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Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., C.E.C. Headshot

From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: Eight Lessons I Learned About Seafood Sustainability From An Octopus

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A few days ago, I joined a small and selected group of chefs and culinarians from around the country as a 2013 Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force participant. The two day event hosted by The Monterey Bay Aquarium at The Carmel Valley Ranch engaged 20 individuals in an experiential meeting about ways in which chefs can influence positive change when it comes to issues related to the sustainability of our oceans and fisheries.

A memorable opportunity included a behind-the-scenes, up-close, and personal tour of the venerable Monterey Bay Aquarium. The highlight of my tour has been grounding and inspiring. I touched and was touched by a beautiful, female Giant Red Pacific Octopus. We were told by the handler and his young daughter that she was capable of recognizing humans by touch and could clearly demonstrate "personality". I can attest to that from my experience. This species is known to be short-lived for her size with only a three to five year life span. She was near a state of laying eggs (as many as one hundred thousand) which I learnt was also a prelude to the beginning of the end of her natural life (as in the wild she would die protecting her eggs). I assumed that she had a name, but she doesn't, so with her permission, I will call her Red Angel.

As a child growing up in Mumbai, I recall visiting the Taraporewalla Aquarium and every visit then gave me joy and left me amazed. However, my interaction with Red Angel has gifted me lessons which will lastingly guide my seafood choices and hopefully influence those of others. Collectively, we can turn the tide and restore the health of our oceans and fisheries, one thoughtful decision at a time. Positive change will not be guaranteed or quick. But, without our collective commitment, the Red Angels of our oceans don't stand a chance.

Here now are eight lessons I learnt from Red Angel. We must...

1. Research the choices we make by using many of the free and powerful tools developed by agencies like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program (phone app, web site, buyer's guide, and even the pocket guide).

2. Educate the consumers, chefs, suppliers, distributors about the states of our seafood populations and help them make the best possible choices personally and professionally. This will ultimately drive the marketplace to support only sustainable practices.

3. Diversify our seafood choices and offerings. We must seek out lesser known options which are possibly even locally sourced. We must learn ways to prepare them appropriately. Frankly, one will discover that many lesser known seafood options can be incredibly satisfying gastronomically, as well as financially. Chefs can play an important role in this regard.

4. Adapt our consumption to change with that which is abundant and sustainable. A case in point where I live: We must not demand or supply Shrimp 'n Grits year round if the shrimp cannot be sourced sustainably and in a healthy manner.

5. Network our resources so they can function effectively and powerfully. Efforts towards sustainability should not be politically driven. Seafood sustainability in particular has the potential to realistically provide viable solutions to feed a growing problem worldwide: hunger and malnutrition.

6. Grow and foster grassroots movements across the country that educate and communicate the messages and actions of sustainable practices when it comes to our seafood choices.

7. Engage all participants in a continuous and open dialogue that seeks to strengthen trust in and commitment for the greater good.

8. Leverage the purchasing power of larger corporations against the unsustainable practices in the seafood industry. One chef alone cannot make much of a difference. However, even one large corporation which may buy thousands of pounds of seafood a day can dramatically shape sustainable practices if they commit to even modest changes in what they demand from seafood suppliers.

As one chef, I pledge to always practice what I preach and continually learn from my experience with Red Angel. Now imagine the possibilities if we give more of the Red Angels of our oceans and fisheries a chance to at least thrive until they lay their eggs naturally. If they are willing to die protecting their eggs, we should be willing to afford them that honor.

Hari Pulapaka is a two-time James Beard nominated chef who serves on the Advisory Board of The Chef Action Network, a non-profit organization that connects chefs to tools and resources that will help them create significant and lasting change in their communities, the country and the world. CAN is focused on harnessing the power of America's preeminent chefs in support of a strong, sustainable, just and healthy food system. He and his wife Jenneffer, a podiatric surgeon own and run Cress restaurant in DeLand, FL. Hari also has a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Florida and is a full-time tenured Associate Professor of Mathematics at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.

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