The average American eats 15 pounds of fish each year, but they don’t buy that much from the grocery. The vast majority of what they eat is in restaurants. And restaurants mainly serve four varieties: tuna, salmon, bass, and cod. Four fish whose popularity puts their very survival at risk.
The sustainability of these fish ranks among the latest causes of Paul Allen. Allen, the Seattle mogul who co-founded Microsoft, owns the Seahawks, and whose real estate company, Vulcan, has developed South Lake Union, has a keen interest in environmental stewardship. Last month, Vulcan's philanthropic arm launched an initiative called Smart Catch to encourage restaurants to serve more sustainable seafood.
The Smart Catch program encourages a 90 percent compliance with the latest environmental standards, by training chefs on sustainable seafood sourcing and prep, and affixing decals to restaurant doors and menus, alerting consumers to restaurants and specific dishes that meet the Smart Catch goals.
This month, over 60 Seattle restaurants offered a week of Sustainable Seafood menus approved by Smart Catch. Allen's group signed up some heavyweight chefs prior to launching. Along with several dozen other high-profile restaurants, both the Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell restaurant groups have gone through the certification process.
“We see Smart Catch as a great opportunity to keep diners engaged, simplify their decisions around seafood, and recognize restaurants that are leading the way in supporting environmentally responsible fisheries,” Stowell says.
With the resources of Vulcan, Smart Catch put together a team of three consulting firms and half a dozen staffers. A budget that's probably hit seven figures by now. The consulting firms (Fishchoice.com, FlipFish.com and FutureofFish.org, CplusC.com) are doing the “retail” side of the program: sending agents into restaurant kitchens to talk with owners and chefs about ways to best implement the Smart Catch program.
For some, like Duke's and Anthony's, it will be relatively painless, since owners Duke Moscrip and Budd Gould, respectively, have insisted on buying nothing but sustainable seafood for some time. For others, the payoff will be harder to calculate.
Also hard to calculate is how effective Smart Catch’s week-length pilot project was, the success of which will determine whether the program is rolled out nationwide. The Sustainable Seafood Week project was run through an agency in San Francisco called FlipLabs. We asked them for metrics: how many diners attended? How many seafood dinners were ordered? The group was strangely hesitant to get back to us or offer specifics, only answering that “thousands” of diners participated. With 63 restaurants and a week of orders, this doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that at least five of these meals were ordered every night.
Despite this vagueness, Dune Ives, Vulcan's senior director of philanthropy, pronounced herself “very encouraged by the reception we’ve received” from the Seattle chef community. Said Ives, “We will continue to work with chefs to evolve this program, while retaining its integrity, so that Smart Catch remains a trusted brand.”
By working directly with restaurants, Smart Catch attempts to change the dynamic of how Americans consume the world's resources of shellfish and fin-fish. It’s not a question of large of small, wild or farmed, so much as pinpointing species that can maintain or increase production without jeopardizing the health of the marine ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been in the forefront of this effort for some time, with a campaign to raise consumer awareness of endangered species through its SeafoodWatch recommendations (avoid farmed Atlantic salmon and bluefin tuna, for example, in favor of arctic char or Pacific albacore).
Yet it's not always clear, from a restaurant menu, where that dish of “seared tuna” comes from. It's not always a sure thing that the server or even the chef know, either.
Hence the Smart Catch program, and the nifty SmartCatch.fish website. (Betcha ya didn't know there even was a dot-fish top-level domain. Paul Allen knew.) Slowly, slowly, one plate at a time, one fork at a time, Allen and Vulcan hope to change the way we treat the ocean.