There's a spot in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, at the junction of two aisles, from which I sometimes survey all three of the market's fishmongers. And what I see these days pains me.
Two of the three proudly display Chilean sea bass, and all three usually have some Atlantic cod and grouper, often just a few slots down from the trays of farmed salmon and monkfish. In other words, these guys sell a lot of unsustainable fish.
I spoke to the manager of one of these shops a few months ago and asked him why so much unsustainable catch makes it into display cases. His answer was one part cop out, one part foreboding pragmatism. The obvious reason for selling unsustainably fished species is that customers don't just buy them, they demand them. But that excuse only stretches so far. The other reason they do it, according to my piscine Deep Throat, is that there's no longer enough sustainable catch available to fill twenty feet of refrigerated display cases.
More worrisome yet, this trio isn't alone. I've visited many of Toronto's most reputable fishmongers and they all sell unsustainable seafood. It's an epidemic.
Now, I'm hardly a saint when it comes to sustainability. My ignorance of the issue led me down some inexcusable paths. But I saw the light about a year ago and have since devoted myself to the cause of sustainability with fervour.
I've struggled to educate myself about the issues by reading fantastically helpful books like Bottomfeeder, by Taras Grescoe, and The End of the Line, by Charles Clover. I carry a wallet-sized copy of SeaChoice's Canada's Seafood Guide with me wherever I go. I even question servers and fishmongers about the provenance of the seafood they offer. Most importantly, I've stopped eating unsustainable fish.
But I want to do more.
I got the chance this month thanks to Toronto Life. I'm in the process of writing a sidebar for the January issue that identifies a handful of sustainable restaurant dishes in Toronto. It hasn't been easy. I now understand how difficult it must be to fill a display case with sustainable seafood. Finding five dishes took hours of digging and led me down a lot of false paths.
Until now, for example, I'd always assumed that McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, made largely of Alaskan pollock, represents one of the best seafood choices available. The fishery earned Maritime Stewardship Council (MSC) certification and was routinely cited as an exemplar of industry best practices. This year, according to Greenpeace, catches have plummeted almost fifty percent and a collapse of the fishery, along with the ecosystem it supports, is possible. Goodbye fish sticks and California rolls.
I can move on, I thought, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Having digested the lessons of Bottomfeeder, I immediately sought out something small and oily, like anchovies, only to discover that the MSC listed the Atlantic anchovy as a fish to avoid now that the Bay of Biscay fishery has collapsed and stocks in the remaining Portuguese fishery have sunk to critical levels.
Researching this piece was a struggle, but it had its rewards.
First, there are a handful of restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area that care enough to at least make some effort to serve sustainable seafood. Jamie Kennedy has long been the poster boy for sustainability in this town, but the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise programme identifies five local restaurants that serve sustainable dishes:
4. Pangaea Restaurant
5. Trios Bistro
I also learned that SeaChoice has worked with a handful of restaurants that "are at least engaged to some degree:"
Second, my research connected me with Taina Uitto, the national manager of SeaChoice, Canada's pre-eminent advocacy group for sustainable seafood, and the publisher of Canada's Seafood Guide, a handy wallet-sized card that takes much of the confusion out of buying seafood.
Uitto's passion for the subject is obvious, and her expertise invaluable. She also eloquently articulates the sort of perspective we all need to adopt if wild seafood is to survive: "So... things are not that simple. But, what I always say to people is that is asking the questions really that big of a deal? If you had a peanut allergy, would you be afraid to ask whether there are nuts in a dish? I feel the same about seafood. I have a certain allergy to unsustainability, and don’t want to put that in my body. Even if you don’t get the answers, and it seems like a bother, and you might even end up making a choice that you are not 100% sure about, even asking the question helps. We get feedback from the industry that change is really brought on by the consumers asking for answers (and sustainable options), which makes the company go looking. We may not be there yet, but we need help getting there from consumers."
I owe my third and final discovery to Patrick McMurray, owner of Starfish and elite oyster shucker. I happened to contact him the day before his restaurant hosted an event for A Good Catch, a new cookbook by Jill Lambert that features recipes for sustainable fish from Canada's best chefs as well as a species by species guide to choosing fish and a list of readily available alternatives to popular but unsustainable species. It is essential reading for anyone who loves to cook seafood and cares about the fate of the oceans.
So, the minute I cracked the cover, I knew I had to choose one of the recipes from A Good Catch for the leather district gourmet's Teach a Man to Fish 2008 sustainable seafood event. I didn't have to search that long, either. Given that Patrick McMurray led me to Jill and the a book, it seemed only fitting that I use his recipe. Of course, it didn't hurt that his dish is a fantastic oyster po' boy sandwich.
A po' boy is a hot sandwich traditionally made with fried oysters or shrimp on a crusty French-style loaf, often dressed with a little lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. It's about as New Orleans as you can get, on a par with jazz and Hurricane cocktails. Patrick McMurray's version hews pretty closely to New Orleans tradition. The only difference is in the breading -- he uses Japanese panko bread crumbs.
Choosing a suitable bread can be tricky, but Rachel and I never really had a doubt. We live around the corner from The Fish Store & Sandwiches, the very definition of a hole-in-the-wall foodie destination, and they serve their delicious (but, unfortunately, not always sustainable) sandwiches on a wonderfully light, slightly yeasty Portuguese loaf, with a chewy crumb and delicate crust. That loaf comes from the Golden Wheat bakery across the street, so we asked around and learned that the rolls in question are called Pão de Mafra, and picked up a couple for our po' boys.
They are "POW!" awesome with this sandwich, especially slathered with a little homemade tartar sauce and gilded with a half dozen oysters straight out of the frying pan. I loved mine so much that I ate it with a suspicious glare and hunched shoulders, as if I were wary of some interloper dashing into my home and stealing my po' boy out from under my nose.
Oh yeah, aside from tasting incredible, few seafood options are more sustainable than a farmed oyster, the world's greatest bivalve. Farmed properly, that little Malpeque actually cleans the water it inhabits. Raw or cooked, we should be eating more of them.
I've already described this city's need for a sustainable fishmonger, and I'm convinced that the first person to do it will make a lot of money. Toronto foodies have already shown a willingness to pay exorbitant prices for their organic, responsibly farmed meat at Cumbrae's and The Healthy Butcher. It's a winning business model. I know, because every few weeks Rachel and I visit one or both places and wait our turn to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a free range chicken, a slab of smokey bacon, or a tender short rib. Above all else, however, we do it for the chance to vote with our dollars for a food choice that mitigates suffering and ecological damage.
I just want the same option when buying seafood.