Sustainable seafood is a touchy subject. There’s lots of misinformation about what’s OK to purchase and eat, and that information seems to change all the time. We all want to do the right thing. Seriously, if you’re reading this magazine it’s unlikely that you are actively trying to eat an animal into extinction. Unfortunately, if we don’t pay attention to the seafood we consume, we could easily do just that.
Available information on what seafood is considered sustainable can be overwhelming. It’s often hyper-specific, too general, or just flat-out not helpful. And what does “sustainable” even mean? Should we consider factors other than a species’ long-term survival, like environmental impact? What about wild versus farm-raised?
We’re here to help you sort it out while also helping you to avoid looking like a character out of “Portlandia” at the fish counter, asking endless questions about every aspect of a fish’s life, the vessel that landed it, and the name of the captain’s dog. We’re not saying you shouldn’t ask questions … but you know what we’re saying.
So read on if you’d like to know a little more about how you can be an informed consumer and purchase high-quality sustainable seafood with minimal effort while avoiding placing undue stress on your fishmonger, your server, and yourself.
Dropping a Line in the Water
Let’s start with what can be the most sustainable fish you can eat: fish you’ve caught yourself. As any fish-fry fan can attest, there are plenty of local options. Our recreational fisheries are managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Wildlife, and if anyone has an interest in preserving our resources, they do. Whether you’re planning on fishing in our streams and rivers, off a breakwall, or from a boat, the first thing to do is visit DNR’s Website, or check out their yearly fishing pamphlet, which explains licensing requirements and other things you’ll want to know, such as species-specific minimum sizes and catch limits, before grabbing your rod.
Once you’ve read the pamphlet and are set up with a license, it’s time to figure out what to fish for. You don’t need a boat, and you don’t need to go far; there’s great fishing in local parks around the region. And DNR stocks our rivers and streams with steelhead and walleye, ensuring that there will be something for anglers to go after every year. While the non-native steelhead is enjoyed primarily as a sport fish, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local fish-eater who wouldn’t enjoy some fresh-from-the-water walleye.
As summer heats up, those of us who like to catch our dinner might have the best luck out in Lake Erie. If you don’t have access to a boat, check out a pier or breakwall, where without too much effort you should be able to catch your fill of white bass.
Boatless and not interested in white bass? A short search on the Internet turns up plenty of choices for charters. There are many fish in the lake, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll enjoy targeting yellow perch, and with any luck, you’ll pull in your daily limit of 30 in no time. There’s not much better than a day on the water followed by a perch dinner, and those extra fillets freeze well.
If you’re craving local fish but not feeling particularly adventurous, you have other options. You can find prime lake fish for sale at retailers throughout the area, or head down to the Flats, where throughout the summer fisherman pull up to Catanese Classic Seafood to unload their catch right off the boat, much of it still flopping around. If you visit their retail store down there, you might want to inquire whether they have any Lake Erie whitefish that day. It’s a less common but still sustainable treat that comes as bycatch from the perch fishery.
Fillets, Steaks & Whole Fish, Oh My!
Whether you’re buying Lake Erie fish just off the boat, rockfish from the Pacific, or something a bit more exotic, there are certain ground rules for buying fish that can help ensure you wind up with a high-quality, sustainable choice.
The high-quality part is easy; you probably already know the basics: Fresh fish should be kept on ice, there shouldn’t be a fishy smell, and if the fish is still whole it should have clear eyes and bright red gills. You don’t need to overthink it. If things look and smell alright, they probably are. If the fish looks or smells wrong, it probably is.
When it comes to the fish’s sustainability, things get trickier.
Several groups, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, and the Blue Ocean Institute, conduct studies and offer their findings to help make it easier for us to educate ourselves. These groups consider specific fish populations, catching methods, and other factors in reaching their conclusions, which they share with the public on their Websites. Monterey Bay, perhaps the best-known promoter of sustainable seafood, even offers a handy pocket guide and user-friendly smart phone app so you can have their recommendations with you wherever you go.
So let’s say you’re looking to buy some fish. You read up on the Websites. You head to your fishmonger wanting some rockfish, because it’s really good, and you see some good-looking rockfish in the fish case. Now it’s time to pull up your smart phone app and start figuring out whether the purchase of these pristine fillets will make you a cold-blooded anti-environmentalist, climate-change denier, scorned by those behind you in the checkout line who are quietly judging you based on your seafood choices.
For some species of fish, the answer will be clear: good-togo or avoid at all costs. For many, though, the answer will be murkier. For example, at the time this went to press, Monterey Bay had three entries for a particular type of rockfish. One is a “Best Choice,” the other is a “Good Alternative,” and the third is “Avoid.” And each of those entries is specifically about rockfish from the Pacific.
