Barton Seaver is an executive chef and an author of two books, For Cod & Country and Where There’s Smoke. Seaver has opened seven restaurants and gained numerous awards and acclaim for both his food and his environmentally conscious business practices. Barton left the restaurant industry to pursue his interests in sustainable food systems. He accepted a Fellowship with the Explorer Program at the National Geographic Society and is Director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard's School of Public Health, where he aims to highlight the important connection between environmental resiliency and human health while ensuring the profitability of local food producers.
Douglas Gayeton: There is one thing that exists in the distribution of seafood that doesn’t exist in the distribution of produce—and that’s rampant mislabeling. Consumers often think they’re buying one type of fish and actually getting something else. One study reported only fifteen percent of the red snapper people buy is actually red snapper. Who is to blame for this tremendous problem?
Barton Seaver: I think the blame for seafood fraud lies across the board. The bottom line is consumers aren’t educated enough to tell the difference between red snapper, mutton snapper, lane snapper, gray snapper, tilapia, catfish or grouper.
When consumers are willing to walk in and say, “Hey, what do you have that’s fresh and the best?” then you’re going to get the product that’s already there. You’re not going to place an irrational demand on the system to “create” cod or snapper. You’re going to get the best product that’s available. When we loosen up our taboos and preferences to include more species, the system is able to profit from multiple species. They don’t have to shove tilapia into the snapper box. They don’t have to fake pollock and tell you it’s cod. It creates a system based on supply and not demand, thus reducing the causes of fraud.
Douglas Gayeton: The industry talks about “traceability” when addressing seafood fraud. Can you explain what that is?
Barton Seaver: Traceability is a much-needed step in the right direction. The United States, Canada, Iceland and New Zealand have some great examples of well-managed fisheries. You have fisherman that are, by law, required to land seafood along with data that tells you when it was caught, how it was caught, where it was caught, by who and in what quantity. The problem is there are few countries with any regulation requiring this information to travel through the supply chain with that seafood.
[Catch Data] Information is seen as part of the management regime and not as part of the industry or consumer regime. This [catch data] is existing information that won’t burden fishermen because they’re already collecting it. There are mechanisms that can allow this information to traverse the entire supply chain, which benefits everybody involved. It benefits retailers and restaurants, and creates better inventory control. They know exactly what they’re getting, where it came from and how much of what is where. It’s not only helpful; it also reduces waste, which is a prime driver of unsustainable practices.
Douglas Gayeton: Can you explain the tragedy of the commons and how it relates to global fisheries?
Barton Seaver: Environmentalism tends to be seen as a metric of how humans have impacted ecosystems, much to the detriment of those ecosystems. By looking at environments in such a way, we tend to diminish how humans are impacted by ecosystems. In the 1968 seminal paper by Dr. Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons eloquently stated that men and women left to their own devices—acting rationally in their own self-interests— will ultimately bring about the ruin of a shared commons.
This is largely how we’ve perceived our actions. It’s always been the story of guilt and bad humans. When we talk about how humans are impacted by ecosystems, we make this story not about environments—sustaining or saving the oceans—but about sustaining humans. It offers us a window into the mechanisms of our relationships with our oceans and why we interact with them.
In looking through such a lens, we can better understand how human behavior needs to shift. Ultimately, there is no such thing as unsustainable seafood; there is only unsustainable demand for seafood. Sustainability is a human construct, just as health is a social construct. We can be no healthier than the environment. Our relationship with the ocean can never be healthier than our societal expectations of what we think we deserve to take from it.
We must look at both the environmental metrics and the impact. These enable innovation and technological advancements to ease the burden of a necessary relationship. We must fish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to fish better, or that we shouldn’t learn to use the fish we catch better.