Savoring Sustainable Seafood

Way back in the mid-1990s, while researching the very first edition of the Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook, I experienced a crisis of conscience—a dilemma that lasts to this day.

Even back then, certain fish species were being overfished or caught as bycatch (unintended catch, such as juvenile fish, marine birds, or sea turtles) almost to the point of extinction. Among these was the shark, who despite its notorious reputation, is really a pretty solitary, mild-mannered fellow.

Even though that edition featured an alphabetical listing of all the major fish species, I decided to exclude the shark since I didn’t want to encourage my readers to eat the poor, endangered creature.

As I continued my research, I began to wonder where all those glistening rows of shrimp and scallops, salmon and sand dabs in the Pike Place Market and other local markets came from, and how much longer our oceans could fulfill America’s (indeed, the world’s) insatiable appetite for fresh seafood.

As much as I loved eating and writing about the stuff, niggling doubts gnawed at the back of my mind.

Today, many other fish species highlighted in my first seafood cookbook and its subsequent editions are now squarely on the “endangered” list. Like many food professionals, I am concerned. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) write the same book today that I wrote back in 1996. My conscience wouldn’t permit it.

And I am not alone. Chefs and consumer groups around the world have taken up the call to action to save our oceans, to give endangered fish species a fighting chance to survive. Concerned consumers demand to know “Am I eating the last fish?” “What fish are safe to eat?” and “Are other creatures being harmed when I select swordfish for supper?”

The task of choosing safe, sustainable seafood has grown much easier thanks to groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Audubon Society. Species are ranked from green (okay to eat, few problems exist) to yellow (some problems exist, use your conscience) to red (major problems exist, better to avoid).

The Audubon Society reproduces the fish scale on handy wallet-size cards, which are available by mail or on their website. The cards change as fish stocks swim on and off the list, so it’s a good idea to check the Web site periodically. By consulting the cards, then choosing seafoods in the green zone when eating at home, dining out, or contracting with a caterer, consumers can become a positive force in helping to restore abundance to the seas.

After you’ve determined what types of finfish and shellfish are safe to eat, there’s no denying that some of these choices can be costly. Lucky for us, there are many creative ways to savor seafood’s healthful benefits and delectable taste and texture without breaking the bank.

Buy fish in season. When large quantities of a fish or shellfish are running and widely available, they are often sold at bargain prices. For example, fresh wild salmon caught during the bountiful summer and early fall runs is much less expensive than salmon caught during the winter months.

Buy fish that are less well known or popular. Everybody knows how delicious fresh king salmon can be, but how many people have tried lesser-known species, such as coho or chum? Or how about farm-raised trout, tilapia, or catfish?

Serve smaller portions of finfish. Because seafood is a lean, pure protein with very little waste (especially if you buy fish fillets rather than steaks), consider serving it in smaller portions than you might chicken or beef. Not too long ago eight ounces of finfish (such as salmon or halibut) was considered an average-sized portion. Nowadays, many Americans actually get too much protein in their diets; I find that for myself and my husband, six ounces of finfish apiece is just enough, while for a family of four, often one to one-and-one-half pounds is adequate.

When dining out, order a seafood appetizer (or two) as your entrée. This is one of the least wasteful and inexpensive (not to mention fun!) ways to experiment with and experience a variety of seafood dishes.

When dining out, order a seafood entrée, eat only half and get a doggy bag for the rest. I have been using this technique for years, mostly because I can never finish the typically gargantuan portions (sometimes upwards of eight to 10 ounces) offered at many restaurants. I eat my leftovers the next day for lunch or freeze them for later use in seafood stews or soups.

Serve seafood as a supporting part of a meal. When combined with an “extender,” such as potatoes, pasta, grains, or vegetables, much less seafood per person is needed. Seafood chili, pasta, or risotto are just a few suggestions of how to serve smaller portions of seafood while still providing satisfying meals. This is also a healthful way to eat, since grains (particularly whole grains) and beans provide much-needed doses of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Use seafood combinations to “stretch” your dollar. When making seafood dishes, use a variety of finfish and shellfish. For example, mix Alaskan spot prawns (an expensive choice) with farm-raised mussels and/or clams and fresh halibut (typically less expensive choices) to cut costs.

With a little thoughtful planning on our part today, generations to come will continue to savor the healthful and satisfying bounty of the seas. And our consciences will be the better for it.