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Why chefs are confused about what fish they can serve

‘Sustainability’ has many guises: lists, diner questions, legal restrictions...

Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar, led a seminar there last month  titled “Know Your Fish.’

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar, led a seminar there last month titled “Know Your Fish.’

If you want to see Boston chefs get hot under the collar, throw their hands up in confusion, or sigh in resignation, just ask them about seafood sustainability.

The topic has been under discussion so long it’s gone from buzzword to cliché, and consumers might be forgiven for thinking that sustainability has been resolved. Not so, say chefs and seafood market owners. But they do need something to go by. Michael Leviton, of Lumiere in West Newton and Area Four in Cambridge, offers this definition from the United Nations: “The ability to provide for the needs of today without compromising our ability to provide for the needs of the future.’’ But, he adds, “That sounds all nice and simple, but at the end of the day, it really isn’t.’’

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Here’s another definition from Melissa Kogut, executive director of Chefs Collaborative, a national chef network promoting sustainable food practices: “Sustainable seafood is wild caught or farmed with consideration for the long-term viability of the species, affected eco-systems, and fishing communities.’’

Nor does that seem to clarify the subject for working chefs. “I’ve been in the seafood business for 40 years,’’ says Jasper White, chef and partner of the Summer Shack restaurants. “The whole thing about sustainability is that the more I learn, the more confused I get.’’

Steve Johnson, the chef and owner of Rendezvous restaurant, deals daily with the issue of seafood sustainability and how to balance concerns about sustainability with customer demand, supporting local fishermen, seasonality.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Steve Johnson, the chef and owner of Rendezvous restaurant, deals daily with the issue of seafood sustainability and how to balance concerns about sustainability with customer demand, supporting local fishermen, seasonality.

Most chefs are concerned about sustainability - whatever their definition - but they also have businesses to run, customer expectations to meet, and, in many cases, ties to the local fishing community. On top of all that, they have to be mindful of state officials vowing, after a Boston Globe investigation last year, to crack down on restaurants, supermarkets, and seafood suppliers that mislabel fish. All of this drives decisions about what to purchase.

‘THE PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF CHEFS IS THAT WE OPERATE IN SOME SORT OF SPHERE THAT ONLY HAS TO DO WITH IDEAS AND IDEOLOGIES. WE HAVE A LOT OF PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS.’

STEVE JOHNSON  CHEF AND OWNER OF RENDEZVOUS RESTAURANT IN CAMBRIDGE
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“This is not an ivory tower situation,’’ says Steve Johnson, chef and owner of Rendezvous restaurant in Cambridge, and a recreational fisherman. “The public perception of chefs is that we operate in some sort of sphere that only has to do with ideas and ideologies.’’ Instead, a restaurant owner has to be pragmatic, he says. “We have a lot of practical considerations.’’

Among those is a desire to support local fishermen, who are frequently at loggerheads with environmentalists and other proponents of sustainability. Fishermen have long had to contend with government-set catch limits meant to help stocks of stressed and overfished species rebound. Earlier this month, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to recommend a 20 percent reduction in the limits on cod caught in the Gulf of Maine. Maine shrimp was closed on Feb. 17 because the catch limit, down considerably from previous years, had been met. And the complexity of the issues sometimes creates surprising alliances. A public hearing was scheduled to be held yesterday on proposed legislation that would eliminate commercial fishing of striped bass in Massachusetts. That sounds like something the sustainability folks would support, but Chefs Collaborative is urging its members to oppose the bill, backed by a Maine-based group representing recreational fishermen. The chefs organization argues that commercial striped bass is local and sustainable and that commercial fishermen have already had to comply with many other catch limits.

And while fishermen understand the importance of limits over the long haul - after all, they have a vested interest in making sure seafood remains healthy and plentiful - they sometimes question the science that goes into decisions about limits. Some say you cannot count the number of fish in the sea. “It’s like trying to count trees and the trees are moving. It’s not black and white - it’s just not,’’ says Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar.

Sewall recently conducted a “Know Your Fish’’ seminar at the restaurant, which addressed mislabeling, species identification, and, of course, sustainability. He has occasionally taken some heat for his menu choices, but defends serving bluefin tuna, a fish caught off both coasts, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch says to avoid. At one point Sewall noted that the tuna was locally caught. He says he has heard the stocks are more plentiful now than they have been in 20 years.

Certainly not all customers are concerned. Tony Maws, chef and owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, says that when he put bluefin on the menu last fall, “A couple of people asked questions, but I sold the bejesus out of it.’’

Another lightning rod for sustainability issues is farmed salmon. Once the poster fish for environmentally harmful aquaculture practices, farmed salmon, some now believe, can be a responsible choice, as long as it’s sourced carefully. Seafood Watch recommends avoiding farmed salmon except Coho, sake, and silver. But both Sewall and White are serving farm-raised salmon from the Faroe Islands; Maws uses organic farmed salmon from the Shetland Islands (though even the word organic, when applied to farmed fish, raises some questions).

“When you’re talking about farm-raised fish, it’s like buying a car,’’ says White. “You can buy a Cadillac or you can buy a Yugo.’’ Other chefs, such as Leviton and Michael Scelfo, executive chef at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, flat out refuse to serve farmed salmon.

Locally caught seafood pretty much has unanimous support. “I would rather serve squid from Rhode Island and try to make that work, espousing all of its really good qualities, than fly hiramasa from the South Pacific that has been given the stamp of approval from sustainability guides,’’ says Johnson. “It costs a lot of money to bring that in, it’s the world’s biggest carbon footprint, and it murks up the question of sustainability.’’

Ah, those sustainability guides. Besides Monterey Bay Aquarium, the New England Aquarium also issues what it calls Ocean-Friendly Seafood recommendations. They might seem like a handy tool, but they have few fans among area chefs. Says Chris Schlesinger, owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, “Those lists are a simple answer to a complex problem, and they keep people from trying to understand the complexity of it.’’ Most chefs recommend that customers who are concerned about sustainability delve deeper, as the chefs themselves do. Several mentioned that they are currently reading books on seafood, such as “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,’’ by H. Bruce Franklin, about menhaden; “Four Fish,’’ by Paul Greenberg; and “Beautiful Swimmers,’’ by William Warner.

Chefs also say that customers seem concerned about seafood sustainability - but only to a point. “For all the savvy ones,’’ says Scelfo, “there are ones who quite frankly don’t know. They just want to go out and have a good time. They’re not looking to do a ‘Portlandia’ skit. You can go a little overboard with this stuff.’’

While professionals may have access to more information and seafood sources than the rest of us, that does not make their choices any easier. Says Leviton, “We’re just trying to do a little better today than we did yesterday, trying to make well-informed, rational decisions. Are we going to screw up? Hell, yeah.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.

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