French Chefs Stop Serving Bluefin: A Case of Conscience -- With Perhaps a Dash of Guilt?

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As of January 1st, in advance of the European Parliament's vote to protect Northern bluefin tuna under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, some of France's top chefs have stopped serving the critically endangered fish - also known as red tuna - in their establishments.

Hélène Darroze and Michel Troisgros, Michelin-awarded chefs with two and three stars respectively, are among nearly five-hundred who signed an international petition organized by Olivier Roellinger, himself a revered chef and now a vice-president of the French-based luxury hotel group Relais & Chateaux.

Roellinger, a long-time environmental activist from Brittany, recently told the Agence France Presse: "We have a responsibility towards all those who are in charge of feeding others, cooks but also mothers and even fathers, and must show them the way. They must be made aware that the sea, this natural larder, is in danger."

He is referring to the fact that approximately 15% of bluefin tuna stocks are left in the sea. Twenty years ago, after Australian Southern bluefin tuna were exhausted due to high Japanese demand, attention turned to the Mediterranean, where Northern or Atlantic bluefin tuna was deemed just as desirable. With a 200-kilo tuna fetching up to 20,000 euros, industrial fishing increased dramatically, and today more than 50,000 tons are caught every year. That number needs to drop to 15,000 to avoid stocks from collapsing. Scientists say the species is only three years away from extinction.

Roellinger's petition - which includes a pledge to remove other endangered seafood from Relais & Chateaux menus in the coming months - was signed last November by sixty percent of members in 57 countries, including Japan. American restaurants such as those at The Lake Placid Lodge, Napa's Auberge du Soleil and Gary Danko in San Francisco have taken part.

Of course great chefs will have no problem concocting tempting alternatives to unsustainable fish, but what about sushi?

Sushi consumption in France has skyrocketed from just a few bars in the early nineties (when the confused referred to the chic new delicacy in plural, as in "Mangeons-nous des sushis!") to over 1000 restaurants in Paris alone. Maki and temaki can be found from rural shopping malls to high atop the Alps. Skiers in the ultra-swank resort of Courchevel, for instance, can schuss down to sashimi at 6,000 feet.

The elegant, edible morsels have made such a splash that chains such as Sushishop have started applying 'le French Touch' to some rather bizarre combinations including langoustine and apple, chicken and mango, and fois gras and fig (because of course the last time you ate fois gras, if you eat it at all, you thought: you know, what's really missing here is some seaweed).

There are currently some 500,000 sushi restaurants worldwide, but Japan remains the main consumer of bluefin tuna, with 80-85 percent of the Mediterranean catch ending up there, according to the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

But as much as the French love what is tasty and chic, they also love getting behind a good cause. Which is perhaps why, in the past couple of weeks, several chains including Sushishop have announced via email and their websites that their products are now red tuna-free.

Maybe soon they'll spare a thought for the geese.