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With All the Lies About Sustainable Fish, Two San Franciscans Get on the Boat

What if the only way not to get duped was to go out and meet the fishermen yourself? That's what one restaurant decided it had to do.

Let's say a restaurant really wants to do the right thing, by serving only fresh fish, caught in a way that doesn't imperil the species or the ocean ecosystem, that still tastes good. In the Bay Area, many, many places are trying to do the right thing, from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the bastion of sustainability, right on down the supply chain to McDonald's.

In an excellent longread from science writer Erik Vance, in San Francisco Magazine's February issue, he finds that much of what consumers are being told about sustainable seafood might not actually be true. For Bill Foss, who runs a place called Fish, and the Moscow-born fisherman Kenny Belov, that uncomfortable truth prompted them to actually go out on a boat named the Sputnik to see what fishermen are doing firsthand. As Vance explains:

The more time Belov spent fishing, the more he realized that what he read on menus didn’t always match what happened out on the ocean. He began to notice restaurants listing dishes made with trawled or imperiled ?sh—just inches above the sustainability manifestos printed on their menus. There was the time he was having lunch at a popular downtown seafood restaurant, one that goes to the trouble of listing not just where its ?sh is caught but also, in many cases, the name of the boat that brought it in. On this day, the menu included lingcod from a ?sherman that Belov knows, so he pulled out his phone and made the call. “No, that’s not from me,” said the ?sherman. “It’s been two years since I last caught a lingcod.” Belov can tell many such stories.


It's no secret that the fish business can be slippery. “Wild” salmon sometimes originates from salmon farms and what gets called “red snapper” isn't red snapper. Complicating matters, two vastly different fish species can both be called bass. (After all, what better way to deceive rival fishermen than to trick them into calling two fish the same thing?) "Ichthyologic name-swapping" permeates the fish world, so even a consumer or chef armed with a sustainable food buying guide might not make ethical buying choices.

Whether the deception is deliberate or accidental, it makes me question how far good intentions go in the end. If consumer seafood guides aren't the solution, what is? Could Whole Foods Market set a better benchmark? Could President Obama's State of the Union salmon joke lead to a National Oceans Agency, one that can oversee all fish and not the 20 percent of the fish eaten in the United States that are also caught here? What do you think it will take to have a truly traceable seafood without, as Foss and Belov are doing, building a Sputnik of your own?

Photo: Alex Farnum via San Francisco Magazine.

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