For Barton Seaver, improving seafood sustainability begins by starting conversations. The chef turned author and advocate spends his time making connections between academics and businesspeople, producers and consumers, sustainability and health. And with his new cookbook, “Two If by Sea,” he seeks to make seafood sustainability approachable. Identifying more than 70 varieties of fish — some familiar, some less so — he explains flavor profiles and optimal cooking techniques. “One of the things about sustainability is that when we choose to buy products, there’s another equal and opposite action,” he says. “That is, we are not buying another product. If I put salmon on my dinner plate tonight, I’m not putting beef on.”
Seaver, named chef of the year by Esquire in 2009, left his restaurants in Washington, D.C., for South Freeport, Maine, in 2010 to be closer to a working waterfront and the fisheries he looks to sustain. He is now director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and is a fellow with the National Geographic Society.
Q. Sustainable seafood can be an overwhelming subject. How do you start the conversation?
A. I ask: What is it you would like to sustain? Here in Boston maybe it’s that you want to sustain the maritime culture of Boston, America’s greatest waterfront city. OK. Then your answer is Red’s Best [fish market]. It’s landing local [fish], keeping every dollar within the city. All of a sudden, you ascribe these civic values to fisheries that complement environmental values, and you engage people in the process.
Q. Are there enough sustainable producers to go around?
A. All too often — in every form of sustainability — the burden has been placed on the producer. As the consumer, our only responsibility is to buy sustainably produced products. But I think that ultimately sells short our
responsibility and shirks our own responsibility. It also sells short the opportunity we have to create real change. In America we eat 14.6 pounds of seafood per person per year. Over 95 percent of that is 10 species alone. Of that, 55 percent is shrimp, tuna, salmon. If you look at what the oceans can provide, it’s far more diverse. For too long we’ve only told the oceans what we’re willing to eat, and thus told fishermen what is going to be profitable, rather than asking of the oceans and their fishermen what they’re able and capable of providing.
Q. How can people discover some of these less-familiar species?
A. We walk into the store and say, “My recipe says cod.” You know what, cod fisheries are going through a pretty tough time right now in New England. We don’t have any cod, but we have some beautiful pollock, glistening, fresh, was in the water 18 hours ago. We even have a dogfish. This is an incredible opportunity for hard-hit fishermen to begin to utilize species that cook just like cod and taste even better.
Q. What other under-appreciated fish are found in New England waters?
A. From the Gulf of Maine itself we’ve got incredibly robust haddock stocks right now. Whiting, mackerel, are both fish that are at a fraction of their allowable quota. We’ve got a robust herring fishery. We’ve got Acadian red fish. We’ve got dogfish. We have hake and cusk and skate. All of these things are so abundant, so plentiful. Often they’re going to be a better quality because you’re dealing closer to the source. And you’re probably going to get a better price on them too.
Q. Is there a reason people aren’t trying these fish?
A. To begin with, people aren’t finding seafood. If you look at the total category of meat — beef, pork, chicken, and lamb — here we have 170 pounds per person per year. I think that a rise in understanding about the impact on our health from red meat in our diet [will help that change]. It’s a lot easier for me to get you to care about yourself than to get you to understand and care about the environment, when in fact the action is ultimately the same thing.
Q. You have a whole section on sea greens. Why do you like them?
A. Sea greens take absolutely zero input. They grow naturally and they thrive naturally in clean water environments where they’re taking up excess nutrients spun off by our world. I don’t call them a sustainable product. I call them a restorative product in that they actually increase the quality of the environment in which they’re grown.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.