The National Aquarium hosted the first annual East Coast Sustainable Seafood Forum yesterday, and it began quite the conversation about how the Chesapeake Bay region could harness its resources and better promote sustainable products.

The aquarium has been developing a new seafood initiative, called Seafood Smart, that will help consumers make smart choices about which products to buy.  Why should consumers buy local seafood when the Asian and Canadian imports cost half as much? Do customers know how long the fish they are buying has been traveling or sitting on ice verses the fresh catch from a few hours ago? Are wholesalers and distributors and retailers doing their part to inform consumers?

Those where the sorts of questions the forum attempted to answer. Sustainable seafood from the Chesapeake Bay of course includes oysters, which are farm-raised in many places now. But it can also include fish farms of black bass, soft-shell peelers managed in pens and sustainably caught yellow perch and striped bass from the wild.

Recently, the aquarium hired Tj Tate, who was the director of sustainability for Gulf Wild, a nonprofit in the Gulf of Mexico that successfully branded products from the Gulf all over the country. The National Aquarium is working with Monterey Bay’s aquarium to develop a program similar to Monterey’s Seafood Watch, which educates the public about sustainable seafood.

Tate helped assemble an all-star cast of sustainable seafood stars: Rick Moonen, who owns RM Seafood in New York and Las Vegas; Barton Seaver, a chef, Harvard professor and National Geographic fellow; Spike Gjerde, who owns Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor restaurant, and Artifact Coffee; and Robert Rheault, longtime oyster farmer and executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
They mingled with a dozen or so other speakers and invited guests, who included scientists, watermen, chefs, wholsalers and marketers.

They talked about how to help consumers trace the origins of their seafood, how they make the best decisions about what to buy and how to encourage more chefs and stores to carry local products.
Travis Todd of Ocean Odyssey offered a concise assessment of how chefs, for example, could promote sustainability: “Spend money on products from the area, and make them super-tasty.”

It’s more complicated than that, but many in the group - among them Gjerde of Woodberry, John Shields of Gertrude’s and Net Atwater of Atwater’s - are already doing that. The challenge will be to reach those who weren’t in the room, and that might be a tough one.