Dining in the Gray Areas

What a time it's been for sustainable seafood advocates of all stripes.

Just as the leading seafood guides release updates, moving many species previously in decline from "avoid" (red) to "good alternative" (yellow) a tempest in a teapot was underway with a dinner purporting to "promote sustainable seafood" and education about it while serving species that the leading wisdom might have you avoid.

I took issue with the broad dismissal of conservation science and the characterization of the wallet-card-as-guide scenario. Why is it acceptable to play fast and loose with the accusations as to who forbids what, while simultaneously criticizing the accuracy of the groups' data? We wind up with an "us against them" debate when the issue has so many more sides than that. If the goal is to promote sustainable seafood and to bring clarity and honesty to the topic then that must be the standard we hold all parties to.

Transparency, traceability, clarity about which type of sustainability might be your priority, are all critical. Anyone who was attending the "blacklisted fish" dinner without a prior knowledge of the issues would not have come away with the full picture of the topic. So was it promoting one particular vision of sustainable seafood or was it meant to be an exploration of the topic in all its complexity? Did the diners learn what the actual issues are with catch methods and stock assessments or did the only hear why Gloucester thinks it has gotten a raw deal? I cannot answer for them.

Did the diners learn about trawl methods and modifications that impact the environment in different ways? No. Did they hear about bycatch reduction or gear modification that might make a choice more or less sustainable? No.

There was loose talk of "mangrove restoration" and "site visits" but it was unclear to me who is actually restoring what mangroves and who is monitoring the site or assessing its practices? Perhaps conservationists are accompanying Berkowitz on his shrimp farm visit or perhaps he's going to rely on the farm to accurately present their business practices to this very desirable client.

There are certainly big monetary incentives to making Berkowitz happy, and disincentives to questioning his transparency or motives. I came away from the dinner happy to learn that he doesn't serve Chilean Sea Bass, happy to hear him say that he's concerned about sustainable seafood. I heard some of the right things being said, but also some vague assurances, and some downright lopsided arguments advanced. It was not the venue for a debate and the room certainly was filled with folks who wanted to enjoy a dinner not watch a forensics exercise.

I fear that what was promoted was Legal Sea Foods, not a fair discussion about the complex issues necessarily involved in this topic. In that regard it was not as advertised a dinner to promote education on the topic. Certainly, the goal of education is not served by using words like "brainwashed" and rehashing old battles in an attempt to prove who is more wrong. What we need is a broad coalition of people at the table, including stakeholders from all sides (fishermen, conservation scientists, environmental advocates, fisheries management and oversight agencies, community leaders) -- willing to work toward a compromise that addresses competing goods: sustainable fisheries managed for the future as well as the current good; economically viable solutions to support fishing communities; social support and market support of entrepreneurial efforts to modify catch equipment, to assess fish stocks, to market with greater traceability and transparency to gain consumer confidence in the products as safe and sustainable.

We will continue to have this back and forth otherwise, and back and forth doesn't get us forward. There are other models for progress on this topic out there. None are perfect and the nature of any solution integrating the needs of all parties means no one constituency is going to perfectly satisfied. We have to stop the diffuse and politicized discussion and when it happens - correct it. We must speak with clarity about the shared goals and leave the polemics aside or our last wild fish and our last wild fishermen will vanish as we foolishly argue about who is more right or more wrong.

As I reflected on the dinner, and reviewed others wrap ups: Chefs Collaborative and Rich Auffrey, I had the opportunity to attend an international sustainable seafood summit in Vancouver. There I was surprised to hear fishermen ask me incredulously "What is it with the vitriol in Boston?!" It seems that folks clear across the country heard the hyperbole and barbs and could barely believe it.

Time will tell what Berkowitz' intentions really were and I look forward to hearing about his restoration of mangroves and how his new sonar technology will work for our groundfish (no fishermen or fisheries experts I could find can understand how this would work.)