Though officially National Seafood Month is almost over, one of the best ideas behind it should be thought of everyday—sustainable seafood. After all, this concept involves buying, eating and selling responsibly sourced fish. However, like many buzzy phrases, the idea behind "sustainable seafood" doesn't always mean what it originally intended. Loosely, this idea revolves around knowing where the fish comes from, how it is caught or farmed, and what the seafood in question is.
"I think the environmental impact of getting sustainable seafood is important and it's better for our oceans, which really includes our waterways, our rivers and streams," says Mario Vega, owner of Mario's Ocean Club. "It's all tied together, and that impact is important, so we need to have a conscious view point on things."
No cut and dry distinction of what fish you can and cannot eat exists, as one salmon might come from an area where the fish is endangered; another farmed correctly in a place one might not expect; or a wild salmon could be caught the right way in a spot with plentiful options. The point is you don't know precisely, which is where these chefs, restaurants, purveyors and companies come in. Denver may be landlocked, but there are plenty of ways to get good, responsibly harvested seafood in town.
When Bamboo Sushi (2715 17th St.) first opened in LoHi last year it was with the idea of providing high-quality sushi using fish the chefs sourced responsibly. "We’ve spent so much time and energy on raising meat and poultry ethically and yet the most consumed animal protein on the planet, fish, gets the back burner," says Blayne Ochoa, the restaurant's head sushi chef. "As consumers we are so good at just turning an ear on poorly-sourced fish coming from filthy, foreign farms, or being ranched and taken from their families and habitats, not to mention the obscene overfishing of popular items such as bluefin tuna and fresh water eel."
With that in mind, the menu at Bamboo Sushi features line-caught wild coho salmon, hook-and-line albacore, and pot-caught red crab, to name a few of the seafood offerings. The desire to seek sustainable fish started with Kristofor Lofgren, who opened the first Bamboo Sushi restaurant in Portland in 2008 under the aptly named company, Sustainable Restaurant Group (this is the fourth location). It's not the easiest path, but one the partners remain dedicated to.
"Because of our buying power and strong relationships with suppliers, we're able to offer amazing sustainable fish at a really approachable price point," says Ochoa. Go see for yourself and as you sample a succulent piece of mackerel or salmon, feel good about what you're eating and buying.
Beast + Bottle
"There's one thing I like to say about sustainable seafood and that's that there is no such thing," says chef and restaurant owner Paul C. Reilly of Beast + Bottle (719 E. 17th Ave.) and Coperta (400 E. 20th Ave.). "I want to get away from the phrase 'sustainable seafood' since for every fish we catch it's not like we are growing one in the ocean."
Instead, says the chef, he prefers the term "responsibly harvested seafood," as it showcases the way he goes about buying and selling fish at the restaurants. This means every time Reilly goes about changing a menu item he and his chefs look at the ingredients, do the homework to find out just how they're sourced, and then establish the recipe before anything gets bought. To do this, the chef uses the James Beard Foundation's Smart Catch program, talks to fishmongers in person, and works closely with Seattle Fish Co.
"It's a lot a of homework, being able to serve responsible seafood," says Reilly, adding that a lot of other factors go into what they prepare, such as cost and availability. "A fish monger friend reminded me, they call it fishing not catching, you won't have the exact same products every time."
Taste the difference, or at least be happy to know you're eating something caught well, by trying dishes like the wild coho salmon and braised giant octopus at beast + bottle, or the wood-fired whole sea bass at Coperta.
Since he started cooking at 14-years-old, chef Daniel Asher has cared about where food comes from. A decade of being a vegetarian and years of cooking later, he still wants to know how the products he gets are grown and sourced, and when it comes to seafood it's of the upmost importance.
"Sustainable seafood is one of the most important things in the food movement for the planet today," says Asher. "It's hard to see the damage that's going on underwater."
