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August 6, 2009

Eating endangered seafood in restaurants

DiamondTavernSeaBass.jpgWe had a lively discussion yesterday about ordering Chilean sea bass in restaurants. That may not sound very exciting, but the comments did get heated.

The issue, of course, is sustainable seafood and endangered (or not) species.

If you're serious about avoiding questionable fish and shellfish -- questionable in the sense of overfished or otherwise endangered -- you might want to get the updated Seafood Watch Pocket Guide. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is one of the most respected sustainable seafood advisory programs. ...

Have you been avoiding swordfish since the some-think-ill-advised "Give swordfish a break" PR campaign a few years ago? Then you need this guide. Or you can search the Seafood Watch Web site for information on your favorite fish.

For instance, if you look up "salmon," you'll find wild-caught salmon is rated "best choice," while farm-raised is labeled "avoid."

It has nothing to do with taste. "Pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms can impact native salmon populations in the surrounding areas," the Web site explains.

Crab? The best choices are Dungeness, stone and Kona, while our blue crab is considered a "good alternative." The only "avoid" is king crab.

As for Chilean sea bass, the fish that started the discussion, its status has changed somewhat. Here's what the Web site says:

"In March 2004, Chilean seabass from the South Georgia Patagonian Toothfish Longline Fishery was certified as sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, the amount of certified product available is only a small portion of the total Chilean seabass catch. Legitimate sources are required to have the MSC "Chain of Custody" certification and purveyors should be able to produce this when asked. Without proof of this certification, consumers should not purchase Chilean seabass."

And swordfish? Seafood Watch is fine with it as long as it's domestic. (Canadian is also OK.)

(Lloyd Fox/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 6:25 AM | | Comments (44)


I was looking for the web site that my son used when doing his Bar Mitzvah project which was on protecting endangered fish species. I couldn't find it but the other million websites that I did find all claim that Chilean Sea Bass is on the brink of extinction.

I just don't order it and don't buy it. There's other fish in the sea...

I do think that wild-caught salmon is much tastier than the orange-dyed stuff that come from the fish farms. The danger with carrying around a card is that the information may be dated. I have been avoiding swordfish for ages--now you tell me it's okay?

That's a good point about the card, but my guess is that the Web site is updated regularly. EL

Dahlink, I've done no "studies" of swordfish because I don't like it, but it is my understanding that all bill fish are endangered to the point that at some tournements the contestants are encouraged to take a picture of their fish with a measuring device to document and then release. I don't know if that's true or not though.

Also, I'm not trying to flame anybody, but I can say that there are studies that will prove whatever point of view one chooses to subscribe to. So, there's now "evidence" that Chilean Sea Bass are not on the brink of extinction. In the 1970's a group of DOCTORS employed by the tobacco industry "proved" that cigarette smoking was not dangerous to one's health.

I think to equate Seafood Watch with doctors employed by the tobacco industry wouldn't be quite accurate, but you should look at the Web site for yourself and decide. EL

If you want a sustainable fish, try catfish.

But catfish at a Bar Mitzvah, oy, what a shandah.

Chilean Sea Bass = Patagonian toothfish ... what a hoot that an open sea fish is named the same as a mountain range!

Isn't there also the issue of less popular species or varieties being sold under more popular names? I'm thinking of the variety of snappers and perch that get labeled "red snapper."

Did I hear once that a lot of what is being sold as CSB/PT is in fact something else -- or is that just a product of the general confusion around this stuff?

The problem with the Seafood Watch pocket guide is that it is just a summary by their three categories, "Best Choice," "Avoid," and the one in the middle--I can't remember it right off hand.

Those simple categories don't tell you the entire story. Chilean sea bass is in the "Avoid" category. But if you click back on the website, you find the information EL posted above. It turns out that some CSB is ok to eat, according to the guide.

Joyce W, you make a good point about finding experts who will say anything you want them to say, but in this case, it is the "fish-huggers'" experts, not the fishing industry experts who are saying that it is ok to eat MSC-certified Chilean sea bass and domestic swordfish. So your analogy is backwards.

I used to enjoy going to the grocery store and eating. Now both are fraught with peril. I feel like going to live in a monastery and eating only gruel. Everything I've always enjoyed is either becoming extinct or on some avoid list.

Nancy...gruel is better if you dress it up with bacon.

i heart chilean sea bass. if it's really going extinct, i better go out and buy it up every chance i get. thanks for the heads up.

Nancy ... if you are serious then let me recommend the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY (on the Hudson just south of Kingston). The gruel isn't bad but their macaroni and cheese is the best I have ever had anywhere.

Eat stuff.
When it's gone, eat other stuff.

Eat stuff.
When it's gone, eat other stuff.

I nominate RayRay for comment of the week. I would appreciate some support here, because I nominate him so often that I think it has lost its impact.

^^ Comment of the week there, Dodo. I mean RayRay ^^

Dahlink, swordfish has been on-again, off-again for at least 40 years, what with mercury alerts and various concerns about overfishing. Even now, if you read the July 2009 Seafood Watch guide for the Southeast (which includes Maryland), US swordfish is one of their "Good Alternatives" (OK but with some concerns), but imported swordfish is on their "Avoid" list. However, their July 2009 guide for the Northeast (which includes Pennsylvania) says that "Swordfish (Canada and US, harpoon and handline)" is one of their "Best Choices" (albeit with a mercury advisory). I'm soooo confused. Can I just drive north to PA and dine without guilt on the same Canadian handline swordfish that's a no-no in MD?

and I posted that before I saw your post, bucky!

