Sustainable Seafood Restaurant Guide Takes on Michelin

A new guide ranks seafood restaurants not just on taste, but also on sustainability.

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You wouldn't eat a panda burger. If you saw rhino nuggets on a menu, you'd probably be appalled. But many fine-dining restaurants serve up endangered and threatened species, and you may have even eaten one without knowing it. It's not steakhouses or bistros flaunting their lack of environmental ethics, but rather, seafood and sushi restaurants. There, you'll find critically endangered species of tuna, eel and other fish on the menu - and that's what one British journalist is trying to change.

Charles Clover, a reporter for the Telegraph, is the author of The End of the Line, a book that details our bleak future if we continue to overfish our oceans. Many of the fish we eat today are on the verge of total collapse - some are already there - and experts in predict that if we do not modify our fishing practices, we will see the end of most seafood by 2048. A documentary based on Clover's book made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last year featuring scientists, fisherman and industry whistleblowers. It also featured Clover's lengthy quest to talk to the restaurateurs of upscale sushi chain Nobu about the endangered bluefin tuna they serve at their restaurants worldwide.

A year later, Clover has launched Fish2Fork, a sustainable seafood dining guide that rates restaurants not just on their food, but on the environmental ethics of their menus. Clover has ranked a limited sample of top seafood restaurants in the U.S. and the U.K. on factors that include the species and sourcing of their food, their transparency, and their sustainability policy, or lack thereof. Restaurants were rated on a scale of red and blue fish, with five blue fish representing the highest score, and five red fish representing the worst score.

"In America, you have some very good seafood guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which have been saying for years, 'These are good fish, these are being exploited,'" said Clover. "But no one's making those connections. We thought the next stage was to make those connections for people."

Though most Americans get their fish from a freezer case at the grocery store, Clover has good reason to target the upscale eateries of London, Los Angeles and New York first.

"You don't really walk into the supermarket and buy an endangered species; you buy it in a restaurant." said Clover, "High end eateries are the demand, and if you want to close down the demand, you need to talk directly to the white tablecloth restaurants."

Raising awareness in fancy restaurants happens to be Clover's expertise. After his book and documentary came out, British chef Jamie Oliver stopped using bluefin, and removed references to it from his books. Nobu has since amended their menu to include a note that bluefin tuna is a threatened species, but has not removed it from the menu.

"Some [chefs] live in this strange world where they find it completely routine and normal to serve up endangered species in their restaurants without any sort of ethical twinges about it," said Clover. "It is extraordinary that we have an iconic restaurant, so fashionable and so famous, and owned by a Hollywood mega star - Robert DiNiro - and it's not making any of the ethical environmental decisions it's supposed to make."

But high-end celebrity haunts aren't the only restaurants that earned five red fish on Fish2Fork. Affordable chain McCormick and Schmick's earned one of the lowest scores as well, for serving species like the overfished Chilean sea bass and Atlantic cod, and for not listing the origin of many of their fish. The American guide is limited in its scope right now, but Clover said he plans to expand.

Other than Nobu, some of the least sustainable seafood restaurants in America, according to Fish2Fork, are Mori Sushi in Los Angeles, Yellowtail Sushi in Las Vegas, and Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington. No restaurant got a perfect score, but the most sustainable eatery surveyed earned 4.5 blue fish - Bamboo Sushi in Portland. Ray's Boathouse in Seattle, Blue Ridge in Washington, and Sea Rocket Bistro in San Diego earned Clover's praise, as well.

Seafood lovers who wish to eat more sustainably can pick up any of several available pocket guides from organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. A few good rules of thumb to remember, said Clover, is to always avoid bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, Atlantic halibut, European eel, and any species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List. The smaller the fish, the more sustainable it is, and often, the healthier it is for you - so give those sardines a try.

"Fish doesn't taste as good if you know it's not sustainable," said Clover.  "It's something that happens in your head. You think, 'I know I'm not supposed to be eating this.'"

Now that the guide is out, Clover expects to go head-to-head with some of the world's most prestigious dining guides. It's already a strategy that's worked in the U.K., and he aims to change the way that dining guides evaluate their restaurants - not just on taste and quality, but also on their impact.

"We've found in the U.K. that some of the biggest and finest restaurants with Michelin stars, when we gave them a bad rating, were the first to come back and say, 'Look, we can't have this.' So they went to their suppliers to get more sustainable seafood in their restaurants," said Clover.

"The French do not do this. They do not do sustainability on the menu, online, or anywhere, and at some point, we are going to go head-to-head with the Michelin," said Clover. "Zagat's taking an interest in sustainability, but I don't see Michelin catching up with the modern world. One of the key definitions of food today is whether or not it is sustainable. If you are running a restaurant guide about the world's highest-quality restaurants, why the hell isn't there any mention of that in your guide, online, or anywhere? This is a complacent system for rating restaurants. Guy Michelin appears not to be doing his job of assessing quality, so we're going to do it for him. I'm afraid this may be confrontational, but it's true."

Fighting words from a man who's fighting to keep fish on our plates for centuries to come - one bite at a time.