It's a Really Tough Life: Sustainable Fisheries in the 2020s
And the James Beard House, a weird but wonderful place
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A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to dine at the historic James Beard House and spend an evening learning all about sustainable seafood.
If you’ve never been to the Beard House, it’s an eccentric experience. James Beard was a famously strange guy, and the choice to put the foundation’s headquarters in his actual former home means that you’re eating in a dining room that was once his bedroom. You can visit his 1970s 360° mirrored bathroom. His embroidered, floral chef coat is framed next to a photo of the jovial man himself as you walk up the stairs to dinner.
But on this particular day, the admittedly interesting setting was distinctly not the point. The dinner, catered by Top Chef and Le Bernardin alum Adrienne Cheatham, was put on by The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a 25-year-old organization whose stated mission is to end overfishing around the world. Erika Feller, MSC’s Regional Director for the Americas, spoke at the event and later explained to me in a phone interview that they accomplish that mission by establishing “a standard for what constitutes a sustainable fishery” and building a network of Conformity Assessment Bodies that help fisheries hoping to create a positive impact “to measure their performance against this standard.”
That might sound like enough for one organization to handle, but Feller went on to say, “The second thing we do is we have a Chain of Custody Standard, and that is something that all the supply chain companies, the guy who buys the fish at the dock, the processor that cuts it and turns it into some kind of product, the wholesaler who sells the fish. You want to be able to connect that entire chain back to a certified fishery.” MSC has a special logo that fisheries can add to their products, allowing them to market in a way that tells “the consumer about your commitment to sustainability.”
To highlight the delicious results of this work, MSC featured the work of three fisheries organizations within their umbrella, serving albacore tuna caught by the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA), the Mexican Sardine Fishery Association and Grupo Guaymex, and Sea Watch International, which is the largest harvester and processor of clams in the world.
During dinner, we tasted products from each group. Everything chef Cheatham served was creative and exciting, but it was the resounding opinion of my entire table that the tuna from AAFA (which is flash-frozen on the boat directly after being individually line-caught) was wildly impressive. She highlighted the tuna in a preparation somehow reminiscent of both veal tonnato and a tuna salad sandwich. She draped the raw albacore in a tuna-based sauce, concealing a bright and crunchy celery salad beneath was an exciting taste experience that made my companion’s whole face light up with unadulterated joy.
Natalie Webster, AAFA’s Director of Operations, wants to keep reactions like that coming. Webster “like the dictionary” is from a third-generation San Diego fishing family, married someone in the industry, and has spent her life embroiled in the whims of the sea, which is to say she has good reason to be passionate about her work:
“We founded AAFA back in 2005, and really the reason why it was founded is to give a voice to the US one-by-one albacore fishery because at the time it was pretty much lumped into commodity traded tuna, which back then was every harvest method. I used to call it ‘mystery fish’ because you never really knew what was in the can, right? So the fishermen would come to the dock and not really know how much they would be paid because of the fact that albacores are highly migratory so it’s here and then it’s gone.”
Now, AAFA markets line-caught American albacore, allowing the fishermen to spend their time worrying about catching fish. When AAFA began its work, “It would have been hard to find anything that was caught by US-flagged vessels [at the supermarket],” let alone something that was sustainably harvested or transparent about much of anything.
But due to the work of organizations like MSC and AAFA, more and more fisheries are seeing the market benefits of not using dangerous methods they have to lie or obfuscate about since consumers have a demonstrable interest in eating food that’s not destroying the planet. In 2018, NOAA began implementing its Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which requires that, “when you bring in a container full of tuna, you have to upload the catch data and all the documents for traceability if it was processed offshore.” She pointed out that fisheries seeking MSC certification have to meet even more stringent standards since AAFA itself is audited “every single year and then every five years is a full assessment of the fishery.”
Webster is concerned about how little interest she sees from young people in the fishing industry, but having grown up in it, she also understands why “It’s a really tough life. For one thing, you’re gone so much, it’s a high-risk career choice.” AAFA lets albacore fishermen charge more than they might otherwise be able to, but the lack of environmentally-friendly innovation in the industry is making it harder and harder for families to stay afloat. As such, AAFA considers itself “more than just a marketing association, we are pretty much their voice.”
So the next time you pick up a can of tuna, spend some extra time checking out the label and try to find a little blue MSC fish. The oceans, and the people who spend their lives on them, will thank you.
You can find all of Adrienne Cheatham’s recipes from the Beard House dinner here. More information about MSC and AAFA is available at msc.org and americanalbacore.org.