Fish Story
Environmentalists and some high-profile Dallas chefs say ocean food supplies are in crisis.
But is their disaster cry simply publicity bait?
Mark Stuertz
Dallas Observer
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Link to FishNet #15for a NJ FishNet addressing The Pew Charitable Trust's swordfish boycott
Massachusetts Georges Bank lemon sole in a macadamia-nut crust. Grilled fillet of Alaskan halibut with avocado quenelles. Sweet corn-crusted gulf redfish fillet. Pyramid of Atlantic swordfish.   

Found on the new summer menu at Dallas' acclaimed seafood restaurant Fish, these dishes are aimed squarely at diners' growing appetite for distinctive seafood. But they could also get Fish Executive Chef Chris Svalesen in hot seawater.   

Each of these four entrées features a fish species included on a list of "overexploited fish populations" distributed by the Earth Communications Office (ECO), a Los Angeles-based environmental group. Based primarily on information from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with supplemental data  from the Audubon Society, the list serves as a guide to consumers and food professionals on what to avoid when ordering seafood from suppliers, markets, and menus.   

That last dish is swordfish, the centerpiece of a national boycott initiated by the NRDC and SeaWeb, an ocean environmental group formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Since the February launch of the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, a one-year boycott of North Atlantic swordfish, 27 East Coast chefs have been joined by dozens of others including Dallas celebrity chef Stephan Pyles in stripping the fish from their menus. Royal Cruise lines vowed to stop serving it on all of its ships, while Bon Appétit magazine has sworn off swordfish recipes.   

Other Dallas chefs have quietly removed the fish from their menus, among them Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, David Holben of FoodStar (Mediterraneo, Toscana, Popolos), and until recently, Svalesen.  

"It's a hoax," he says of the campaign. "It's been blown so out of proportion. They make it sound like it's an endangered species, but it's not."   

It's a conflict planted squarely on the dinner plate. As well-meaning environmentalists lead cries of impending menu-driven ocean collapse, the seafood industry toils to douse these flames before they consume their livelihood. Reasoned deliberation often gets drowned in the process. Are the oceans slipping dangerously into an ecological coma stemming directly from our dining and lifestyle habits? Or are the seas being cynically manipulated to serve a few narrowly defined interest groups?   

Svalesen's charges echo the sentiments of the U.S. commercial fishing industry and some fishery management experts who claim the swordfish campaign is misguided. They say it unfairly targets U.S. and Canadian fishermen who are abiding by international quotas and restrictions set under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a treaty signed by more than 30 nations to protect the fish from depletion.   

"Swordfish are not considered endangered," says Rebecca Lent, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species Division. "Current international quotas are set at levels that should allow the stocks to stabilize and even begin to rebuild." Though she admits there is little current evidence showing the fishery is stabilizing, she points out that the fisheries service is required by law to present a domestic long-term North Atlantic swordfish rebuilding plan by September 30, a project in which environmentalists voice little confidence.   

"One of the problems with boycotts is that they're a marketplace action that doesn't necessarily translate into the desired management action," says Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to protecting ocean resources. "It's a world market. If the U.S. stopped eating [swordfish], it doesn't mean the rest of the world will stop eating or fishing. It will just shift."   

But NRDC senior policy analyst Lisa Speer counters that North Atlantic swordfish populations have plummeted under fisheries management watch. Before 1996, when treaty regulations were given teeth via trade sanctions slapped on nations that violate quotas, harvest limits were often ignored. "Even if there was full compliance by every single fisherman out there, the rules are not going to bring that fish back," she says. "We've seen one population after another come crashing down under fisheries management."  

Lassen also charges that the campaign misrepresents the problem because other swordfish species, such as those in the South Atlantic (where Svalesen gets his supplies) and the Pacific are not considered overfished, according to fisheries service data. In fact, Pacific swordfish populations, the species supplying nearly two-thirds of U.S. demand, appear to be healthy. Yet chefs and media reports rarely make these  distinctions, leaving the impression that the global swordfish population is cratering.   

SeaWeb Executive Director Vikki Spruill insists their campaign stresses that the problem is specifically with North Atlantic swordfish (the list of overfished species on NRDC's Web site makes no such distinction, lumping Atlantic and Pacific species together). But she also admits the real aim of the campaign is not to alter swordfish demand or markets. It's to inspire consumer activism.   

"Our goal is to raise awareness about the problem of overfishing by using swordfish as an emblematic species" she says. "What I think is unusual and different about this campaign is that we are trying to give consumers a voice in this issue. This gives them something to do, which people are desperate for." SeaWeb ultimately hopes to enlist consumers to pressure Congress and the fisheries service to toughen regulations, implement effective recovery programs that reduce bycatch (incidental fish caught in nets that are discarded and often killed), and protect fish nurseries.  

