The fish themselves might disagree, if somehow they could voice dissent. But there’s a notion gaining ground across New Orleans that a key way to protect the abundant sea life of the Gulf of Mexico is to promote the pleasures of devouring it.
The idea is to translate issues of seafood sustainability from the technical and regulatory realm of fisheries management to the consumer arena — namely, to the markets and restaurants where people make their seafood choices.
“It’s about saving them so you can eat them,” said John Fallon, project coordinator with Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries, or GULF, a program of the Audubon Nature Institute. “That’s what sustainable seafood is all about. We want people to be able to enjoy the resource.”
The goals reach beyond a simple “eat more seafood” message. Advocates say they want to build commercial markets for more of the enormous variety of fish in the Gulf, and thus reduce pressure on the most targeted species, and also educate consumers about how their seafood purchasing decisions impact local ecosystems and economies.
That’s why chefs Eman Loubier, of Dante’s Kitchen, and Alex Harrell, of Sylvain, were at the Uptown Whole Foods Market last week, conducted a dueling cooking demo in conjunction with GULF and Louisiana Sea Grant. Part of Whole Foods’ monthlong Sea to Table series (see details in sidebar), the event included wine pairings, a tour of the store’s seafood counter for tips on selecting local seafood and cooking advice from the chefs.
“Once people know what to do with it they’re a lot more comfortable buying local seafood, so I think I can make a difference,” said Harrell, between seasoning and serving portions of his pickled shrimp remoulade.
Much more is to come. Last week, GULF introduced its new Chef Council, composed of 10 Louisiana chefs, mostly from New Orleans, and led by Tenney Flynn, chef and co-owner of the upscale seafood restaurant GW Fins. The chefs will be ambassadors for local seafood and help GULF develop programs that restaurants around the Gulf Coast can tap, like training for wait staff to include local and sustainable themes when guiding customers through menus and specials.
“We get seafood here that the rest of the country would kill for. It’s just two hours away in the Gulf,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot more than people realize and a lot more we could be using.”
While there are different standards and interpretations of sustainability, Fallon said GULF’s definition takes into account the well-being of the ecosystem, the ability of fishermen to earn a living, and the culture and heritage of seafood in the Gulf region.
“Chefs are the rock stars of this thing; they can help people understand that local and fresh is also more sustainable,” Fallon said. “The U.S. has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world. That’s not the case with all of the imported seafood.”
The New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network is taking seafood sustainability to the table, too. The group is now organizing a citywide promotion called the Gulf Fish Forever Restaurant Tour. Participating chefs would design one special dish each month around seasonal and local seafood and agree to donate a portion of proceeds to support the nonprofit’s long-running Gulf Fish Forever advocacy program. Carmo, the modern Brazilian restaurant in the Warehouse District, will kick off the Restaurant Tour promotion next week with a seafood special running Tuesday through Saturday.
“If we can get 30 restaurants on board for one night per month, we’ll have every day of the year covered,” said Harry Lowenburg, the Gulf Fish Forever program coordinator.
The Gulf Restoration Network plans to promote the meals through Specialus, a new app and Web platform developed by New Orleans restaurateur Tony Tocco, which uses short cellphone videos to share direct-from-the-kitchen reports of nightly specials.
While consumers are digging in, the groups are working on management issues in the fishing grounds, too. For instance, GULF is now developing a sustainability certification program for Gulf Coast fisheries, which should begin rolling out in 2015. More retailers are requiring sustainability certification from suppliers, and Fallon said this one would be tailored specifically to Gulf Coast fisheries.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Restoration Network is now raising money to help Louisiana fishermen who pursue yellowfin tuna transition away from long-line fishing — which snares a great deal of bycatch, including the increasingly scarce bluefin tuna. An alternative the group promotes is called greenstick fishing, which more specifically targets yellowfin tuna, a more plentiful Gulf catch.
“We don’t want to attack the fishermen. The win-win on this is to go after the funding to get these guys new and better gear to be able to target the yellowfin without getting the bluefin,” Lowenburg said.
Gautreau’s Restaurant recently hosted a sustainable seafood luncheon and fundraiser for the cause, where chef Sue Zemanick prepared dishes using an 80-pound yellowfin caught through greenstick fishing.
Dana Honn, proprietor of Carmo, attended the luncheon and said awareness is slowly building around seafood sustainability.
“The conversations I used to have with purveyors when we opened 41/2 years ago were very different than they are today,” he said. “Before, I’d get a long silence when I asked about long-line (fishing) and sustainability. Now I get at least a partial answer. There’s only one way we have to change things, and that’s by asking where your seafood comes from, whether you’re a diner or a chef.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.