Bay Journal

Aquarium program offers food for thought on eating sustainably

It’s hoped that message of eating local fish species will catch on

  • By Rona Kobell on May 03, 2016
T. J. Tate represented the interests of fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico before coming to the National Aquarium in Baltimore to promote local fish.  (Dave Harp)

For decades, the National Aquarium has entertained millions of visitors while also teaching them about the need to conserve aquatic resources. The Baltimore institution has rescued marine animals off the coast of Ocean City, built floating wetlands to help clean the Inner Harbor’s water and featured Chesapeake Bay creatures in its tanks and exhibits.

But the aquarium was nearly silent on the subject of seafood consumption. The dark, serpentine halls told the story of precious resources being overfished. But that story didn’t have an ending — a solution for how to stem the decline. It had no programs to guide visitors on where to buy local fish caught sustainably, or how a customer could even understand what that meant.

That’s starting to change. A year ago, the aquarium hired its first director of sustainable seafood: T. J. Tate, who built a sustainable seafood program in the Gulf of Mexico. Tate is bringing together chefs, watermen and others in the seafood industry to talk about catching, raising, buying and eating locally caught fish, crustaceans and shellfish.

It is increasingly part of the story told by aquariums everywhere, at a time when overfishing is rampant worldwide while customers often overlook local products. Even fish that customers think is sustainable comes from far away — farm-raised salmon from Norway, or wild varieties from Alaska — and those distances have ramifications for air and water quality, too.  Visitors often ask what they should eat, and the aquarium wanted to find an engaging way to guide them.

“Telling the local seafood story in an integrated fashion — I mean the sustainable aquaculture supply and wild supply — is one of the most important things we can do to get people connected to oceans and the Bay,” said Eric Schwaab, who hired Tate when he was chief conservation officer at the aquarium. “There’s no better place to do that than Baltimore.”

Schwaab, who came to the aquarium after serving as assistant director for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saw the gap in the aquarium’s fish story and figured Tate was tailor-made to fill it.

She had been executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. She represented the interests of commercial fishermen who were struggling with new, tougher catch limits on red snapper and grouper when the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill jeopardized the industry. Suddenly, no one wanted to eat Gulf seafood, no matter who caught it or how.

Tate established Gulf Wild, a program that let consumers trace a tag on a fish to find out who caught it, where it was caught and with what type of gear. Gulf Wild fish are available nationwide, but the Whole Foods and Wegmans grocery chains are major purveyors. One of the first businesses to join her Gulf Wild program has his own reality TV show on the National Geographic channel. It’s called Big Fish Texas, and focuses on Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston.

As Tate sees it, the challenge here is not repairing the reputation of Chesapeake Bay seafood after a disaster. It’s creating one in the first place.

“There was a need. There was this big black hole here in the Chesapeake,” Tate said. “We’re importing 91 percent of our seafood, and yet, we want to support our local economies. We need to tell people how. I still hear people say, ‘We’re known for our blue crabs, but we’re really not sure if we should eat them or not.’ ”

In California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has built a national reputation as an information clearinghouse on sustainable seafood. Its Seafood Watch app and website tell consumers which fish are safe to eat, where to get them and even how to cook them.

Tate is not looking to become the Monterey Bay of the East. The National Aquarium works with its West Coast counterpart to promote sustainable fishing and farming, marketing and consumption.

What she wants to do is to help the Chesapeake Bay fishermen and farmers who raise seafood cooperate better with the restaurants and stores that might want to sell it. And she wants to engage consumers in demanding it.

Called Seafood Smart, the program is still taking shape, but Tate said that she hopes it will becomes a suite of tools that will bring consumers closer to their fishermen. She spends a lot of her time talking to distributors, oyster farmers, local market owners and chefs.

Tate helped to put the program on the map last fall at the East Coast Seafood Forum, which drew hundreds of fishermen, seafood dealers, chefs, conservation advocates and local food enthusiasts to the exhibit space at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Monterey Bay joined the forum, which focused on how to make traceability a standard in fishery policy.

“Partnering on this event advanced our ability to build connections and collaborative solutions with Chesapeake Bay watermen and other regional seafood industry leaders,” said Ryan Bigelow, who works on Monterey Bay’s program.

In Baltimore, Tate recently shared a smaller stage with Tony Conrad, a commercial fisherman and restaurateur, and Lee Carrion, who runs a soft-shell crab business with her waterman partner. Moderating the panel was Spike Gjerde, one of the city’s leading champions of local foods and the recent winner of a James Beard award, the first local chef to capture the culinary prize.

Gjerde told how more than a decade ago, he decided to put only local crab cakes on his menu. A prominent delegation of city leaders came in, asked for the crab cakes, and walked out when Gjerde’s staff explained they weren’t being served because locally caught crabmeat wasn’t available. Then, consumers expected a crab cake for all seasons, whether winter or spring, and didn’t necessarily care if it was frozen or from Venezuela. Now, his customers appreciate that devotion. Woodberry Kitchen, his flagship restaurant, consistently makes the lists of the region’s best restaurants and has been featured in national magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit for its farm-to-table cuisine.

Gjerde, though, said he’s concerned about the availability of local seafood. Crabs fluctuate with the weather and habitat conditions. Oysters were scarce until recently, when favorable conditions and a growing aquaculture industry boosted supply in both Maryland and Virginia. Finfish can still be hard to source, though.

“It’s not easy to get great fish and shellfish from the Bay anymore, and that causes me great concern as a chef,” he said.

The J. S. Plank and D. M. DiCarlo Family Foundation and the urban development company, War Horse LLC, provided startup funding for Tate’s program. They are both affiliated with former Under Armour executive Scott Plank, a Baltimore real estate developer with a focus on sustainability.

Tate’s work is building on an effort that Steve Vilnit started when he was the seafood marketing manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In his nearly five years with the state, the affable young seafood manager got dozens of restaurants to serve Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast fish that chefs never knew they could get. Yellow perch landed on menus in the early spring; spiny dogfish came a few months later. Vilnit also established the True Blue program to recognize restaurants that spent the extra money to serve Maryland crabmeat at least 75 percent of the time.

Vilnit now handles marketing and business at J. J. McDonnell and Co., a seafood distributor in Jessup, MD, that is doing what he calls a “trace register.” For every fish it sells, the company enters into a database who caught the fish, where it was caught, and with what gear type. They do it to ensure their large customers that the food is sourced as it’s supposed to be. Though the information is not yet readily available to the home cook, Vilnit said it likely will be one day.

The push for such transparency has increased, Vilnit said, with recent news reports about slave labor used in Asian fisheries and health and safety concerns about aquaculture there.

“Sustainability is murky, but traceability is very black and white,” Vilnit said. “I think that’s why more people will grab on to traceability. They’ll say, ‘I can vote with my fork.’ When you have traceability, it makes it easier to tell a story about the fish.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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A Documentary Inspired by William W. Warner’s 1976 Exploration of Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay.
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