"A menu has always been a place to raise awareness for any kind of issue," stresses Pyles, who created Star Canyon restaurant and AquaKnox, a venue specializing in seafood. "Nobody had a clue a year ago there was any problem with swordfish. So at least it's in people's minds."   

But this kind of activism irks Lassen. "You don't ask the fisherman to cook up the dinner. Why are you asking the chef to manage the fishery?"   

David Holben doesn't consider himself a strident activist. "David Holben is not a radical," he stresses, tapping the tabletop for emphasis in the dining room at Popolos restaurant where he relaxes, sipping a glass of water. But the renowned Dallas chef, who put The Riviera on the map and is currently involved in the national expansion of Popolos, Toscana, and Mediterraneo restaurants through Dallas-based FoodStar Restaurant Group, is concerned about the fish he puts on his menus.   

"It makes you wonder. It makes you think," he muses. "The prices continue to rise sometimes for your particular items, and you ask the question, 'Well, why are your prices going up?' And the answer is, 'Well, the fishing boats are coming in, and they just can't bring anything in. The product's just not there.'"   

Holben's concern prompted him to participate in a special dining event, "An Evening of Earthly Delights," in Los Angeles this October. To be held at Paramount Studios, the event will raise money for ECO, an organization that "uses the power of the entertainment and communications industry to help improve the environment." Earthly Delights will employ more than 60 internationally acclaimed chefs serving up "earth-friendly cuisine."   

Fittingly, ECO's description of earth-friendly or sustainable cuisine is as big a mouthful as any multi-course meal. Sustainable cuisine "celebrates the aesthetics of food while recognizing the impact of food choices on our health, environment, and the preservation of cultural diversity" says a summary of what promises to be a Hollywood star-studded affair. Holben is creating an appetizer using farm-raised, freshwater prawns from Sweetwater, Texas, for the event.   

"Chefs around the world set the trends as to what's in and what's not," says event organizer and chef Jeffrey Mora, who operates his own Los Angeles catering company. "We're basically the gatekeepers as chefs. The public has an inherent trust in us, to make sure that what we serve them is safe, healthy, and is not going to hurt the planet."   

Mora stresses that the goal is to spread the campaign's message beyond restaurants and chefs occupying the top tier of the market, a segment that accounts for only a tiny percentage of restaurants. "What I want to try to do is reach the middle of the road, the main consumers, the people that eat at Red Lobster."   

In recognition of 1998 as the United Nations' International Year of the Oceans, ECO will focus its fund-raiser on sustainable seafood. "[Awareness of] seafood is one of the biggest things, because seafood is not as easily farmed as other animals," says former Seventeen-Seventeen restaurant Executive Chef Kent Rathbun, who also is participating in the Earthly Delights event. "We're trying to do a little attention-getter here. The list of fish that we can use safely is very, very small."  

ECO's cautionary list of "overexploited" seafood includes cod, haddock, lobster, shrimp, sole, sturgeon, redfish, orange roughy, blue crab, red snapper, squid, and yellow tuna among the more than 50 species in seven U.S. regions and international waters it catalogs.   

"I don't believe this is a legitimate list of fisheries that people should be concerned about," counters Ocean Trust's Lassen. "They have fisheries in there that have recovered...If we're not to utilize fisheries that are healthy, then what [do they] want us to do?"   

A cross-reference of the ECO list with the latest fisheries service data from September 1997 seems to bear out Lassen's charge. Of the 49 species categorized by U.S. regions, 21 are not considered overfished (for example Pacific swordfish, North Pacific walleye pollock and cod, New England yellowtail flounder), with most not even approaching overfished status (four are classified as "unknown").   

Yet environmental groups are not pulling their ocean concerns wholly out of thin air. Since 1950, technology has helped boost world ocean fish harvests sixfold according to the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). A powerful international industrial fleet of some 37,000 ships including freezer trawlers that can catch and process a ton or more of fish per hour crewed by roughly one million people has helped propel global annual catches to some 80 million metric tons.   

Even skeptics concede the evidence shows that the world's oceans simply cannot sustain much additional pressure from traditional harvest methods without risking widespread fish-population collapse. "I don't think there's much question that we are at the carrying capacity in terms of wild harvests in the ocean," admits Lassen. "We are harvesting near its maximum yield."   

The surge in world seafood consumption has been fueled by human population growth, consumer demand driven by health-consciousness (diets high in fish have been shown to have cardiovascular and cancer-prevention benefits), and technological advances. And because of the economic conditions driving the modern fishing industry (more vessels racing to catch fewer fish), many fishermen cannot afford to reduce their catch, even in the short term. This dynamic virtually eliminates the possibility of voluntary conservation in the face of species declines: Fishermen simply fish harder.   

