Chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly joining efforts to promote sustainable Gulf seafood for reasons that unite the economy, the ecology and regional culture.
The fish themselves might disagree, if somehow they could voice their 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 to the more palatable consumer arena — namely, to the markets and restaurants where people make their seafood choices.
The goals reach beyond a simple message of “eat more seafood” and instead delve into the interconnected ecologies and economies behind Gulf seafood in particular. It’s an approach to sustainability that balances healthy populations of fish with profitable livelihoods for fishermen and the continuation of the culture and heritage built around seafood in our region.
Scientists and environmental advocates have been working on these issues for years, and now they’re increasingly turning to us, the great seafood-loving consumers of the Gulf coast, to do our part. This can be as simple as insisting on Gulf seafood, rather than frozen imports, and trying something new for dinner.
The Gulf is teeming with a diversity of seafood far beyond the selection normally supplied to restaurants and markets or coveted by recreational anglers. By building demand for more variety, or at least showcasing the possibilities, Gulf advocates hope to reduce pressure on the most popular fish species, and keep them around longer. At the same time, this could reduce waste, by cutting down on the by-catch that is normally discarded. And it could help fishermen by making more of what they catch from the Gulf profitable in the marketplace.
The push is taking the form of public outreach efforts, often led by chefs and restaurateurs. That seems like a smart move. Restaurants, after all, are like the sales floor for seafood sustainability. They’re the places where people seem most likely to try something different, especially when they trust a particular chef’s ability to present delicious surprises.
One effort comes from a group called Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries. It’s a program of the Audubon Nature Institute, the same nonprofit that runs the aquarium, the zoo and other attractions in New Orleans.
Recently, this Gulf United group introduced its new Chefs Council, composed of 10 Louisiana chefs, mostly from New Orleans, and led by Tenney Flynn, from the seafood restaurant GW Fins. The chefs will help the Gulf advocates develop programs that restaurants around the region can tap, like training for wait staff to include local and sustainable themes when they guide customers through their menus.
Another group, the Gulf Restoration Network, is also putting seafood sustainability on the table. It’s now organizing a citywide promotion called the Gulf Fish Forever Restaurant Tour. Chefs who sign up 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 work.
Overall, these chefs, the restaurateurs and the advocates want you to ask where your seafood came from and how it got to your plate. That’s one way to make sure it will keep getting there.