We're building a movement here, Chw. Ah, it's the 60's all over agin...

But catfish at a Bar Mitzvah, oy, what a shandah.

More than a shandah. More like a farbrechn.

I'll agree with Bucky and Chw.

That was a good comment by RayRay, and worthy of the weekly award.

I had the occassion to be at a seafood restuarant with several people in the aquarium field and we all had our pocket guides with us. After peppering the poor server (who was fantastic, btw) with questions about how the tuna was caught and the shrimp was raised, I finally ordered the pork.

There used to be a seafood restaurant at the aquarium. That was just creepy.

It took me a minute to get your reference, then I remembered my favorite dish from back in the day - Dodo under glass.

Eat stuff.
When it's gone, eat other stuff.

Really, this is beyond Comment of the Week. I think this is a Mission Statement.

Sorry, Elizabeth, I didn't mean to discredit Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch's website. I did go there and read their information. But I must confess that I found the overall message to be pretty confusing. If you click on some links you are told that Chilean Seabass is endangered to the point of extinction, and then there's the small exemption window. The message I still get is that it's endangered to the point of extinction.

On the other hand, I'm not sure because all the information that I read is so mixed and varied.

I'm just glad it's so darned expensive, I guess.

RayRay's comment here is pretty good, but I think it has competition from his comment in the "babies eating sushi" discussion:

Off leash children don't tip.

I'm rather horrified by Ray Ray's statement, but go ahead, ya'll. What is life without a little horror?

Has anyiine ever seen where they found an intact frozen mastodon in the artic and though... I wonder what that would taste like? Hey it was frozen. I want those Fred Flintstone ribs that tip the car over

"there's other fish in the sea" - Joyce

"like Chicken of the sea" - Jessica Simpson

Nancy, gruel is so 15th century, pass me the Westmalle for my daily ration and fasting.

I thought sean had the "Off leash children don't tip" line?

Ah, ok, thanks, Hal.

I'm just no good with children.

I'm just no good with children.

When prepared properly, they can be delicious.

Hal - I've been wanting to use that thought (More specifically, W.C. Field's line: "I love children; I can't can't find a butcher who knows how to cut them up right anymore.) But I've hesitated.

You opened the door. Thanks. It's been killing me.

Getting back to an earlier remark by The Canon (and averting eyes from Hal's comment ... shudder), yes, two young women who are now students at Johns Hopkins got a lot of attention last year for buying fish and having it tested. They discovered a lot of mislabeled fish. I think they did this for some sort of science fair in high school, but it got nationwide coverage.

RayRay ... before the seafood restaurant at the Aquarium they used to do programs for members including watch and dine demo's of seafood dishes. My wife and I went once, c. 1982. One of the featured dishes involved clams in garlic sauce for linguine. The chef held one up and said to an Aquarium staffer "this one's bad, got any like it?" A minute later the staffer returned with a handful. Apparently it was a pre-planned joke, and it set off the inevitable chain of awful puns and follow-ons. It got so bad that at least one older couple left in a huff.

Dahlink ... I remember that also.

Canon, I love that seafood demo. Then again, I nearly got kicked out of the Detroit Zoo for suggesting they do a capybara roast as a fund raiser (at the time, they had so many capybara they were in every single enclosure in the zoo, except for the polar bears and the red pandas, IIRC).

Lively discussion to say the least!

From the Monterey Bay Aquarium & Seafood Watch perspective: The long-term goal is healthy oceans with abundant marine life -- both living & swimming in the ocean, and available for people to eat.

Our global population and appetite for seafood is growing. If we as consumers vote with our dollars when we shop, we'll get seafood that's caught or farmed in ways that are sustainable for the long term.

Seafood Watch cards (also available as an iPhone app and for mobile devices) make it easy to make responsible decisions. Each recommendation is updated every six months, and based on the best-available science. (Full science reports - available on the website - are the basis for each recommendation.)

Too much info? Too confusing? Just choose from the green Best Choices list & avoid ambiguity. Always ask questions: it tells restaurants and seafood retailers that this issue MATTERS to you.

Bottom line: Seafood Watch & similar programs are working. Restaurants, retailers & food service companies are responding, and there's change underway on the water.

Bon appetit!

Ken Peterson
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Mr. Peterson, thank you for your post to the D@L blog. However, when (as I mentioned above) the same item is a Best Choice for Pennsylvania but not for Maryland, I'd say that Seafood Watch is creating the confusion, not solving it.

I love how Google Alerts brings professional PR people to our discusions. It's almost like summoning a genie. Let's see, who do we want to come visit us next? you think we could get the genie to bring us barbie hargrave?

Well, here's one more (admittedly free) app sold!

Let's go for the big game! Let's get Mick Jagger!

I'm fine with the folks that google alerts brings in. Sometimes they are interesting, and they can't top that Canadian woman who asked Elizabeth for advice on where to eat in Argentina.

To clarify the swordfish issue, this from the Aquarium's senior science manager at Seafood Watch:

All U.S. and Canadian swordfish, if caught with handlines/harpoons would be Best Choices, regardless of where you happen to be eating it.

What you pointed out is just a regional difference between the pocket guides based on what’s more available in the different markets.

Both guides contain a general yellow for US swordfish and a red for imported, based on the fact that most swordfish is caught with longlines or gillnets.

In the Northeast guide we had room to include the small-volume handline/harpoon swordfish ranking, which mostly takes place in the NE US and Atlantic Canada.

We didn’t have room on the Southeast guide because there were other higher-volume green list items that we listed instead.

Hope that clears up the confusion!

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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