GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 5, 2011

Legal 'blacklist' meal backs fishermen

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Legal Sea Foods, the pre-eminent Boston-based chain of 31 high-volume restaurants built on serving fresh, local seafood, is planning a one-night event featuring so-called "black-listed" fish in a presentation dripping with political juice.

The target: "Brainwashing" environmental activists, as Legal President and CEO Roger Berkowitz put it, who label seafood and advise consumers what seafood to buy and what not to eat.

Organized at the invitation of the Culinary Guild of New England, Berkowitz said the meal — to served on Monday night, Jan. 24, at Legal Seafoods in Park Square in Boston — is designed to showcase "sustainable seafood" that the leading guides recommend against serving based on what he described as "non-scientific reasons."

The menu will feature tiger shrimp, cod cheeks and hake — all options that Seafood Watch, the self-professed guide to "ocean friendly seafood" published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and other competing publications advise consumers to avoid — either because the species are thought to be too weak for harvesting, or because they are taken by trawling or other means deemed by the rating organizations as bad for ocean ecosystems.

The evening will "bring awareness to some of the inherent complexity that exists within sustainability in the seafood industry," the Culinary Guild said in a prepared statement. "The four-course meal will be designed to provoke discussion on the topic by incorporating so-called 'blacklisted' fish."

The decision by Berkowitz to put Legal Seafoods' shining brand up against the eco-labelers is certain to fuel the bitter struggle between the domestic seafood industry — especially New England's iconic fishing culture — and the big green anti-fishing forces headed by the Pew Environment Group and the Environmental Defense Fund, whose former vice chairwoman Jane Lubchenco was put in charge of fisheries by President Obama in 2009.

Berkowitz, whose buyers account for 1,000 tons of seafood a week, nearly all of the finfish from domestic suppliers — primarily in Gloucester, New Bedford, Boston and Portland, Maine — said he decided it was time to challenge the "ENGOs" or environmental non-government organizations such as Monterey that pressure chefs and owners to use only the seafood that is approved by the various guides.

"Frankly," Berkowitz said in a telephone interview Wednesday, "a lot of people have been brainwashed" by the eco-labelers which, along with Monterey, with its close links to Lubchenco, EDF and the anti-fishing scientific sector, include the Marine Stewardship Council, which rates seafood for Wal-Mart, and Seafood Watch, the rating product of New York based environmental entrepreneur Carl Safina.

"There's no scientific basis for what they are saying," Berkowitz said of the labelers. "Restaurants and chefs don't understand any of this when Monterey comes to them."

He said too many restaurants and buyers go along out of fear of being "blacklisted" by the eco-labelers.

Legal Sea Foods buyers are among the constants at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. And Auction President Larry Ciulla said Wednesday he admires Berkowitz for making people aware that the claims of disappearing stocks are not valid. And others echoed Ciulla's support.

"I appreciate what he's trying to do," said Richard Canastra, an owner of the New Bedford and Boston seafood display auctions.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said "this old fishing port of Gloucester is grateful that Mr. Berkowitz is willing to showcase the finest and safest seafood that is harvested in environmentally responsible ways from the cold clean waters of the North Atlantic."

The agreement among the eco-labelers to essentially urge a boycott of cod — New England's "sacred" fish — is at the epicenter of a fierce scientific dispute. Lubchenco and her ENGO allies argue against catching and eating cod based on what government and industry science insist are exaggerated and emotional appeals.

In a political policy paper sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and co-written by Lubchenco during her transition from the EDF board to the Obama administration, cod was singled out as a victim of human greed, and described as "decimated."

The seas in general, wrote Lubchenco and her co-authors, have been so overworked "and emptied of seafood" that the future is "increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish."

Yet, both government and independent scientists insist the United States has led the world in bringing an end to overfishing and propelling the fisheries toward sustainability. And they dispute any need to reduce domestic harvests while the nation imports more than 80 percent of its seafood — largely from Asian economies with a poor record of conservation.

"We've reduced fish mortality in most of the stocks," said Steven Murawaki, who retired last month as director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

As for cod, Tom Nies, chief fisheries analyst for the New England Fishery Management Council, an arm of the federal fisheries system, said the rebuilding program is on track and even ahead of schedule. Cod is expected to be fully rebuilt by this year in general even though there are always stronger and weaker centers for the stock that drew European boats into the Western Atlantic as early as the 15th century.

"The ENGOs are left all this money and they all hire lawyers and the fishermen can't," said Berkowitz, whose chain grew from a fish market opened by his family in Cambridge's Inman Square in 1904, and now employs 4,000 in 31 locations, including restaurants in Washington. D.C., New York and New Jersey.

"I'm not going to roll over and play dead," said Berkowitz, who's been an active participant in the fishing industry's efforts to fight what they view as an environmental onslaught. Last spring, he also helped organize a day-long scientific meeting of political and industry figures examining Northeastern University and Mass. Institute of Technology research that might debunk allegations that the fish stocks are declining.

Culinary Guild members will be charged $90, non-members $110, for the dinner produced by Legal's Executive Chef, Rich Vellante, and Vice President of Beverage Operations Sandy Block.

The full menu will feature black tiger shrimp fritters, with chick peas, slab bacon, smoked tomato and avocado sauce, cod cheeks with spaghetti squash, toasted pecans, melting marrow gremola, and prosciutto-wrapped hake, with braised escarole, rancho gorgo beans and blood orange marmalade, together with wines.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.