Char, steelhead a sign of the farming times

Around this time of year in the United States, the National Restaurant Association produces its annual "What's Hot" list, a collection trend predictions for the coming year. In 2012, the association forecasted a growing number of high-end restaurants embracing "non-traditional" species, or fish that many diners — and even chefs — haven't heard of.

This year, NRA expects the trend to continue into 2014. If the association is right, it may be a sign of some restaurateurs learning how to cope with the decades-old question: Should we source farmed salmon or not?

According to Rick Moonen, chef-owner of RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room in Las Vegas, non-traditional fish — such as Arctic char and steelhead trout — represent an alternative for discriminating chefs who can't get salmon from a reliable source. Moonen has long advocated for chef-owners like himself to be picky when it comes to sourcing salmon, and to not be afraid to keep it off the menu, even if only temporarily, while waiting for the season to resume or another supplier to emerge.

A longtime advocate of fished rather than farmed, Moonen and other critics have pointed out that salmon in particular is in such high demand that everyone wants to get in on the act, producing as much for as little as possible.

Like any industry, pushing this hard to keep up can lead to cutting corners, and we've seen just one example of the ramifications of that in recent years with outbreaks of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in farms in Chile.

While it may be fashionable for some environmentalist groups to use such problems as an excuse to dismiss seafood farming altogether as the wrong way to go, that's a shortsighted perspective. Even Moonen acknowledged in a recent interview with SeafoodSource that farming, especially when it's done properly, is a reality and a necessity.

He's right. According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization the world's population — and thus the global demand for food — is growing at such a rate that by 2030, the world will need 40 million metric tons more seafood annually. Couple that with the ongoing disputes concerning overfishing of various stocks today, and it's clear that anyone who thinks traditional fishing will produce enough seafood to satisfy the global population's needs in the years to come is ill informed.

So as usually happens in debates like this, where there seems to be only one of two answers — embrace farmed salmon or don't use it at all — reality actually lies somewhere in between. If NRA is right, and this trend of non-traditional species does continue in high-end restaurants, it's a sign that some in the industry are beginning to understand the importance of variety.

There's nothing at all wrong with the concept of farmed salmon. When it's done well, it is an integral part of our food supply. Many farmers have learned valuable lessons from the problems in Chile, and made changes in how they produce the popular fish, and that's to their credit. Restaurateurs who have the luxury of sourcing from multiple farms can and should ask questions about how their seafood is produced, to make sure they are sourcing from the ones who are doing it right. It's also not so crazy to take salmon off the menu entirely for a time, and consider something that's unusual but a close match. It need not be permanent, and if the association is right, it might just be trendy.


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