The One That Got Away - Seafood Dinner at Via Matta

When invited to a sustainable seafood dinner at one of the best restaurants in Boston, I had to say yes. As the founder of “Teach a Man to Fish” the sustainable seafood blog event recognized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, it would be hard to say no. Plus, I love good food and sustainable seafood.

Between the invite and the dinner, “Sustainable” got dropped from the menu. Perhaps the "crazy way" that is the restaurant's namesake is to blame. Or, is this another fish tale about “the one that got away?”  It is significant to note, that according to the restaurant representative, some invited guests previewing the menu declined the invitation due to their concerns about the sustainability of the items being served. This underscores the growing interest in this topic and an opportunity to meet that need and take a leadership role in doing so. My sincere hope is that this article will help those efforts and support the genuine interest in sustainability.

Here is the menu in bold, and notes on sustainability of each [in brackets, with resources cited.]

(Sustainable) Seafood Dinner


Winter Point Oysters on the half shell with green apple and gooseberry mignonette

[Oysters generally are a good choice. In some areas, wild harvest is still done, mostly they are farmed and this is one type of aquaculture that is not harmful.]

Scottish Salmon with grain mustard, celery leaves, grapefruit and hot chilies

[Farmed salmon creates a multitude of problems. Waste from a single salmon farm can equal that of a large city. This waste is generally released into the ocean environment directly. Another problem is sea lice which develop in close confinement of farms. The parasites spread to wild fish nearby. A third problem is the “fish in: fish out” ratio. A generally accepted rule of thumb is that it takes 3 lbs of fish to create 1 lb. of farmed salmon - some estimates are much higher.

As recently as January 5, 2009: Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus was found in a salmon farm in Shetland according to Scottish Government officials. According to the USDA “ISA can be transmitted and spread between and through wild and farmed fish populations and geographic areas from direct contact between infected and uninfected fish.”

For all these reasons and more, farmed salmon are on the Seafood Watch “Red” List to be avoided. Instead, choose wild Alaskan salmon.]

Bruschetta of Portuguese Sardines with spicy eggplant caponata and fennel pollen

[Originally the menu listed Anchovies. Anchovies are a much less sustainable choice than Sardines. Sardines are a best choice.]

Yellowfin Tuna with bottarga, cucumber and Sorrento lemon sauce

[Traceability is the key to true sustainability. Was this tuna long-line, hand-line caught? Atlantic? Bottarga is made from the roe of fish. Italy is its largest processor. Taking the roe or eggs of any species wipes out an entire generation of breeding population. This makes it questionable from a sustainability standpoint.

Again, traceability is the key. It is often very difficult to trace the bottarga processed in Italy back to the country of origin. Countries vary widely in their approaches to managing fish stocks.

Much of the world’s yellowfin tuna is overfished and/or is fished by methods which destroy other species also endangered.]

Grilled Branzino with blood oranges, fennel and sea urchin sauce

[Branzino is not widely studied or assessed by the scientific community yet. The country of origin for most Branzino served here is Greece, Spain, Croatia, or Italy. These are NOT countries with good records on sustainable fisheries management. Branzino is new to offshore aquaculture (Open Ocean Aquaculture).

As with salmon farming, fish in: fish out ratio; waste, disease and antibiotic use - all these things are very likely to be highly problematic.

Says Olivia Wu of SFGate: “Branzino, like salmon, is a carnivorous fish. In large aquaculture operations, small fish are caught and made into feed.

With salmon, experts estimate that it takes five pounds of fish to produce one pound of salmon, with a net loss of protein. Those in the sustainability movement have compared raising salmon to raising tiger meat for food. In other words, eating farmed salmon is eating about as high on the food chain as you can get...All of the same arguments for and against salmon farming can be made for other forms of saltwater farming..."

As far back as 2000, supplies of Branzino were noted to be diminishing.

Sea urchins can be a good choice or a poor choice depending on origins. For example urchins from Maine should be avoided as the stock is depleted to about 10% of a healthy stock. British Columbia and New Brunswick are much better choices.]

Potato Gnocchi with “frutti di mare” and fresh herb pesto

Wild shrimp from New England fisheries are known to be caught in ways that are particularly destructive to habitat. The problems with shrimp that are imported are even worse.

Sea Trout with guanciale, brussels sprouts, potatoes and tarragon vinaigrette

[So called “sea trout” is actually a name used to refer to many different fish. Here is another example of the importance of traceability. Without knowing which fishery the fish comes from, without knowing what fish is actually being served, it makes sense to avoid “sea trout.”  Much of the Tazmanian Sea trout is actually farmed steelhead from BC. The University of British Columbia studied the issue and notes the importance of traceability: “The project has determined that clear sourcing information for rainbow trout/steelhead products is necessary for sustainable product selection. Once sources are confirmed, it is recommended that UBC opt for rainbow trout/steelhead products from freshwater flow- through aquaculture systems and encourage its suppliers to adopt thorough effluent treatment methods. Rainbow trout and steelhead raised in marine or freshwater cages should not be purchased.” The University of British Columbia Sustainable Seafood Project Assessing sustainability of RAINBOW TROUT and STEELHEAD purchasing at UBC Executive Summary – May 2007

If you can trace your “sea trout” to a sustainable fishery, then enjoy.]


Were delicious and guilt free.

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Final Notes on the dinner:
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the evening was the Browne Trading Co representative who invited questions, then persisted in shell-game type of discussion. When asked about sustainability, answers were about “organic.” When asked about farming conditions of the salmon served, answers were about how bad Kona Kampachi practices are.

When questioned again about salmon farming and sustainabilty - CITES partnership was mentioned. CITES is The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. (CITES) “certification” was offered as proof that the dinner was sustainable. When trade in endangered species is your baseline, rather than avoidance of endangered species, one could reasonably take issue with the definition.

Another guest at my table asked what percentage of their salmon was organically farmed, the answer was not shared publicly though she shared it with me. It was very, very small.

In the introduction to the evening, an earnest, and it seems authentically concerned, Chef Mike Pagliarini said “it’s all about the relationship with your purveyor.” He then noted, in all the time he’d worked at Radius and now Via Matta “this is the first time he was meeting the purveyor face to face.”

It’s more than the relationship with the purveyor. If you buy a used car, don’t you want to know how many hands the vehicle has passed through? Whether there were any accidents or repairs along the way?

If you’re buying seafood to consume, you want to be able to trust not just the last guy that touched it, you want to be able to see traceability back to the source. Pick the right purveyor or better yet, source from farmers and fishermen or demand traceability and better standards.

The food was all delicious and skillfully prepared.
Maybe we long for the days when eating didn’t carry concerns for sustainability or safety. But those days are gone. We must do better than trust the supermarket that relied on the wholesaler of the peanut butter cookies, who relied on the manufacturer, who relied on the factory that had unclean conditions.

It’s not enough to host a dinner at one restaurant, then serve red list endangered fish at another, if you want to define yourself as sustainable.

Perhaps the one that got away here was the fish called authenticity.