Now, if you’re like us, this is where you might be thinking, “Well, I know I wanted rockfish, but maybe I should go for those Pacific sardines sitting next to it.” Should you do that? Yes, you absolutely should, as every study we could find indicates that most sardines and other smaller fish are just about always going to be a more sustainable option than fish higher up the food chain. But rockfish and sardines are very different fish, and that fillet looks as pure as the driven snow, so while acknowledging that yes, you are a better human being if you buy the sardines, maybe you can get the rockfish and avoid the scorn of those around you. To know if that’s possible we’ll need some more information, and that generally starts with the label in the fish case.
Fish labels won’t likely tell you all you need to make a good seafood choice, but usually you can find species name, whether the product is fresh or has been frozen, wild caught or farm raised, whether color has been added (often in the form of the feed given to farm raised fish), and country of origin. These details could provide enough information to make an informed decision, but to make the best decision, sustainably speaking, you’ll also need to know how it was caught, as some fisheries employ both sustainable methods, like hook-and-line, and less sustainable methods, like bottom trawl nets. And that, my friends, is where knowing your fishmonger can make all the difference.
A good source of sustainable fish, and knowledge, is Catanese Classic Seafood owner Jim Catanese and his right-hand man, Bill Gullo. For Jim and Bill, sustainability is more than a marketing term, it’s fundamental to the long-term existence of their business. If the fish go away, so do they.
Discussing their commitment to sustainability, both Jim and Bill were most excited about Northeast Ohio’s commercial yellow perch season. Their fishermen use gillnets, which allow them to pull live fish out of the water. Undesired bycatch can generally be returned to the water unharmed, minimizing any negative environmental impact. The yellow perch are abundant in summertime, and they’re pure Ohio.
Bill was clear: The best way to ensure you’re buying sustainable seafood is to get it from a reputable source. A lot of these businesses are willing to do much of the homework for you. Locally, we’ve found places like Classic, Kate’s Fish at the West Side Market, and Heinen’s to be particularly ideal retail locations where knowledgeable staff can set you straight on what to buy.
Tonight’s Sustainable Seafood Special
Maybe after all this you’re thinking that purchasing seafood sounds exhausting, and you’d just rather go out to eat. For tips on how to give yourself the best chance of having an enjoyable and sustainable seafood experience at a restaurant, we turned to Chef Regan Reik of Pier W, a local expert on sustainable and well-prepared seafood.
Chef Reik told us that when he sources seafood it’s about quality and sustainability, and that those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. Chef Reik encourages guests looking for sustainable seafood to start with the menu description, and follow up with questions to the waitstaff and chef. At his restaurant, when there’s a particularly good option, it will be celebrated on the menu. Think, Dayboat Gillnet Lake Erie Perch, or the classic Line-Caught Copper River Salmon. While long menu descriptions might be a lot to digest before you even order your main course, in seeking out sustainable seafood, vagueness is the enemy.
When the menu descriptions leave too much to the imagination, Chef Reik suggests simply asking where the fish is from. All the fish that comes into a restaurant should be labeled, so someone in the kitchen will know exactly where each originated. And about those origins, Chef Reik was quick to explain that farm-raised isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At Pier W, his staff is trained to answer questions about the farming practices used to produce some of their seafood, such as the merits of the typically preferred closed-fish-farming system, where fish are raised inland in large tanks, as compared with open-water farming setups where fish are raised in netted pens or cages placed in larger bodies of water, often, but not always, with adverse consequences to both the fish and the surrounding environment.
We’re no strangers to fish farming here in Cleveland, which might be a great thing to hear if you’ve filled up on perch and walleye. At least two local places, Cleveland Urban Aquaculture and Rid-All Green Partnership, are making a go of commercially raising tilapia the right way in closed recirculating systems. And out in the countryside, freshwater shrimp farming is taking root throughout the Ohio.
If you’re after wild seafood, Chef Reik emphasized the need to be flexible. Noting that not even the Shamrock Shake is available year round, he pointed out that eating with the seasons is the best way to ensure that you wind up with wild, sustainable seafood. That swordfish caught off of New England in the summertime when they are abundant is a more sustainable, and tastier, choice than those Caribbean swordfish taken when the population is down in the winter. Fishermen can target fish out of season, but why ask them to? That’s the time to let the species recover. By being willing to eat what’s plentiful while it’s plentiful, you’re sure to increase your chances of having a pleasurable, sustainable seafood experience.
In the end, to give yourself the best chances of enjoying sustainable seafood you’re going to have do a little legwork, whether it’s on the Web or face-to-face at the fish counter. Things change, and past disasters breed innovation. Former poorly run fisheries are learning, and in many cases improving. If the fishery collapses or a farming practices prove unsustainable, no one wins.
So keep up to date, and pay attention to what’s happening in that seafood case. Making ethical decisions when it comes to purchasing seafood may seem daunting at first, but with a little knowledge, some flexibility on what you’re willing to purchase, and the help of a reputable fishmonger, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy sustainable seafood year round right here in Northeast Ohio.