10/06/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Another Step Towards Ecological Seafood Menus

In a prior blog, I asserted that to move closer to a sustainable seafood menu I had observed these simple steps that chefs were taking at top restaurants as well as kitchens in more casual eateries when they worked with CleanFish. I stated that the "formula" I had learned from these chefs went like this:

• Source well
• Portion well
• Price well
• Tell your people the story of the fish you are serving.

Then, in a subsequent blog I spent some ink breaking down the first important step, Source Well. In this writing I'd like to breakdown the second step:

Step Two: Portion Well

This step may seem easier. That's cause it is. And yet, it rubs against a rather persistent image-driven set of social messages that are more powerful than one might think: Size Matters.

With regard to sustainability, size does matter rather a bit, and our choices around seafood are core to why our oceans are being depleted and habitats destroyed at levels that cannot be adequately replenished, unless we change what we are doing.

Let's look, for example, at All-You-Can-Eat buffet bars. Like customary offerings of 22oz. Porterhouse Steakhouse servings, our desire to express our sense of no limits plays itself out in food enterprises across the nation. Television and roadside billboard ads tell me that we males of the species thrive on this level of gluttonous indulgence. That's what and just how much a real man eats. Whenever he wants it.


Then, there is the opposite food image of the refined white tablecloth multi-star restaurant with a ice cube sized piece of protein surrounded by a puree of seasonal vegetable on a 14 inch plate, perhaps a Zen brush stroke of dramatic colorful pepper sauce set off by a presenting cloth swiped around the outside of the plate to emphasize the preciousness of the exquisitely presented single mouthful, maybe two, of your oh-so-select protein entree. And that is the kind of prized presentation aesthetic that cultured foodies deeply appreciate...


I see neither of these above images of food delivery as defining what people want. My friend Barton Seaver, National Geographic Fellow, sustainable seafood chef and cookbook author of For Cod and Country, also Director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard's School of Public Health, made this point rather directly in his TED talk some few years ago. He makes the issues of scale in eating fish rather often. In Chef Seaver's TED talk, he calls us all to relish a plate of 4-5 ounces of a protein from the sea and pile that plate higher with vegetables. That makes for a mixed broth on the plate that enhances both elements with a taste of the season that we can all deeply enjoy and -- at the same time celebrate our participation in ocean conservation.

Regarding the matter of size, realize that we all need to learn more about the species of the sea. The more we know of them, the more we'll be inclined to protect them. If you are going to eat seafood, it is truly useful to educate yourself about the status of the fish you most enjoy. There have been waves of culinary trends that have had devastating impacts on fisheries. As if popular dishes of, say, Blackened Red Fish, can suddenly become national crazes and all of us pretend we can willingly act in denial of how we impact fish stocks with our food choices. Over the past 40 years, or so, we have seen eating fads, such as Blackened redfish; Chilean sea bass; Orange roughy; cod and Bluefin sushi all bring species to the point of exhaustion or actual extinction of the very fish we value. Does the size of our appetites for targeted species matter? Well, over 90 percent of the large fish of our seas are now extinct. Our fixation on larger fish, such as Bluefin tuna, or swordfish, are edging those species ever closer to the day when they will not be available, ever again. Ever.

Dr. Mark Hyman the Blood, Sugar Solution bestseller, is continually pointing out, that this conventional marketplace invitation for huge portions and all-you-can-stuff is directly related to the 'diebesity' epidemic running havoc in our health system. Knowing more about the roles of different fish in sea ecosystems in also key to our eating well and playing a truly possible role in not only stopping this current trend toward sea ecosystem exhaustion, but rather be actively part of voting with our forks for ocean restoration.

The next aspect of size mattering is starting to provide feedback to the chefs that we don't really need 8-10 ounces of fish on a plate to make a nourishing delicious meal. Again, a plate of 4-5 ounces of a protein from the sea and more vegetables enhances both food elements with a taste of the season that we can all deeply enjoy and at the same time be part of ocean conservation. All chefs can do this. It works.

Scale seems critical in finding producers whose practices go beyond "sustainability". I find producers who are developing practices that truly move toward restorative and regenerative conditions for our seas, rivers and lakes. They just tend not go be so driven by industrial scale dictates. One of the most important moves you can make to support ocean restoration is to take the crushing pressure off the wild stocks altogether by moving some of our seafood choices to aquaculture. Yes, that's right, I am stating that farmed fish can be the very best choice for ocean conservationists to make.

What we have learned over and again at CleanFish is that the concerns about the potential negative impacts of fish farming are directly related to principles, practices, and scale. For those concerned about, and committed to sustainable seafood choices, a better question at your next dinner table, be it at home or in a restaurant, is NOT, "Is this farmed or wild". Rather a more defining question regarding concerns you might well have about environmental impacts is, "Is this fish from an industrial scale operation, or a more artisan scale fishery?"

Whether we are taking about the size of the fishing operation, or the size of the fish portion serving on our plates, size matters; and smaller is beautiful.