By Jon Bowermaster | December 13, 2012 | Lifestyle
Rick Moonen wrote the book on sustainable seafood.
Much of Las Vegas’s seafood hails from California, including San Francisco Bay.
Outspoken seafood supporters Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.
Solomon Islanders harvesting clams from sustainable underwater farms.
At 270 miles from the Pacific and in the heart of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas is perhaps the last place in the world that might come to mind when pondering the health of the ocean and its various fisheries. Yet we are home to some of the best seafood restaurants in the world, created and run by some of today’s most celebrated chefs. Is there a disconnect, or does this somehow make perfect sense?
With 70 percent of all seafood in the United States consumed in restaurants, chefs like Border Grill’s Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken and RM Seafood’s Rick Moonen are among the nation’s leaders in promoting ocean health by encouraging the use of sustainable seafood, a trend among savvy and eco-conscious restaurant owners. That they reach such a vast and wide range of customers flooding into Vegas from all over the world suggests their influences—in this case buying and encouraging epicureans to choose seafood that is not at risk—are huge.
Feniger and Milliken are happy to take a leadership role in trying to change the culture. “It’s our responsibility as chefs to put items on our menu that follow seafood watch lists such as the one from Monterey Bay Aquarium,” Feniger says. “This way, when customers come in to Border Grill and try dishes from the list, they begin to love fish that are not endangered. In addition, whenever we go on television and radio, we talk about why we are concerned in a simple, straightforward way.”
For Moonen, who has been promoting sustainable seafood in restaurant kitchens for years, the word sustainable itself is threatened. “I take sustainability very seriously, and it has been the single-subject focus of my entire career,” Moonen says. “When I was approached to support the ‘Give Swordfish a Break’ campaign as a chef in New York, I did, because I had noticed the reduction in size and quality of the swordfish I was purchasing. From there, I learned about by-catch, the fact that other species get caught up in the nets and are discarded by the tons. So I wanted to do what I could to bring attention to this amazing waste of food and try to reduce it.”
As Las Vegas chefs strive to do their part on the frontlines, a worldwide study is being done behind the scenes, combining some of the brightest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds to try to stem the tides of abuse. It should come as no surprise to anyone that during the past century man has placed a tremendous strain on the ocean, as we carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think that the ocean has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, and 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and somehow miraculously heal itself, all while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicines.
The study in question, the Ocean Health Index, is being conducted in 171 “exclusive economic zones” surrounding countries with ocean coastlines. Data is collected worldwide and analyzed using different criteria, including coastal protection, biodiversity, and tourism and recreation, and each country is then given an overall rating—between 1 and 100—on how it is measuring up. The goal is to encourage countries, regions, and industries to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.
The initial Ocean Health Index is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, the New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and added up the results.
The highest score was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific, with 86; the lowest, 36, went to the African nation of Sierra Leone. The average score was 60, or as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s vice president and chief scientist for oceans and one of the originators of the index, put it, a “D.” The US scored 63 points, tying it for 26th place on the list. While our country scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food provision, clean water, and tourism.
The group that dreamed up the index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policymakers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess and fix their respective seascapes. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper introducing it in Nature. He says the response to the research has already been remarkably positive. “You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” Halpern says. “It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems, but it will help in the process of trying to fix things.”
While admitting he was surprised by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise them on how they can improve their nation’s score.
The ratings are not relevant only to coastal dwellers; anyone who escapes to the beach, worries about the planet’s weather patterns or, like many Las Vegans, enjoys eating fish and seafood, must be concerned about the ocean’s health.
Travel + Leisure recently included RM Seafood on a list of 20 best seafood restaurants in the US. Owner/chef Moonen worries that the seafood we consume in the US is very narrow, that the so-called Big Five (salmon, tuna, cod, snapper, bass) are gravely endangered due to overfishing. “I’m here to tell everyone that chefs can make a difference by offering a wider variety of seafood on their menus,” he says. Vegas visitors who might not have previously been exposed to fish variety must rely on the chefs to goad them into being more adventurous. “Don’t just offer the top names, like tuna,” Moonen says. “Try some of the lesser-known species, like cobia [also known as black kingfish].”
An educated consumer is Moonen’s—and the oceans’—best customer. “Consumers can also make a difference,” he says, “both at restaurants by demanding a wider, more sustainable variety of options, and at the supermarket. How do we know what’s sustainable? Get to know and love Seafood Watch.”
The Seafood Watch rating system was developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California (whose executive director, Julie Packard, is a member of OHI’s Advisory Committee). Santa Monica Seafood, the largest distributor of fish and seafood in the Southwest, supplies major players in the Vegas market such as Encore and Mandalay Bay. Santa Monica utilizes Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch in its sales and distribution, making it easier for chefs to monitor the sustainability of the products they are buying and serving. “Every one of our inventory items is coded with Monterey Bay’s ranking system,” says marketing manager Mary Smith. “On a customer’s invoice, we assign a numerical ranking to each product: green is a ranking of four, yellow is three, blue two, and then red is one point. We put those numbers together for what we call a sustainability GPA. Then we work with them so that in the future they may change from ordering something red to something yellow to raise their GPA accordingly. The goal is to give the chef a quantifiable number that they can work to raise.” Milliken received sustainability education at the Aquarium, when she and Feniger attended one of the first Seafood Watch conferences there in 2005. “They brought together scientists, oceanographers, marine biologists— and chefs,” she says, “and put us all together in a room, where we had a conference to exchange ideas. It was alarming. We learned about the state of the oceans and overfishing, and the likelihood that our grandchildren won’t have anywhere near the variety of seafood we enjoy.”
Marine biologist Dr. Sebastian Troëng, vice president of marine conservation at Conservation International, thinks the Ocean Health Index offers the best chance for easing these concerns because of one straightforward reason: It encourages healthy rivalry. “There is nothing like good old-fashioned competition between neighboring countries to encourage actions to improve ocean health,” he says. “I have spoken to top government officials who are interested in the Ocean Health Index’s approach and results, so there is definitely appetite for the index and its scores.”
Dr. Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this rating mechanism. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans,” he says. “Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”
He is hopeful that the index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits measuring direct change to come from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago,” Stone says. “That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”
Smith agrees that there is cause for concern, but she is cheered by the fact that with information available regarding the state of the ocean, the average person can now be a wiser and more thoughtful consumer. This, in turn, causes business and government to work to improve their relationship with the seas. “A lot of business groups have been confronting environmental issues like overfishing, rising sea temperatures, and ocean acidification during the past 15 years,” Smith says. “There has been a lot of bridge-building going on. In some ways, this has helped make us stewards of the health of the oceans because it will help to sustain our businesses.” Savvy, international consumers keeping business owners on their toes about the environment? We hope tourist-luring Las Vegas leaders are listening.
photography by justin sullivan/getty images; photography by Roni Fields (moonen); justin sullivan/getty images (harbor); courtesy of border grill (milliken and feniger)