When It Comes to Eating Fish, Trust No One

A story in the February 2011 issue of San Francisco magazine, "The New School of Fish," will put a lump in the throat of every eco-minded eater who orders fish: that dish you think is sustainable? May not be. And as we continue to empty the oceans at a rate that's positively chilling, even folks who think they're above the fray by taking along their Seafood Watch Program wallet card are probably contributing to the disaster.

In the story, writer Erik Vance tags along with Kenny Belov, co-owner of Sausalito, California's Fish and a passionate hard-line advocate of sustainable seafood. As SF Weekly's Foodie blog writes, he "makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program look like it's dabbling in half measures. (The chart's 'yellow' section? He thinks it's bogus.)" Belov explains that customers trust restaurants that make eco-claims to serve only sustainable fish. Those same restaurants, which buy fish labeled as sustainably caught, must trust their suppliers to be honest about their sources. Those suppliers must in turn trust the boats that bring in the fish. At each step, there are immediate financial rewards for claiming that fish is caught sustainably ... and no one around to check that the claims are true. In addition, there are so many different kinds of seafood, caught in so many different places (including overseas: Vance reports that 84 percent of America's seafood is imported), that it's incredibly difficult to police.

The whole thing is a sobering read; particularly the sidebar in which several San Francisco restaurants with good reputations on seafood are graded on their sustainability. The highest scores? A dispiriting 75 percent. That's a C where I come from.

Muddying the waters of understanding still further, Nation's Restaurant News reported on a dinner hosted by Boston's Legal Sea Foods chain that sounds like a stunt meant to point up the inaccuracy of the Seafood Watch Program, which is, at this point, just about the only thing that keeps a fish-eater feeling like she has a snowball's chance in hell of avoiding things that destroy the planet. At that dinner, Legal only served seafood on the "avoid" list of the Seafood Watch guide. Since the guide is only published every six months, however, the seafood served at the dinner was actually just about to be upgraded by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The point? Things can change a lot in six months. Don't necessarily trust the Seafood Watch guides to be up to the minute.

Image source: CHOW.com