Q&A with Barton Seaver, author and advocate for seafood sustainability

Published on
August 30, 2016

In May, Maine resident and celebrated chef Barton Seaver released a new book, “Two if by Sea: Delicious Sustainable Seafood” that ruminates on the possibilities of cooking with seafood that “hasn't been overfished or caught in an environmentally destructive way.” The book offers advice on buying and choosing seafood and provides a guide to seafood prep and cooking techniques. In addition to being a chef and author, Seaver is also the director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health and a senior advisor for sustainable seafood innovations at the University of New England's College of Marine Sciences. In those roles, he often speaks publicly on the topic of seafood sustainability. SeafoodSource Editor Cliff White interviewed Seaver in early August.

SeafoodSource: Why did you decide to tackle the issue of sustainability in seafood?

Seaver: Sustainability is something I care deeply about, and I think that there’s still a lot of confusion about what makes seafood sustainable – really, about seafood in general.

The reality is, and I think most people in the seafood business understand this – is that the underlying economy of the industry is partly, if not wholly, based around the unwillingness of the consumer to branch out past a small handful of species. As I describe it in the book, I believe that we as consumers create an undue burden upon both the ecosystem and the economy of fisheries by us saying to both the oceans and the fishermen that we are only willing to eat these few species, rather than asking them what they are able and willing to supply. I think once we flip that script to simply ask, “What’s the catch of the day?”, all of a sudden there’s a lot more groundfish we can catch that are worth an equal day’s pay, which only reflects the fact that all of them, when at peak quality, are equally delicious and equally valuable to the purposes of dinner.

SeafoodSource: So the issue of seafood sustainability is complicated…Why then did you decide to do it through the medium of a cookbook?

Seaver: On one level, I want the book to provide an avenue for home cooks and professional chefs alike to gain confidence in the basic tenants of fish cookery. But I also wanted to provide platforms for dialogue on diversifying our demand for seafood for representing the value of the seafood industry and all that it brings to us in civic, environmental and health capacities.

The diversification aspect is explored through step-by-step technique and procedural how-tos, that in the book I apply to broad categories of seafood. Because as I’ve learned through both my restaurants and in teaching in culinary, when you sell the dish and not the fish, people are far more likely to buy into it. When I say I’ll be serving a flaky white-fleshed fish deep-poached in liquids spiked with red-wine vinegar and orange zest served with fennel and mayo over an apple salad, that’s going to elicit a response of, “OK, I want it, what was the fish again?”

That’s the point. I want people to go shopping for seafood and not have one particular species in mind. It shouldn’t matter – they should just buy the freshest thing in the case. That works just as well for orange-fleshed fish as it does for flaky white-fleshed fish. Within those categories, there are 35 different species that fit that bill. By broadening our culinary fluency to look at seafood by category rather than by species, you set yourself up for greater chances that one of those species is going to be within your budget. Customers, if they feel comfortable cooking the way the book suggests – by fish type instead of species – will be able to buy seafood that’s fabulously fresh and jumping out of the case. And when we lead customers towards that, we’re far more likely to win their repeat business than we are by trying to draw them specifically to a species, with all its variation in both quality and price.

SeafoodSource: So it seems like your book is geared toward the average consumer…Why should someone who works in the industry, especially at a corporate level, read your book?

Seaver: Across the industry, there are certainly leaders and champions on sustainability, but I think broadly the industry doesn’t believe its own story. Part of that is that chefs just like myself, and other advocates, have spent years beating the [snot] out of them. I think seafood has the unnecessary and unfortunate bad rap of being a largely unsustainable industry when, in fact, as I’ve come to realize – and have changed my tune to reflect – it’s a largely sustainable industry, and one that is deserving of credit.

The industry has been bullied into its current position and to be quite frank, for my role in that, I wish to make amends. But I think that the industry itself needs to realize the pride they have in their product is earned and that it should be reflected in the story of their product, and there’s work to be done on that front.

SeafoodSource: One idea that there’s been a lot of conversation about recently is that of a national-sale marketing campaign for seafood, along the lines of what beef and pork did with their hugely successful campaigns in recent years…Do you think seafood can and should pursue an idea like that?

Seaver: I see the lack of a national marketing board for seafood as a massive problem. Too often, I see colleagues in the seafood industry fighting amongst each other and cannibalizing each other’s business. This is due to and I think wholly exacerbates a “race-to-the-bottom” mentality of seafood as a commodity market, where price is the only determining factor of who wins and loses. And that puts enormous and undue pressures on the industry to always look for the cheapest way, rather than the best way – and I blame consumers for this as well as industry. But rather than call it blame, I now look at it as an equal opportunity for consumers as well as the industry to tout the benefits and to explore the opportunities of seafood.

Those campaigns … “Beef – it’s what’s for dinner” – were brilliant. From it, we know beef is a healthy protein, it creates American jobs … there’s no decisions left. You walk into the grocery store already knowing what’s for dinner. It’s genius! And “The incredible edible egg,” now I know everything I need to know about eggs. And yet when it comes to fish, we can’t even unify our conversation to the point where salmon and cod are considered in the same sentence. I don’t have the answer or solution to this problem, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t give it away for free in this article, but I think that the time is right for the industry to really join together and positively position their work as beneficial – as it truly is.

SeafoodSource: OK, so you’re on board for seafood doing more general marketing. But it seems like seafood is at a rupture point with the millennial generation, which appears to be eating less seafood. Do you think those numbers point out the need for a specialized marketing campaign aimed at the younger generations of consumers?

Seaver: There are definitely separate conversations happening between different generations. Baby boomers are focused on health issues and could be further persuaded to participate more broadly in the seafood economy through health messaging. The plain and simple fact is, the number-one cause of death in this country is heart disease and our number-one lifestyle improvement opportunity is seafood. That is an incredibly powerful motivator.

With millennials, the conversation is much more about civics and environmental sustainability and I think where the real opportunity lies in marketing to them. Beginning to link up the idea that, when seafood is looked at in the context of proteins, it is indeed the healthiest choice we have, and when you consider a broad range of metrics including greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use, land-use alterations, and maybe the biggest one, fresh water utilization, seafood comes out looking very good in comparison to any other anima- based protein choice, across the board. Eating too much terrestrial animal protein is making us and the environment sick, and not eating enough seafood is keeping us and the environment sick.

SeafoodSource: How about your earlier idea of touting seafood’s nutritional benefits?

Seaver: Definitely. Eating, especially among younger generations, is too often seen through the lens of trying to minimize your negative impact, but health is not defined by the absence of disease and so too do I think we should look at seafood as an opportunity to actually improve the quality both of public health outcomes and also of environmental outcomes. Eating seafood can improve both!

I do believe the nutrition community and the seafood industry itself are doing a reasonable job at communicating this value, but I don’t think we’ve yet found a formula to yet overcome the intimidation factor that is so prevalent in seafood conversations. We have yet to really link the culinary aspect of seafood, the deliciousness of explorations through taste, with the health and environmental benefits of seafood consumption.

SeafoodSource: Where is the message of sustainability more important to reach: foodservice or the suppliers, wholesalers and distributors?

Seaver: Both! I think industry and foodservice need to work together as a group to work on promoting the civic value and storied nature of seafood. And these are financially sound opportunities. The fact that we can do good for the environment and for people’s health while also taking advantage of profitable opportunities for all sides – that opportunity is pretty rare in the seafood industry, or any other industry, for that matter, and should definitely be a catalyst for action.

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