By Richard Gaines
In a public letter, the Chefs Collaborative has agreed with Legal Sea Foods President Roger Berkowitz that restaurateurs should do their own research rather than let so-called "eco-labelers" dictate what seafood to serve and what to shun.
"Thank you for sparking a dialogue regarding possible exceptions to 'blacklisted' seafood," the 18-year-old organization said in the posting on its website. "This is an issue that Chefs Collaborative has been working on for years.
"Back in 2007, we published a communiqué© for our members, titled 'Lists vs. Local: The Complexities of Sourcing Sustainable Seafood.' The document introduced the concept that lists can be a good starting point, but chefs need to take a broader and deeper approach, by talking with each other as well as with conservationists, fishermen, and purveyors."
Berkowitz sparked a new wave of debate with the announcement that he would host a dinner Jan. 24, to be prepared in the Legal Sea Food kitchen in Park Square, Boston, featuring cod cheeks, hake and tiger shrimp — all choices considered to be no-nos by the lead seafood eco-labeling organizations, notably Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.
The evening — already sold out — is being sponsored by the Culinary Guild of New England, which helped define the lines of debate by promoting the event as featuring "so-called 'black-listed' fish," to "bring awareness to some of the inherent complexity that exists within sustainability in the seafood industry."
Carrie Richard, president of the Culinary Guild, said reaction has been evenly split — and surprising.
"We didn't know the firestorm this dinner would generate," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. She added, however, that it arrives at just the right time, and creates "a perfect opportunity" for members to lead a deeper discussion of "the issues Roger is raising."
The argument Berkowitz picked is also coming at a moment in which consumer choices — from home kitchen cooks to elite chefs to the buyers for the great global chains right up to Wal-Mart — have come under intense competitive influence based on commercial partnerships and major nonprofits' environmental views.
At the same time the status of the stocks in U.S. waters is hotly disputed, imports from poorly regulated nations have created a multi-billion import market and widened the U.S. trade deficit.
Some major environmental groups and scientists — including top fisheries officials now within the Obama administration — still predict that human predation will so clear the oceans of seafood that they will be left to jellyfish.
Yet others, notably Steve Murawski, the newly retired longtime top scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have scoffed at that notion and assert that the United States is on the verge of achieving sustainable stocks.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Murawski said 2011 will mark the first time since the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976 that American fisheries' stocks will not be overfished.
Berkowitz called out Chef's Collaborative and the Aquarium in a Jan. 4 interview on the Slashfood website with freelance writer Clare Leschin-Hoar.
The Aquarium did its part days later with the announcement of the publication of an updated Seafood Watch report, which acknowledged the broad progress that has been made by the federal government and the fishing industry in moving the overall vitality of the stocks ever closer to the ideal of "sustainability."
"Updated Seafood Watch recommendations recognize improved East Coast groundfish stocks," read the headline.
The release went on to assert that the latest U.S. stock assessments "recognize" that haddock, pollock, summer flounder and some cod stocks "are showing signs of recovery."
"We're always pleased when we see fish stocks recovering through effective management measures," said Jennifer Donato Kemmerly, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. "That's good for the oceans and for everyone who enjoys seafood or makes a living catching or selling it."
Yet the fishing industry's daily news aggregator, Seafood.com, raised a rhetorical eyebrow at the adjusted watch list, noting that the Aquarium's status report seemed badly outdated.
"All well and good," wrote Seafood.com editor and publisher John Sackton. "But why did haddock remain on the 'avoid' list for years after (the government) declared the stocks fully recovered.
"The only thing that has changed," Sackton wrote, "is the broader public recognition among seafood buyers and chefs that the Monterey list is out of date and contains many errors."
The owner/CEO of a chain of 31 restaurants along the East Coast, Berkowitz told Leschin-Hoar that he found it "curious that chefs and restaurateurs were the last to get information about sustainable seafood."
"Oftentimes, it was from Monterey that blacklisted everything, or a group like Chefs Collaborative," Berkowitz told Slashfood in a telephone interview. "You get a group of people that work off a particular science, and I would argue that science isn't necessarily balanced."
In an interview with the Times Wednesday, Melissa Kogut, the collaborative's executive director, took exception to Berkowitz's accusation.
"Roger has no idea what we do with sustainable seafood," she said. "I don't appreciate his style, his in-your-face style — but the sentiment is not too far from where we are."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.