Until the last few years, many species were harvested to dangerous levels as scientists grappled with the  concept of fisheries management. "Managing fisheries prior to 1970 was an infant concept," says Paul Clark, president of Dallas-based distributor Seafood Supply. "Why manage fisheries? Everything was teeming. Well, we know better today."   

Advances such as flash freezing, which quickly freezes fish on board fishing vessels, preserving fresh flavors and textures; Cryovac packaging, which creates an airtight plastic seal around the fish; and the dramatic drop in air-freight shipping costs over the last 30 years have allowed landlocked markets such as Dallas to explode in seafood volume and variety. An influx of new Dallas residents from other states, lugging sophisticated seafood tastes with them, has contributed to the burgeoning demand. Even chefs, driven by competitive pressures that necessitate the creation of ever more exotic, distinctive seafood signature dishes, have played a role.   

"The seafood market has reached critical mass the last 15 years," adds Clark. "Dallas has gone from oysters, catfish, and shrimp to Chilean sea bass, French turbot, and Russian beluga caviar."  

Industry and management sources say future increases in seafood demand can be met by better fishery management techniques incorporating more precise data, and by the exploding aquaculture industry, which farms everything from shrimp and oysters to salmon and arctic char. But environmentalists blame aquaculture, which feeds 29 percent of global seafood demand, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, for other ecological problems including coastal wetland destruction resulting from farming-pool development, and coastal water contamination from waste and artificial food fed to fish stocks. Environmental groups also are suspicious of fishery management programs.  

"Fisheries management is dominated by people who have an interest in maximizing the economic return of the fisheries," says NRDC's Speer.   

Such charges enrage some in the seafood industry. "Nobody goes out and deliberately rapes, pillages, and plunders the source of their own income," says Dixie Blake of Ocean Garden Products and the Aquaculture Alliance, an industry association. Blake counters that environmental organizations have  economic interests of their own that are seldom scrutinized. "It's a crisis-oriented industry, and it's a very large industry," she says. "They're great fund-raisers, and they raise their funds by creating controversy. The whole purpose of the environmentalists is to enrage the public and get laws changed."   

There is some evidence this may be true. David Fenton, a media consultant hired by the NRDC, ran the NRDC's highly controversial (some say greatly exaggerated) campaign against Alar, a chemical growth retardant used on apples that the organization said was a dangerous carcinogen. The campaign reached a feverish pitch after a 60 Minutes broadcast declared it the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply.   

"The [PR] campaign was designed so that revenue would flow back to NRDC from the public," Fenton said in a summer 1989 issue of Propaganda Review, a defunct periodical published by the Media Alliance in San Francisco. The highly publicized effort reportedly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the NRDC, and the resultant publicity quickly forced Uniroyal, the chemical's maker, to withdraw Alar from the market.   

At least one environmental reporter, Michael Parfit, takes issue with the exaggerated advocacy environmental groups employ to galvanize the public and stimulate activism. In "Exploiting the Ocean's Bounty," an article published in the November 1995 issue of National Geographic, Parfit describes how global dynamics such as pollution, wetland destruction, the waste of bycatch, and overfishing put intense stresses on the world's oceans.   

"The trouble is simple," he wrote. "There are too many fishermen and not enough fish. This is not yet a crisis in the dire terms to which the world is accustomed there are no long lines at fish markets with empty stalls, no skyrocketing prices, no famine on the beach."   

In a Washington Post editorial published in December 1995, Parfit amplifies his belief that the oceans are not in crisis. He also warns that in an environment of incessant looming disaster claims, cries of catastrophe are becoming easy to ignore.   

"What I saw was less immediate and more complex than a catastrophe," he says in the Post piece. "...All evidence, including that from the [FAO], indicates that the ocean is relatively healthy. The processes that create food in the sea are largely intact...   

"Environmental groups have thrived on catastrophism. It fills coffers and defines successful battles. Yet the war is being lost: Slowly, relentlessly, the world grows more damaged. To fight this, environmentalists have urged corporations to become more cautious and farsighted; maybe they should take their own advice." Groups like SeaWeb and the NRDC insist they are farsighted and vigorously dispute Parfit's analysis of the oceans and his characterization of environmental campaigns. Scientific evidence, they say, lends credence to their claims of an ocean crisis and validates their urgent drive to spark public action.   

And recent evidence from the U.N.'s FAO seems to support the claims of an ocean crisis. In a statement released this May, the FAO said that unless fishery management practices improve, global demand for fish could outstrip supply by 2010. "In too many fisheries, management has failed to protect resources from being overexploited and fisheries from being economically inefficient," said FAO Fishery Resources division director Serge Garcia.  