Imagine he says, that you drive past a devastated field made barren by over farming. You know what caused it. But, when looking out into the ocean it remains the same on the surface while underneath ecosystems are dying and important fish become endangered. It's our job as food professionals, he says, to protect those creatures that can't speak for themselves and make sure we don't destroy them.
One way to do that is to have a conversation over the dinner table while eating sustainable seafood. See, he says, you can enjoy this tasty fish and know it was caught in a good way. That's why the Rocky Mountain trout he serves at River and Woods (2328 Pearl St., Boulder) is farmed well, the oysters sourced from a place he has researched and knows, and the calamari off of Seafood Watch's "best choice" green list.
"It's just one of the elements of food system reform," says the chef. "I want to make sure there's a voice that's loud and clear to help bring our planet back to a much needed balance, and have an impact in whatever small way I can."
Growing up fishing for salmon and lake trout on Lake Michigan, crabbing and clamming in Oregon, and living a few blocks from the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium all had a hand in educating chef Alex Seidel about fish and how to get them in a prudent way. That's why when he opened Fruition (1313 E. 6th Ave.) in 2007, sourcing this type of seafood was part of the plan.
"Monterey Seafood watch certainly heightened the connection and became a tool for chefs, but there are other factors, like price and availability that factor in your mind," says Seidel, adding that those two factors change every year. "Going to a fish farm really brought some more clarity to me but it can still be confusing."
Luckily, he says, there are some good resources now that make getting sustainable seafood easier. The dishes always change on Seidel and chef de cuisine Francisco Ruiz's menu, but some examples include Icelandic cod with potato risotto, caviar and mushroom marmalade; Alaskan king crab with cucumber and avocado; and diver scallops with carrot, coconut, sunchokes and lime.
For years chef and restaurateur Jennifer Jasinski has been a big proponent of the James Beard Foundation's Smart Catch program, and all of her establishments (Stoic & Genuine, Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen) have been certified through the organization, save for Ultreia, which is too new for certification.
"I feel we have a responsibility to take care of the food system in general, and if we can help influence and educate diners in subtle ways it can make a difference," says Jasinski, who also takes pride in making sure her chefs also understand how sustainable seafood works. "Hopefully we are changing the food system with our wallets, and since we buy a lot of seafood [for the restaurants] maybe there will be more demand for sustainable fish down the line."
Part of the education Jasinski talks about involves knowing where your fish is coming from, and not being afraid to ask a server or chef where his or hers is sourced. Another great question, she says, is to find out what the catch method is and knowing what different types of ways of fishing effect what fish. Try out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a free app for your phone that lets you look up a certain fish and region it was fished in and tells you whether you should be consuming it or not. Then go out and support a restaurant that's also doing a part to keep the waterways healthy.
Love the Wild
Yes, it is possible to get frozen seafood dinners that feature sustainable fish. Enter Love the Wild, a company by Jacqueline Claudia that started in 2014 out of Boulder. "I fell in love with the potential for aquaculture, when done the right way, to solve a lot of our planet's biggest challenges such as population health and environmental sustainability," Claudia says. "But what's the point of growing delicious fish with minimal environmental footprint if nobody eats them?"
Hence the Love the Wild came to be with the idea of taking out the fear and intimidation of cooking great seafood in a landlocked state, while also eating responsibly-gathered products. The company remains dedicated to working with farmed fish that is fed sustainable formulas; programs focused on farm management that keep the creatures healthy without antibiotics; work with biodiversity; and many have certifications including the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP). Claudia says the company also visits the farm partners regularly and know them well.
Find the frozen meals at Amazon Fresh as well as Whole Foods, Lucky's and Natural Grocers all over the metro area. Then you can bring some of the movement to your own kitchen in the simplest way possible.
