The projected date for global collapse varies, but research in recent years keeps baring the same alarming truth: if the world’s commercial fisheries continue trawling, dredging and longlining at the current pace, they’ll kill their own industry within a few decades.
They’ll also do further irreversible damage to species diversity and critical habitat. The oceans are not endlessly abundant, as they were treated both before and after the advent of huge commercial fishing fleets. In fact, 11 years ago researchers at Dalhousie University reported in the journal Nature that more than a full 90 per cent of all large predatory ocean fish — including cod, tuna, sharks, marlin and swordfish — had already disappeared. The finding triggered a flood of both peer challenges and support from other researchers, but few scientists would argue that fishing stocks worldwide are not in dire straits.
Those key species and the commercial fishing industry could potentially be brought back from the verge of disaster if fisheries would instead harvest only abundant, resilient, well managed fish populations and use less habitat-destructive farming and fishing techniques that pull in little bycatch (non-targeted species). So says the Vancouver Aquarium, which back in 2005 founded its Ocean Wise program to support that ocean-sized goal.
The program’s seafood database features hundreds of types of fish and shellfish from the world’s oceans, and each variety is rated “Ocean Wise Recommended,” “Not Recommended” or “Under Review.” Many designations are based on fisheries assessments by California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, a major Vancouver Aquarium partner. “From that, we get our specific protocol,” explains Dolf DeJong, vice-president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium. “So when we say something’s ‘Ocean Wise,’ our decision is in no way arbitrary. It’s based on a uniform set of screens. Then we can go out and talk about the program in the simplest terms.”
Coming into its 10th year, Ocean Wise now boasts more than 3,100 partner locations (and counting) between Newfoundland and Vancouver Island, including restaurants, suppliers, markets and other food service companies. That’s why this ambitious program isn’t just a drop in the ocean. Hundreds of Canadian chefs, many of them among the finest in their cities, have committed to back it, confident that the little black-and-white Ocean Wise symbol that appears next to certified “recommended” menu items is worth any extra logistical effort and cost.
Patrick McMurray, owner of Toronto’s Starfish Oyster & (and who once shucked 38 oysters in one minute to earn a spot in the Guinness World Records), already practiced ocean-sustainable techniques before aligning with the Vancouver Aquarium program. “We’ve always made sure to learn where and how our fish were being caught,” he says. “But when Ocean Wise started up we decided to follow through and make sure there was no orange roughy, bluefin tuna or swordfish*, among other species, on our menus.” Ocean Wise provided a clear, consistent framework and all the tools necessary to support ocean-friendly consumption.
One late November evening in 2013, McMurray joined Vancouver Aquarium reps, chefs from 13 of Toronto’s other premier restaurants and crowds of seafood lovers at an old-fashioned warehouse-chic venue in the city’s Distillery District for the annual Chowder Chowdown competition. Part of Ocean Wise Month celebrations (and also occurring in Calgary and Vancouver), the sheer range of chowders cooked up and entered in the contest — from traditional creamy, comforting bowls to a few daring, more “avante-garde” creations, all with local beer pairings — left nothing to be desired. The event is described as a friendly cook-off to raise awareness, but sidelong glances abound and every chef holds their breath as prominent food critics hand down their verdict for the Chowder Chowdown Champion.
Chef Doug Neigel of Italian restaurant Trattoria Mercatto won the title for his Zuppa di Vongole chowder, which features Ontario parsnip brood, Ontario chili squash butter and crispy polenta-crusted littleneck clams. “We have four restaurants in downtown Toronto, so we seat 400 to 600 people a day,” he says. “And we just launched our new fall menus, which marks the first time all of our locations are part of Ocean Wise. This win is very important for us.”
“The chefs have really owned this,” says the Vancouver Aquarium’s DeJong. “They’ve said ‘Sustainable seafood matters; we’re going to put it in our menus and we’re going to talk about it.’ For this one event, so many great restaurants applied to be here that we had to screen the chowder recipes. It’s a wonderful problem to have.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the people who eat all those delicious finned and shelled things and create demand who can drive that level of change in the industry. “We’re working hard to engage with people and provide them with information,” says DeJong. “We’re connecting people with their fish — with their food — so they can make the best choices and use market pressures to move the needle. We’ll do that one person at a time, one restaurant at a time, one fishery at a time.”
*Swordfish has since returned to the recommended list, as long as it’s handline or harpoon-caught.