Seven Questions for Barton Seaver - Chef, Activist, National Geographic Fellow

As part of Teach a Man to Fish (TM2F), I’m interviewing some of my favorite chef/activists and asking a series of “Seven Questions.”

In this way I hope to introduce new readers, as well as long-time fans, to some leading voices at the intersection of gourmet and sustainable food; the street where I live. 

I was thrilled to catch up with Barton Seaver the day his Cookwise program premiered on the National Geographic Ocean website. Just the day before we spoke, his TED Talk aired and folks have already been asking me what I think about this business of “restorative” seafood, as he calls it. Barton shared these thoughts with the audience at the International Boston Seafood Show on my Teach a Chef to Fish panel this Spring.

I’m sure there are skeptics, but I find his way of thinking about things very common-sense based. It’s why I shared info about Kim O’Donnel’s Meatless book (The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook) at my Sustainable Meats class. Simply put, Barton makes the point that the best thing we can do to save the oceans is to eat less seafood. I often tell people that one of the best moves they can make toward health, toward saving the planet, toward greater enjoyment of more diverse food groups is to eat less meat. When you eat it, eat better quality, more sustainably raised meat.

Today though, we talk of seafood. This is my fourth year of running Teach a Man to Fish and Barton’s been with us from the start!

Seven Questions for Barton Seaver:

Me: TM2F is in its fourth year, I was struck by the number of questions people had for me at a recent luncheon. It was completely unrelated to sustainability or seafood. It seems that there’s been an increase overall, in awareness, but people are struggling perhaps more than ever with where to find answers.

Do you find that to be so?

Barton: Sure, becoming even more so. Info is becoming a more valuable commodity. “Sustainability” “Green” -- these terms are all becoming meaningless...It’s really a case of “buyer beware” One of the things people seem to want is some sort of romance, sense of culture with their food, their food stories. Monsanto and WalMart are not romantic. This opens the door for local seafood vendors and purveyors, some of whom are less transparent than they should be. Raises the stakes for consumers.

Monterey Bay and other groups are looking at long-term strategies, sustainable seafood has sort of reached a tipping point. There’s been an evolution of people’s understanding. First it was critical that people understood there is a problem. Second, they needed to understand solutions exist. And now, we’re at the point where people need to understand the context. There’s a sort of diaspora of messaging, people need help understanding the nuances.

Me: How did you first become aware that your food choices make a difference?

Barton: It was through starting relationships with farmers in my local area and realizing that food dollars support human ecosystem. And through that system we heavily impact our environments human names and faces that brought the environmental issues home.

Me: What advice do you have for people just beginning to figure out sustainable seafood?

Barton: First: understand that it’s a giant problem. Solutions exist and they’re easier than you think. The cheapest and the easiest, the best thing you can do is eat vegetables and eat more plant-based food and diversified selection of proteins in smaller amounts.

Me: How do you feel about Community Supported Fisheries?

Barton: CSFs are good in that they are reducing the time between producer and consumer. They are an effective step toward a better ability to manage resources, but just because relationships are more personal you cannot forget the science. You must take into account the science and protect the resources.

An unspoken issue is the amount of waste in both aquaculture and wild fisheries. Bio average may be 35% of every fish is waste. It takes the same primary productivity to fish an eye ball as fillet, but we waste guts, fins, gills, etc. Of the remaining percent, another 30% of all remaining seafood ends up as waste.

So that model (how we fish and how well we fully utilize it) we need to change that, we drastically need to change that.

Me: What are your thoughts about MSC (Marine St ewardship Council) certifications?

Barton: MSC has been pushed on a pedestal it was not intended for.  It’s a very useful and credible tool. In and of itself it is not a solution, and it was never meant to be that. The  fisheries they’ve recently certified, I don’t begrudge them that. They are open and transparent. Traceability is there.

It’s a tool that too much is expected of. You know a hammer in one man’s hand builds a house, in a another tears it down. How can we best support it with other tools.

I’ve read the paper that Jeremy Jackson Daniel Pauly wrote and am okay with nearly  everything that’s in it. I don’t agree with how people have spun it.


Me: Who do you trust for accurate info on the safety of Gulf Seafood?

Barton: I understand and want to support the people who make their livelihood off the Gulf but it’s difficult. You have commercial interests telling you it’s okay (to eat the seafood) and persons with commercial interest saying “I’m not feeding it to my kids.”

News that’s coming out of gulf, it’s very difficult an accurate picture.

Do I think we should be sniff-testing seafood? Yeah, and if it smells like oil you dont need to spend any more $ than that on testing. But if it doesn’t, you probably do won’t to rely on just that test.

But this is all very tough. None of this means we should be opening quotas, and allowing more and larger fishing areas. It’s a wickedly complex area and gets elucidated by most media as “yes this is complex, but can I just get a sound byte for my readers?

Me: Tell me about some of your projects, you’ve got a lot going on.

Barton: Have you seen the National Geographic Seafood Footprint Decision Tool?


Click here to go to the Decisions Guide!



Really proud of the work there. And today, the Cook-wise segment launches. Love to hear your thoughts on the Ted Talk too. My (edited) chat came out just the other day.






  • Barton's book, For Cod and Country is coming in Spring 2011.



  • We're delighted to share three recipes from Barton Seaver,here to kick off our Teach a Man to Fish recipe round up.