Last month we presented the results of an UGSRP study on how chefs learn and feel about the sustainability levels of wild and farm raised fisheries at the International Conference on Culinary Arts and Sciences in Lyon, France. The presentation was well received, and we’d like to share some key points of our findings with our greater industry-based audience.
Before we get into the specific results of our study, we’d like to give a bit of a refresher on the state of our fisheries, something that we hope will help set the context to our research.
Rising fish consumption and demand is increasingly putting pressure on natural fish stocks, and threatening the health of ocean environments. In the past few decades, marine fish stocks have been steadily declining and, as of 2016, 90% of global fish stocks were considered to be either fished at full capacity, or overfished at biologically unsustainable levels. In addition, complex environmental stressors such as water pollution, habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change exacerbate the vulnerability of fish stocks. Assuming that no action is taken to improve current practices and conditions, it is projected that all global fish stocks will collapse by 2048, with little to no seafood left to harvest for human consumption.
As wild capture fisheries face stagnating production and depleted fish stocks, aquaculture or “fish farming” has emerged as a major alternative to producing a wide variety of seafood. Aquaculture describes the raising, cultivating, and harvesting of aquatic animals and plants, usually within enclosed and controlled environments such as tanks, cages, flow-through systems, and small ponds. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world and has emerged as an important alternative to producing nutritious and affordable fish for human consumption as wild capture fisheries approach their limits. By 2014 aquaculture had surpassed wild capture fisheries in its contribution to fish for human consumption, and it is suggested that by the year 2030 aquaculture will account for 62% of fish consumed.
However, aquaculture practices have their own set of limitations and potential ecological implications. Poorly managed practices have raised concerns about its potential negative impacts on wild fish populations and ecological systems. Aquaculture can potentially pollute water systems, put pressure on wild-fish stocks, introduce disease or invasive species into wild populations, and lead to destruction of sensitive habitats. Open aquaculture production systems, such as open net pens or cages, especially pose high risks to the environment as their inputs and outputs are continuously exchanged with the surrounding water and natural environment.
We surveyed 125 chefs from restaurants across Canada. Chefs told us they are faced with increasing amounts of information about the sustainability of the food they purchase. In our study we looked at the sources where chefs get information about sustainable seafood issues, including aquaculture practices and wild catch methods. We also touch on the levels of confidence that chefs have in the various fishery methods, and implications for purchasing and menu decisions.
Chefs believe seafood certification bodies provide accurate information
Findings reveal that chefs obtain information about aquaculture from many sources but have most confidence in information they receive from certification bodies, particularly Ocean Wise. This is contradictory to older studies that showed chefs count on suppliers for this type of information. We think the increased awareness of seafood fraud may be a reason for this as chefs look to credible sources with the most science behind them.
Results also suggest that while chefs have some general knowledge about farm raised fish, many have not been educated on the details, or criteria that determine the ‘sustainability’ of these choices. This chart shows that chefs seem to have greater confidence in the final product (species) of fish and the issue of ‘sustainability’ with fisheries than they do about the criteria (i.e., conversion rates) that determine whether a fishery is sustainable.
Confusion among chefs
Chefs indicated that they are often confused by what they perceive as contradictory information about the sustainability of species and products. Anecdotally, we have heard, and seen, that there seems to be strong advocacy for both wild-caught and farm-raised fisheries. Advocates seem to have polarizing views and support one of these methods or the other. Chefs may not know that fisheries with these harvesting methods have varying levels of ‘sustainability, dependent on many criteria.
Feelings towards farmed fish are changing
We found that chefs are feeling better about purchasing and serving farm raised-fish, but they still feel that consumers prefer wild-caught which may impact some menu decisions. Our survey found that chefs were slightly more favorable to the flavor and texture of wild caught fish. This was backed up with follow up interviews with several chefs.
It seems that while the ‘stigma’ of farm-raised fish may be lifting for chefs, they don’t believe it has for their guests. This thought is supported by the chart below which indicates chefs are more likely to share sourcing information on their menu if the fish is wild-caught versus farm raised.
Certification bodies should learn from Ocean Wise
The Ocean Wise model has been proven to work well. Key to the success of this recommendation body is the educational component they have used in the past including a chef Ambassador program and the production of workshops for chefs. Our research shows that this is a unique approach and other such certification bodies may want to consider these sorts of educational programs for chefs.
The aquaculture industry needs to create programming for chefs
As a whole, the aquaculture industry seems to lack any form of programming geared towards chefs. We recommend the industry provide educational opportunities for chefs, both virtual and in person.
Chefs need to become advocates of farm-raised fish
Our results show that chefs are less likely to post on menus that a fish is farm raised. We suggest that chefs embrace sustainable farm-raised fisheries that they believe in, by educating and promoting their benefits to both staff and customers. Farm-raised fish will continue to grow as a source of fish protein with innovation helping to mitigate its negative impact on the environment. Chefs have an opportunity as food leaders to educate consumers on the sustainable benefits of farm-raised fish. To advocate and reduce the stigma around farm-raised fish chefs need to be well educated and confident in their own knowledge about the difference between the two production methods and how sustainable they are. Chefs can help make consumers aware of the value of eating farm-raised fish as it reduces the potential for wild fish stocks to become depleted.