Mario's Ocean Club
It's not easy to serve only American-caught seafood, but owner Mario Vega of Mario's Ocean Club (560 S. Broadway) does just that. Vega gets fish from all over the states, both fresh and saltwater. This includes Colorado striped bass out of Alamosa, sturgeon farmed in Idaho, tombo tuna from Hawaii, and trout from a farm in Saguache, Colorado. He also works closely with the Seattle Fish Co. to find out where their goods are coming from, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, and the James Beard Foundation's Smart Catch.
"We try to celebrate the original American seafood, plus it ties all the menu items together," says Vega. "Plus, I feel like we have much lower carbon foot print doing it this way."
Many chefs are waiting for the impending arrival of Niceland Seafood, a company from Iceland that is planning on making Denver its United States based home by the end of 2018.
"Iceland is a made up of kind farmers and lovers of the outdoors, who live by the heartbeat of winter," says Niceland's CEO, Heida Helgadóttir, explaining why Colorado was chosen. "The people of Denver are conscious of Mother Nature and care about how we live and what we consume, and both places have also become destination hot spots because of their beautiful landscapes and progressive thinking."
She adds that a direct flight on Icelandair from Iceland to Denver didn't hurt the decision process, and that just because the city is landlocked that doesn't mean it should have a hand in the seafood game. And, in this case, that's the sustainable seafood game. All the species Niceland deals with come from Iceland and are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a global auditing company that's committed to healthy fisheries. Niceland also offers a unique feature for fish buyers in the form of an app that allows customers to track the fish they eat from the sea to the pan. That's right, it's a virtual map of where all the wild haddock, cod, pollock, and Arctic char (to name a few) got caught and how it got to your plate.
"Because of Iceland's dependency on fisheries as one of its biggest exports, for centuries we have taken good care of our natural resource as best we can,' says Helgadóttir over email. "Our fishing system is a quota-based system built on research. Our cod stocks, for example, have been growing which is the opposite of many other cod stocks around the world."
Right now consumers can get Niceland fish at King Soopers grocery stores, which they sell through Seattle Fish Co. (see below). Once the company lands in Denver for good, expect even more Icelandic fish.
For years Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar (1539 17th St.) has been all about responsibly sourced seafood, and long-time head chef Sheila Lucero has been a big part of that. In fact, she oversee all five national locations and makes sure each one works within this realm as much as possible. Heck, Lucero is even one of the chefs involved in the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help shape the institution’s Seafood Watch program. That's the kind of dedication Jax and Lucero bring to the table in the game of getting the best thoughtfully-harvested oysters and fish from the United States and beyond.
"The biggest thing for us as chefs in the seafood world is focusing on what we’re purchasing," she told writer Laura Shunk during an interview in Westword last year. "Supporting U.S. fisheries is huge."
Seattle Fish Co.
The Seattle Fish Co. has been in business for a century, which is a long time to peddle seafood. But in 2008, after hearing chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless talk about food's impact, president Derek Figueroa decided to start pushing the company in a new direction and focus on responsibly sourcing the seafood it sold.
"It's about being good stewards for our industry," Figueroa says. "It elevates and gives us more passion and reward, not just to sell seafood but be a shepherd of the seafood itself and make sure that it's a good product for us, our family and future generations."
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Of course, he adds, it's a long and hard process. Not every bit of seafood the Seattle Fish Co. sells proves perfectly sustainable, but each year the percentage rises and, as of this year, is at the 70-percent sustainable mark. One thing the company does to aid this goal is to try and steer buyers into getting fish that's not facing overfishing (yes, we're looking at you bluefin tuna). It also puts money into fishery improvement projects; gathers data from chef's to help with sourcing and education; and works with programs such as NOAA Fish Watch, Smart Catch and Seafood Watch.
"With fish there's a lot of science and a lot of smart people engaged in the subject," says Figueroa. "Instead of a lot of contention about what's sustainable and what's not, there's been more collaborations between professionals. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, but everyone can be challenged."
In a way, he adds, the collaboration ideal fits in with Colorado's own chefs who tend to work together to create and grow the food scene.