Citing 1994 data, the FAO says 35 percent of the world's 200 major fishery resources show declining yields, with 69 percent of stocks in need of urgent management.   

"In probably 95 percent of the [fishery] cases over time, things will get worse," says NRDC senior policy analyst Karen Garrison.   

Ocean Trust's Lassen disputes this gloomy assessment. To support his claims, he points to fisheries service statistics showing a decline in overfishing among U.S. stocks. In 1992, the fisheries service reported 45 percent of U.S. stocks were overfished. In 1998, that figure dropped to 30 percent. "Overall globally, overfishing has not been decreasing, nor has it been increasing," he says. "The condition of our fisheries in general has stabilized."   

How can there be such disparities in interpretations? It's all in how you stack the data. In a 1997 NRDC report titled "Hook, Line & Sinking: The Crisis in Marine Fisheries," the NRDC says, "Roughly 70 percent of the world's commercially important marine fish populations are fully fished, overexploited, depleted, or slowly recovering." It bases its claim on FAO data.   

Lassen disputes the report's interpretations and says its assertions leave the impression that most of the world's fisheries are in trouble. "I would call it 'Hook, Line and Sinker,' given what people are being asked to swallow," he snaps.   

To prove the point, Ocean Trust takes that same FAO data and states the converse: "About 76 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are being fished at or below their long-term sustainable harvest levels."   

How can this be? The FAO data rate the fisheries as 44 percent fully fished, 23 percent moderately fished, 16 percent overfished, 9 percent under-exploited, 6 percent depleted and 3 percent recovering. So as long as that 44 percent fully fished figure constitutes the bulk-filler for a particular claim, the data can be reassembled to create a figure bolstering any impression desired.   

To make matters still more confusing, there are no consistent definitions, domestically and internationally, for "fully fished" and "overfished." Such variations can make trend-lining and year-to-year comparisons extremely difficult, no matter what position is taken. "Our data are really poor. And our methods for determining overfishing have been really poor," says the NRDC's Garrison. "The fully-fished category is a catch-all that often means the fish are already overfished."   

She calls the current confusion over terminology a "definition scandal." (The Sustainable Fisheries Act, which President Clinton signed into law in 1996, mandates stricter, uniform, and more encompassing definitions by this October, a change that will likely expand the list of overfished species.)   

With the data poor and the definitions imprecise, it seems impossible to know exactly what is going on under the waves, let alone construct a firm basis to declare a crisis. "The problem we see right now is the precautionary principle, which says if you don't have good data, just stop doing something until you get the data," says Blake of the Aquaculture Alliance. "But in the real world, you can't shut down an industry while you generate information."   

Some say drastic measures addressing the oceans' problems are unwise and could harm small fishing businesses. "The fishery management process is slow and difficult," says the fisheries service's Rebecca Lent. "In part because we have a lot of checks and balances to make sure we are doing the right thing." She notes that environmental and industry impact evaluations must accompany every significant decision the agency makes.   

Keith Keogh, president of the California Culinary Academy and a member of Ocean Trust's board, laments that the public often has no patience for methodical deliberation when it comes to potential global jeopardy. "In a lot of cases, people get very emotionally involved and jump on one bandwagon or another, "he says. "There is a lack of both sides or all sides of the issue being put forth. The only way that you can stabilize emotion is with fact, and it takes a lot longer to develop facts and documentation then it does to develop emotion."  

He adds that in most cases, factual evidence has to be very substantial to sway, because it likely will be injected into an environment where opinion has been formed by emotional appeals.   

But for some, generating emotion that inspires action is as challenging and essential, if not more so, as generating credible data. Scaly, slimy fish aren't as cute as sea otters or baby seals. They don't spark warm fuzzies. "Most of the coverage of seafood issues is about what the fish are doing to us," concludes SeaWeb's Vikki Spruill. "It's about pollutants. It's about contamination. Very little attention is ever given to what we are doing to the fish."   

As the current state of the oceans slips gradually into blurred focus, one wonders if current problems can be resolved before catastrophe strikes. Strident, agenda-driven hyperbole clashes with the fierce entrenchment of an industry trying to preserve itself. Each side seems to view the issue in terms of villains to be vanquished, but it's not that easy.   

David Holben reviews the list of overexploited fish species and tosses it aside. He claims if he were to strictly follow this roster when developing his menu, he'd have to shut down his restaurants. "Before I boycott anything, I'm going to have to get a lot of information. I'm going to have to have a damn good reason to do that. Especially a big-selling item," he says firmly.   

Then he pauses and returns to the list, flipping through it casually. "But I'm going to look at it more closely than I ever have before. Before, it was just getting a good quality product without really thinking about it." He lets the list fall on the table setting in front of him. "But things have changed."   

© 1998 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.   

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