Health, Hooks and Hype: Deciding which fish to serve (or to order) is no simple task

You won’t find Chilean sea bass on the menu at Lutece or The French Laundry. Their chefs have joined a long list of colleagues from restaurants on both coasts and Chicago who have signed pledges not to serve Chilean sea bass.

Yet the issue is rarely discussed in St. Louis, and many restaurants still tout Chilean sea bass in advertisements and on their menus. Still, while they haven’t made any high-profile declarations, several St. Louis chefs have informally joined the boycott and are making choices on what seafood to serve based on ecologically sound practices.

“It has been quite some time since I served Chilean sea bass, even though it’s outstandingly tasty stuff,” said Andy Ayers, chef and owner of Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar in The Loop. “The reason I’m not serving it is precisely because of my concern in regards to its sustainability.” Sustainability refers to harvest methods that protect the long-term viability of a species as well as help maintain overall ecological balance.

Unrelated to true bass, Chilean sea bass is the more palatable name marketers gave the Patagonian toothfish. Found mainly in the cold, deep waters of the Antarctic Ocean, the Patagonian toothfish is on the verge of being overfished to extinction, according to some scientists and environmentalists.

Experts say there are several reasons for its rapid decline. New fishing techniques allowed fishermen to work the remote waters that are home to the toothfish only in the last 10 to 15 years. Because of its firm white flesh, mild flavor and high oil content, it became an instant hit among chefs and diners. Another issue is the toothfish’s naturally low birth rate – they take a decade to reach spawning age, and when they do, the females lay relatively few eggs over their lifetimes. And because its natural habitat is difficult to replicate, so far, the toothfish hasn’t been farmed.

In the late ‘90s, the U.S. government and other organizations around the world recognized the declining population and began implementing regulations. Andrea Kavanagh, director of the “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign for the National Environmental Trust in Washington, has praise for U.S. government regulators. The problem, Kavanagh said, is the illegal fishing done with the tacit approval from other nations.

She wants to see the United States say it won’t take any Chilean sea bass except those caught in regulated waters. Kavanagh launched the “Take a Pass” campaign with 70 San Francisco Bay-area restaurants in 2002. Since then the list of chefs signing the no-Chilean sea bass pledge has grown to more than 1,000.

Others counter that as long as the fish is legal, they have a right to buy it. “Chilean sea bass is an awesome fish,” said Phillip Paris, executive chef at St. Louis Fish Market on The Landing. “It sells itself.” Paris pointed out that as demand increases and stocks decline, the price goes up, providing a natural mechanism for reducing consumption.

And that’s exactly what has happened at Blue Water Grill in Kirkwood. While he keeps abreast of seafood issues and is concerned about sustainability, executive chef Kyle Patterson is also a pragmatist. Right now, it’s the price of Chilean sea bass that is keeping it off the menu. “Two years ago you could get Chilean sea bass for $7.99 a pound,” Patterson said. “Now it’s $12 or more.”

And Chilean sea bass is not the only seafood that chefs and restaurateurs think twice about serving. Environmental groups have also raised concerns about swordfish and farmed salmon. Patterson and Ayers illustrate the complexities involved, and how two people on the same side of the issue still make different choices.

Patterson avoids swordfish – a target of boycotts beginning in the late ‘90s – because he said the small size of the ones he’s seen indicate the population hasn’t rebounded enough. Ayers said, “I signed the pledge and followed [the boycott] pretty closely. It was a classic example of a consumer boycott that was well organized, got a lot of attention and, in my opinion, achieved some concrete results.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium reported that after a sharp drop from 1988 to 2002, Atlantic swordfish stocks began to rebound slightly. Now the organization urges consumers to avoid only imported swordfish. Chefs and restaurateurs walk a tightrope between following their conscience and staying in business.

Ayers and executive chef Dave Owens of Cardwell’s at the Plaza don’t envy chefs like Patterson, whose menus concentrate on fish. Sustainability is a priority for both Ayers and Owens, so much so that they belong to the Chefs Collaborative, a national group that stresses conservation practices as well as local food sources. Both said that trying to fill an entire menu with sustainably harvested fish choices would be difficult.

“I would never open a seafood restaurant,” Owens said. “Too hard. You’re wading in the waters of some of the lesser evils trying to serve a diverse menu to your clientele.” Owens’ customers are often unaware of the lengths he and partner Bill Cardwell go to offer sustainable meat, fish and produce. “Not just for moral reasons,” Owens said. “It makes a difference in the end quality.”

He must answer to customers who want to know why he has no salmon on the menu at certain times of the year. He tries to explain to them that he will only serve fresh Alaskan wild salmon and the season runs from spring to fall. “We could sell all the salmon that we have, but we’ve made a conscious decision,” he said. “We’ve chosen the wild salmon because it is managed well; the quality, the flavor is better; and because of the environmental issue.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program encourages consumers not to eat farmed salmon. In a report, the aquarium contends that having lots of fish in a relatively small space, such as an aquaculture farm, results in harmful concentrations of waste and uneaten feed and can become a breeding ground for diseases and parasites. Consequently, chemicals applied to control these issues can affect other sea creatures such as lobster and shrimp. In addition, the farmed salmon can escape from the pens and contaminate wild stocks, according to the report.

Furthermore, nearly everyone agrees that wild salmon tastes better. “I avoid farm-raised salmon for both environmental reasons and because I think it’s a much inferior product to the wild version in terms of taste and texture,” Ayers said.

Ayers occasionally gets questions from customers about why he’s serving certain foods. In a newsletter to customers, he talked about tuna. “A number of my customers have told me that they just couldn’t enjoy tuna at Riddle’s while imagining those pitiful dolphins, like Flipper, helplessly flailing in tuna nets,” Ayers wrote. “The tuna I buy is caught by small, independent fishermen on ‘long line’ baited hooks, with care taken not to bruise or cut the meat, which would reduce its value on the fresh seafood market. No nets. No dolphins.”

Experts agree that seafood is still a good choice for a healthy diet. But between overfishing, concerns about by-catch (when other fish are unintentionally caught in nets or lines) and toxicity, what’s a consumer to do? Several organizations, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have Web sites and offer wallet cards to help consumers select fish, considering both environmental and health factors.

Donna Kniest of University City eats fish at least once a week both at home and in restaurants. “I’m trying not to have the cancer and triple bypasses that my folks have had,” said Kniest. She makes it a point to ask wait staff in restaurants where their fish comes from. “Often the waiters don’t know,” Kniest said. “The better restaurants will tell you.” At the same time, Kniest is careful not to get too anxious about making choices. “You do what you can,” she said. “Worry is worse for you than eating bad fish.”