Here's how complicated shopping for so-called sustainable sea food has become for ordinary consumer and chef alike: There's an app for that.
One that someone like Jesse Sandlin, who has both professional and personal passion for environmentally responsible foods, feels the need to plug into.
The Baltimore chef and former "Top Chef" contestant prepared Maryland farm-raised shrimp at a sustainable seafood dinner earlier this month at the National Aquarium. Yet even Sandlin can feel like she's at sea when it comes to picking fish.
Chilean sea bass — she knows that one: avoid at all costs. But clams? Mackerel? Are those sustainable? She's not so sure.
So she often turns to an iPhone application from Seafood Watch, a program of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. The application allows her to see the program's latest recommendations for which fish should be on or off the table.
"I kind of have an idea just from working in the industry so long, but I have the app on my phone," she said. "If there's something I'm not sure about, I'll definitely look at the app and make sure I'm making the right choices."
But even with that high-tech help, sorting "good" seafood from "bad" is no easy task.
Gone are the days when the fastidious seafood eater need only consider if the month had an "r" in it. With concern growing about the impact certain fishing and fish-farming practices are having on the environment and human health, many consumers are weighing a host of other factors: Is the fish overfished or abundant? Imported or domestic? Caught by hook or net? Wild or farmed?
Even when they know what they want, consumers and food-industry professionals are often in the dark about just what it is they're buying. In a well-known expose, the New York Times in 2005 tested "wild" salmon sold at New York retailers and found most of it was farm-raised, something it could tell because the farm-raised variety contains artificial pigments.
"It's not the most transparent business in the world," said Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen.
Gjerde has resorted to hiring a full-time fish sourcer for his restaurant. For more than a year, former fisherman Vernon Lingenfelter has visited fish markets from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod on Gjerde's behalf.
"Before we met Vernon, we were really rudderless," said Gjerde, who has taken to subscribing to National Fisherman magazine to get a better understanding of the industry.
This from a man who has had no trouble sourcing raw-milk artisan cheeses from Easton or heirloom Mangalitsa pork from New Jersey. Finding a reliable local supplier of organic produce, cheeses or meats is much easier than nailing down a source for fish because the health of the fish population, fishing quotas and other factors change like the tides.
"It's one of the last truly wild products you'll find in a restaurant," Gjerde said. "What I'd hate to see is a wild salmon or trout become like a truffle, where it's so rare."
Gjerde has his own criteria for "good" fish that does not jibe completely with Sea Food Watch's. Sea Food Watch lists Alaskan wild salmon as one of its "Best Choices," for instance. But Gjerde doesn't serve it because it comes from so far away; Woodberry specializes in local foods.
At the same time, Gjerde proudly serves farm-raised trout from West Virginia. Seafood Watch considers farmed trout a "Best Choice," but some environmental groups frown on farmed fish as a rule because many fish-farming operations destroy water quality and use drugs in feed.
Gjerde and Lingenfelter visited the West Virginia trout farm and were satisfied that it used quality feed and was not harming the environment before buying the fish, Gjerde said. Like an angler who wants to keep a secret fishing hole to himself, Lingenfelter shared few details about how he finds his fish with this reporter. "I'm three-quarters investigator," he said.
(Going to that sort of trouble has helped Woodberry Kitchen gain recognition as one of Baltimore's "most sustainable restaurants," according to Baltimore Green Works, which is putting on a sustainable food program Friday as part of Baltimore Green Week. Participants will tour Woodberry, Chameleon Café, Clementine, Red Canoe and Gertrude's restaurants, and hear from chefs and their farmer-suppliers about the challenges of serving sustainable foods.)
For individual consumers who can't afford to personal seafood shoppers, making the right choices, and making sure they get what they order, can be even trickier.
"The seafood industry has always had this fish-du-jour, catch-of-the-day approach," said Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager at Seafood Watch.. "My husband used to work at a restaurant in Chicago and they sold half a dozen white fish as scrod."
The waiter at the local crab house or clerk at the average supermarket fish counter probably can't shed too much light on the sustainability of their products. One exception is at Whole Foods, which places color-coded stickers on signs in the fish case, indicating how the fish is rated by the Blue Ocean Institute. A green sticker means the fish is relatively abundant and caught in a way that causes little environmental damage. Yellow means serious problems exist with abundance or fishing methods. A red sticker means problems with that fish are even worse.
One day last week, the fish case in the Harbor East Whole Foods stocked Chilean sea bass that, unlike the red-flagged variety, hailed from what the Environmental Defense Fund describes as a "small, legal and well-managed toothfish fishery in the South Georgia islands near Antarctica." It was recently certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Some might question the sustainability of selling Antarctic fish in Baltimore. And then there's the matter of price. It cost $21.99 a pound.
Alongside that green-stickered sea bass sat plenty of fish with warning stickers, such as wild U.S. cod (red) and wild Vietnamese yellow fin tuna (yellow). Their presence in Whole Foods may surprise some customers given that the retailer so prides itself on responsible foods that it does not allow anything with artificial colorings, high-fructose corn syrup or bovine-growth hormones on its shelves.
Teddy Williams, manager of the fish department at that store, said Whole Foods makes it easy for customers who care about where their seafood comes from to make a good choice. But the store still wants to cater to customers who don't.
"Some people just want a piece of fish," Williams said.
Bowman, of Sea Food Watch, said consumers have to seek out retailers they can trust – and face the fact that good seafood is probably not cheap seafood. She referred to reports in The New York Times and elsewhere about Chinese farmed fish and shrimp being raised in toxic waters, kept alive only with carcinogenic veterinary drugs and pesticides.
"I still see all-you-can-eat shrimp nights, so I think there are a lot of people who don't understand that the only way all-you-can-eat-shrimp is being raised is – if you saw it – you wouldn't want to eat it."
If you go
As part of Baltimore Green Week, Baltimore Green Works will put on a sustainable foods program Friday. For $25, participants get to tour and sample foods at some of the city's "most sustainable" restaurants: Chameleon Café, Clementine, Red Canoe, Gertrude's and Woodberry Kitchen. The tour begins at 11:45 a.m. at Civic Works' Real Food Farms, located by the Lake Clifton High School Campus in Clifton Park. Reservations required. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410.952.0334.