Putting Sustainable Seafood on the Menu: Why Restaurants Are Central to Changing our Fishing System
“We stand at a dangerous threshold when it comes to biodiversity loss. The number of species is declining faster than at any other point in human history. If habitat loss and the climate crisis continue unabated, nearly 40% of all species will face extinction by the end of the century.
To prevent this annihilation, we need drastic, immediate change across our global food systems – a mammoth task, and one that must be made a priority when COP28 begins at the end of this month. This change will have to be both driven and accommodated by a shift in our diets.
Our oceans cannot be left behind in this; protecting marine biodiversity is essential if we are to achieve global SDGs and for future food security. Currently, 90% of global fish stocks are either fully or over-exploited by human fishing practices, compounded by the effects of climate change, pollution and invasive species. Shifting our sourcing strategies to protect and revitalise our oceans and their occupants is critical; destructive fishing methods are no longer an option.
An unsustainable system
Many fishing practices have devastating impacts on the seabed and marine habitats, while over-exploiting marine populations. Methods like long-lining and gillnets also lead to the incidental deaths of thousands of other animals each year, including dolphins, porpoises, turtles and sea birds.
Human rights issues are also of grave concern. Wealthy countries have exploited the waters of those in the global south to the point of no return, depriving local communities of vital food sources; elsewhere, indigenous peoples lose access to ancestral fishing grounds.
In October this year, The New Yorker’s incredible exposé revealed how the vast majority of America’s seafood comes from a colossal fleet of Chinese vessels. On board, human rights abuses are rampant, with many workers essentially prisoners – just one shocking example of why it’s critical to maintain visibility across the supply chain.
Seafood and eat it
When it comes to the seafood on our plates, there has long been a disconnect; consumers simply don’t have enough information about where fish comes from, and don’t have an understanding of the industry’s problems. Seafood is marketed as a healthy alternative to meat, and indeed this can be true – but there is a missing link when it comes to environmental impact. The average consumer likely knows the difference between a conventionally-reared chicken and an organic one, and is aware that vegetarian food is more climate-friendly than meat-heavy diets, but has little frame of reference when it comes to prawns or pollock.
While we can all contribute to a better future through our individual food choices, the hospitality industry has the chance to play a powerful role. An omnipresent link between producers and consumers, restaurants can help to translate theory into practice: driving demand for sustainable practices through procurement policies, while informing and steering consumer choices. Restaurants must act as culinary guiding lights leading customers towards climate-friendly dining, redefining how we eat today to ensure a better tomorrow.
The appetite is there. Choosing seafood based on sustainability has risen in importance for consumers since 2018; in late 2022, research showed that 65% of global consumers believe that, to protect the ocean, we must consume only fish and shellfish from sustainable sources – and 56% are willing to pay more for it.
How we source
Now is the moment when we must redefine our relationship with our blue planet. Through careful sourcing, restaurants can safeguard and appreciate marine biodiversity, protect endangered species and support local communities. This approach also helps us pay more respect to seafood, a resource long undervalued and over-exploited.
Sourcing sustainably means buying from fisheries that only catch from healthy stocks; are strategically managed so that stocks can continue to flourish in the long term; avoid destructive fishing methods; minimise their impact on other species and the wider ecosystem; and ensure that human rights are upheld throughout. In practice, it’s best to look for fisheries and suppliers that have a recognised, science-based certification, such as MSC’s blue label, or look for green-rated options in the MCS Good Fish Guide.
Reducing or removing the ‘Big Five’ (cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns) from your menu is a great place to start. Look for sustainable alternatives (for example, responsibly farmed bivalves like mussels can actually be beneficial to the waters around them) and enjoy the creativity brought by experimenting with more diverse marine ingredients. Another option is to serve up invasive, non-native species that destroy local ecosystems; one example is the Chinese mitten crab, celebrated in China as a seasonal delicacy and now seen in UK waters. Putting these tasty crabs on your menu could be a climate-positive avenue worth exploring.
Examining your supply chain is key. Do you have visibility over the entire network? Do you really know where and how each item is caught? Are there blind spots where you can’t be sure everyone is being treated well and paid fairly? Have a conversation with suppliers about your goals for sustainable sourcing; many wholesalers will be able to provide information and suggest alternatives. This can also help drive change through their own supply chains, having a wider impact.
It matters how we treat seafood once it’s in our kitchens, too. Implementing a zero-waste, fin-to-gill approach means honouring the fish we’ve bought, making sure every part is used in creative ways and usually saving money in the process. What this looks like will depend on your kitchen, cuisine, customer base and resources: it could be as simple as making stock from discarded shells, or as innovative as what Ángel León is doing at Aponiente.
Finally, spread the word. It’s important for your employees to understand what sustainability means when it comes to seafood, and why it’s a priority. This helps the kitchen team to take pride in where their ingredients come from and gives front-of-house staff the language they need in interacting with customers. Make sure sourcing policies are clearly explained on your website and social media, and include the provenance of your fish dishes on your menu itself.
The foodservice sector wields enormous power; it’s time to use it for the good of our oceans. It's not too late – but it soon will be.”
Read more about why Source Seafood Sustainably is one of the focus areas of the Food Made Good Framework, or assess your own restaurant’s sustainability with our online quiz. For more inspiring ideas on how we can eat differently today to build a better tomorrow, follow our #EatForTomorrow campaign on our Instagram and LinkedIn pages.
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