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What's 'Sustainable Seafood?' In South Florida, Chefs Say It's Not About Giving Up Fish

Seafood is a big part of South Florida’s culinary scene and its culture. Conch, snapper, mahi mahi, grouper, marlin and stone crab -- they have places in our hearts, as well as on our plates.

María Orantes prepares sea beans for a sustainable seafood dinner at Books & Books at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
María Orantes prepares sea beans for a sustainable seafood dinner at Books & Books at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami.

But many of these species are under threat. Overfishing decimated conch in the 1970s and 1980s; the population still hasn’t fully recovered in Florida. Ocean acidification because of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes it harder for clams and oysters to grow durable shells that protect them from predators. Pollution and contamination cause algal blooms and seagrass die-offs that harm the habitats of saltwater and freshwater species alike. And studies show rising ocean temperatures due to global warming are causing some fish species to migrate to colder water.

That’s why there’s an increasing push for responsible fishing in South Florida.

“We have to think about it sustainably, for the future, because if we don’t we won’t have fish,” said chef Allen Susser, the consulting chef for the Café at Books & Books in downtown Miami. He’s the organizer of an ongoing series of dinners emphasizing local produce and seafood, and he said the global sustainable seafood movement is especially important regionally.

“Here in Florida, here in Miami, the waterways are such a major part of our world,” he said. “We have the Caribbean Sea, we have the Gulf of Mexico, we have the coastline. We have commercial fishermen, pleasure fishermen."

“We can’t do without fish.”

So what makes seafood “sustainable?"

Sustainably sourced wahoo awaits cooking before the sustainable seafood dinner.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
Sustainably sourced wahoo awaits cooking before the sustainable seafood dinner.

The basic goal of the sustainable seafood movement is to make sure fish and other seafood aren’t taken from the ocean faster than they can reproduce. That means not overfishing and minimizing harm to ocean habitats.

Local chefs and national experts say sustainability requires accountability -- from when the fish is caught to when it’s consumed.

“The regular consumer, when it’s on your plate and after it’s been cooked, are you really going to know if that fish is sustainable or not? Truly, probably not,” said chef Paula DaSilva, head chef at Burlock Coast in Fort Lauderdale. DaSilva, a participant in several of Susser’s sustainable seafood dinners, said chefs and restaurateurs have an ethical responsibility to find seafood suppliers who follow regulations for catching or harvesting shrimp and shellfish.

“It’s really about knowing where you get your product from and having a good relationship with… a reputable vendor,” she said. “Visiting, if possible.”

Roasted grouper with yucca, peas and coconut curry stew prepared by Chef Paula DaSilva.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
Roasted grouper with yucca, peas and coconut curry stew prepared by Chef Paula DaSilva.

Consumers also play a crucial role in the sustainability movement, said Sheila Bowman, a program manager for the Seafood Watch initiative at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

“In Florida, where people are so connected to the oceans, one of the most important reasons to think about [sustainable seafood] is because … we’ve seen a lot of the species that we enjoy most start to be less available -- and in some cases, unavailable -- for us to enjoy,” she said.

The Seafood Watch program offers a guide where users can search by type of seafood and learn where it’s caught or farmed sustainably; the guide available is online, as an app and in print.

“We really try to speak to each region and the specific array of seafood it consumes,” she said.

Whether you’re a fish aficionado or can barely tell salmon from shrimp, Bowman said just asking questions about the seafood you’re eating can encourage responsible fishing and fish farming.

“Where is it from? How was it caught? Those kinds of questions will start to encourage the seafood supply chain to be much more forthright about those kinds of important details,” she said.

Chef José Mendín of the Pubbelly restaurants in Miami and Miami Beach preps sea beans to be served alongside sustainably sourced wahoo.
Credit Kate Stein
Chef José Mendín of the Pubbelly restaurants in Miami and Miami Beach preps sea beans to be served alongside sustainably sourced wahoo.

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Wahoo crudo with pickled sea beans, brown butter and sea froth prepared by Chef José Medín.
Kate Stein / WLRN
Wahoo crudo with pickled sea beans, brown butter and sea froth prepared by Chef José Medín.