, and oysters, but also mussels, clams (not the dredged Atlantic arctic surf kind, including the rubbery-tasting sushi called hokkigai), haddock (but not the trawled Atlantic kind), herring, and scallops (but, again, not the Atlantic dredged kind) are generally safer bets, at least until more information is provided on the package label or your fishmonger/restaurant server can answer all your annoying questions (I seem to have a hard time making friends with the people who sell me fish for some reason…). Simply “picking up some fish for dinner” is a hard task.
If you end up in a restaurant with a little symbol next to one or two of the seafood dishes on the menu and you somehow find the indication at the bottom of the page that it means the fish in that particular dish is certified by Oceanwise as “sustainable” you can feel almost guilt-free about ordering it. Restaurants in the city with that accreditation, however, don’t need all the fish on their menu to be sustainable to be called an Oceanwise-accredited restaurant, so if you think you’re safe opting for the un-marked scallops to start, you might want to double check with your server. Every six months the accredited restaurant is required to remove one unsustainable menu item until there are none, but some restaurants that support sustainable fish don’t sign on to the Oceanwise program because they don’t want to be associated with restaurants serving unsustainable fish.
Still, the accreditation is handy if you don’t want to call around to ten places before making a reservation for a sustainable seafood dinner for two. Just as I don’t have too many fishmonger friends anymore, you won’t be making friends with the servers/host/hostess/manager if you have an endless supply of questions you really be asking such as:
“Where is this fish from?”
“How are the stocks?”
“How was it caught?”
“Is it farmed?”
If it was farmed, “What did it eat?”
If it was fed other fish, “Where did that fish come from?” (Repeat questions 1 through 4)
I might not want to be my friend either…
…but I’m still going to ask before I tuck into my next sustainable seafood meal or purchase something from my friendly neighbourhood poissonerie.
Sexier Sardines For One: On a bed of wild mushroom risotto with thyme