Op-Ed: Bigger consumer demand can help save a West Coast fishery
Rockfish stuffed with rapini and roasted in my 800-degree wood-fired oven with crushed potatoes is at the top of the list of meals I love to cook, eat and serve. But I don’t just have this dish on my restaurant’s menu because it is delicious. I also do it to save the rockfish and other West Coast groundfish.
How can eating a particular fish protect it? Let me tell you the story.
West Coast groundfish are bottom-dwelling fish, including species such as Pacific Dover sole, ling cod, hake, Pacific sand dabs and dozens of rockfish species. They’re usually caught as far as 200 miles off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
In 2000, this fishery was an economic and environmental disaster. Overfishing, coupled with trawling methods, so devastated the ocean floor that groundfish couldn’t replenish their populations. Faced with losing this vital fishery, fishermen, regulators and conservationists came together to find a solution. In just 14 years with new management methods, including putting federal observers on every fishing vessel, the ecosystem has recovered. Using new technology and fishing practices, fishermen have learned how to protect the most vulnerable species.
Today, virtually all West Coast groundfish are classified as “sustainable” seafood choices by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch or the Marine Stewardship Council. So what’s the problem?
While the fishery may have recovered environmentally, it hasn’t economically. Groundfish are distinctly undervalued, sometimes fetching well below $1 a pound at the dock. Quotas for certain species go unharvested because the demand is not yet strong enough. The fishermen need help from chefs and consumers to gain more market traction.
Unless fishermen can collect a price that reflects the expense of the new sustainable methods of catching groundfish, we won’t be able to maintain the fishery’s revived state. The challenge is to reintroduce these species to consumers, build demand and help secure
a strong market that can support the fishermen and fishery in the long term.
As a chef who loves fresh seafood and cares about sustainability, I believe chefs and culinary professionals have a responsibility to put West Coast groundfish such as sole, rockfish and ling cod back on menus across the country. As tastemakers, we can help this fishery emerge as an environmental and economic success.
Groundfish are absolutely delicious. Their mild flavor and flaky texture provide a perfect canvas for the innovative cook. When I was in Monterey recently with the Seafood Watch program, we had rockfish with almost every meal. Rather than grow sick of it, I came back to the table every time ready for more. Rockfish is not fishy tasting or oily, like sardines or mackerel. Instead, its clean taste takes on the flavor of the spices you cook with. Rockfish is an easy substitute for almost any other white fish, including tilapia and bass.
Consumers, too, have a vital role to play in securing the fishery’s future. I challenge Los Angeles diners to order groundfish when you next see it on a menu, and ask for rockfish or sole when you visit your local fishmonger or grocery store.
Not only is the success of this fishery at stake, but the entire country is watching to see what happens next. If we can steadily increase demand for groundfish and keep the fishery healthy, other threatened fisheries will look to the West Coast as a model of environmental and economic success. If we fail, however, fishermen and experts across the country probably will cite this example as one that the market failed to support.
It is time for us to think beyond tuna, salmon and shrimp. We all have a role in celebrating and encouraging this fishery’s continued recovery, whether it is fishing, shopping or eating. The fishery will thrive when the market reflects the true value of these local, wild and sustainable fish.
Kelly Whitaker is the chef and owner of Basta and Cart-Driver in Boulder, Colo. He was formerly chef at the restaurant Providence in Los Angeles. He is a member of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit network of food professionals dedicated to improving the health of the planet and the food we eat.
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