BOSTON — For a private dinner at one of his Legal Sea Foods restaurants for which he made the intentionally provocative decision to serve three so-called blacklisted fish, Roger Berkowitz minced the black tiger shrimp but not his words.
It was an evening of food for thought.
"We have sustainable fisheries, now we need sustainable infrastructure. It has to come back to the center," Berkowitz said in a plea for common sense and reason, noting that many years of strict conservation have weakened the fishing industry while strengthening U.S. stocks.
"We are seeing something out of balance," Berkowitz added. "The environmental movement is well financed; the fishermen are not."
President and CEO of the East Coast chain of 34 restaurants founded in Inman Square, Cambridge, in 1950, Berkowitz began the dinner wondering whether he should change his job description from fish seller to "lightening rod."
He argued that with the proliferation of color-coded pocket guides for fish buying, consumers "are being unfairly bullied."
Tiger shrimp from Vietnam, cod and hake from New England waters, the choices for the meal his staff presented to paying guests of the Culinary Guild of New England, are on the "avoid" list of one or more of the many consumer guides that survey and rate seafood and attempt to influence the biggest buyers, restaurants and consumers.
In the buildup to the event, the provocation of putting ethically disputed seafood on the menu set off the foodie blogesphere.
On Grub Street Boston, Kara Baskin seemed incredulous at the existence of an "Orwellian" fish police that has "brainwashed ... innocent people ... into avoiding ... cod cheeks." And so it went until dinner was served at 7 Monday night downstairs at Legal Sea Foods Park Square.
The audience of 62 which paid $90 or $110 (for nonmembers of the guild) was a mix of foodies, chefs and food writers, members and friends of the guild, representatives of the New England Aquarium and the Chefs Collaborative and of the commercial fishing industry from Gloucester, Boston and New Bedford.
A recurring theme for the mostly good-natured discussion, now-and-then debate, and informal seminar, was that the nation's fisheries are among the strongest in the world but the industry is failing under the continuing heavy hand of federal regulators.
"I didn't know what (the fishermen) are going through," said television and radio chef Lou Schorr, a Culinary Guild board member, after the event ended. "We need to protect our fishermen."
Melissa Kohut, executive director of the Chefs Collaborative, agreed. "The sustainability of the small boat fishermen is very important. When we lose them, we lose them for good."
Berkowitz delivered a brief family business history that also summarized the steps in the effort to save and then restore the nation's first fishery, the cold waters of the Northwest Atlantic whence came the cod cheeks of the second course, served with spaghetti squash, toasted pecans and melting marrow gremolota, and the hake of the main course served wrapped in prosciutto.
When the Legal Sea Food business began, Berkowitz said he believed "we were the only Jewish family that lived for Lent." The line brought chuckles.
The mid-1960s brought "an influx" of Asians to Boston who brought a palate for raw fish, and soon thereafter Berkowitz said the business again found itself "in the right place at the right time" when Julia Child "put our fish on television."
The Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976 barred foreign-flagged ships from the 200 miles of U.S. waters. Instead of conservation and cutbacks in fishing, the government policy financed and encouraged new U.S. ships to fill the void; weakening of the stocks continued until the 1980s when environmental groups "very appropriately" stepped in to help forge the commitment to conservation.
"It was the right thing to do," he said.
From there, Berkowitz noted how the industry shifted to underutilized species such as monkfish to allow the over-fished cod, hake, haddock and flounder their recovery.
He recalled the first time he came upon monkfish tails, which he heard as "monkey tails," now a popular delicacy, then mostly an export to France or to Child's "The French Chef" show on Boston's Channel 2, PBS.
Now, after two decades of intense conservation and sacrifice by the fishing fleet, whose numbers have been dramatically reduced, the salvation of the seas — at least the U.S. seas — is at hand, even as the nation imports 80 percent of its seafood.
That was the conclusion enunciated last month by chief U.S. fisheries scientist Steve Murawski, whose recent interview with the Associated Press was mentioned more than once Monday night.
"As far as we know, we've hit the right levels, which is a milestone," Murawaki was quoted as saying. "And this isn't just a decadal milestone, this is a century phenomenon."
Murawaki had said much the same in a special report in the Times last summer.
Now, Berkowitz said, when the conservation program has borne fruit allowing for sustainable regulated fisheries, it's time for the government to provide relief to the domestic fishing industry, which produces only 20 percent of seafood consumed in the United States.
Gloucester attorney Stephen Ouellette said the surest sign of sustainable seafood is proof that "it was caught in the United States.
"If it is a U.S.-caught national product, it is caught under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and that makes it sustainable. Ninety-nine percent of seafood caught in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone is sustainably caught by all methods," said Ouellette.
The Culinary Guild and Legal Sea Food event occurred in an political and regulatory atmosphere of growing tension between the industry backed by a bipartisan political coalition and the Obama administration, whose fisheries policies have kept allocations low in New England by hewing to uncertainty buffers.
With Ouellette as a co-lead plaintiffs' counsel, a federal lawsuit, sponsored by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford and industry interests from Maine to North Carolina, against the current regulatory regimen is scheduled for a March hearing.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or email@example.com.