Food Tales

For World Oceans Day, Take a Deep Dive Into Seafood Sustainability

by California Chaney
A deconstructed chowder with sustainably sourced clams to celebrate World Oceans Day. All photos by Paul Blackmore.

Relais & Châteaux is supporting the United Nations' World Ocean Day through a campaign to raise awareness about the seasonality of seafood — something you probably never even considered when you're ordering your tuna entrée medium rare.

The great Jacques Cousteau said it best: "The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."

The ocean has transfixed us for as long as we've been around. And although it covers more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), we have so far mapped less than 10 percent of it. Crazy, right? We know more about the geography of outer space than we do about ocean floors, valleys, and canyons. It's especially amazing if you consider how reliant we are on this beautiful mystery: The ocean produces at least half of the planet's oxygen and absorbs a quarter of its carbon emissions. It is home to innumerable plant and animal species and provides more than three billion people with their livelihoods. Rainforests may be the lungs of the planet, but oceans are its heartbeat, influencing and regulating the climate and fueling its ecosystems.

The oceans have been working overtime for us — and because of us. If only they could keep themselves healthy. According to Live Ocean Foundation, because the ocean has trapped some 90 percent of the excess heat created by climate warming, its waters have acidified and its oxygen has been depleted, which in turn has caused sea levels to rise and marine ecosystems to be destroyed.

Every year, in an effort to raise awareness about this crisis, the United Nations deems June 8th World Oceans Day, highlighting human impact on the ocean and encouraging us to take better care of it. (In less diplomatic terms: Love your Mother, people!)

I grew up on the ocean in Southern California. I swam before I could walk, and the Pacific was my playground. I'm passionate about the health of the waters I love, so I jumped at the opportunity to visit Cape Cod to see (and taste) how Relais & Châteaux is championing the oceans through the intersection of sustainability, seafood, and fine dining. Throughout the month of June, all 580 independently owned luxury hotels and fine-dining restaurants in the Relais & Châteaux global portfolio are offering special experiences (meals, cooking classes, excursions) to raise awareness about seafood seasonality. I tasted a preview at a six-course dinner at Chatham Inn, the oldest operating inn on Cape Cod.

In recent decades, consumers have become more aware about the seasonality of produce. "Farm to table" has gone from trendy to typical; farmers markets have become more popular. We know not to expect juicy tomatoes in January, and we rejoice when ramps pop up during spring. (Okay, at least we know we should.) On the meat front, consumers know about the evils of hormone-pumped chickens; butchers have become hip.

Seafood has not gotten the same attention. We may know about the value of wild over farm-raised fish (though that isn't as straightforward as it seems or as good for the planet), but seafood seasonality is a concept most diners have probably never considered. As on land, life underwater revolves around natural cycles. Fish, crustaceans, and mollusks breed at certain times of the year unique to their species and habitat. Fish typically gather in schools to breed, leaving them vulnerable to mass fishing operations that are only too happy to take advantage of the large population gathering — a much easier way to cash in at the fish market. As a result, the breeding periods have come to be considered by the fishing industry as a species' "season." The commercial vessels then go on the prowl, resulting in the depletion of 90 percent of big fish populations and the destruction of half of all coral reefs, according to the United Nations.

When it comes to seafood, in season is not the same as sustainable. Ideally, the commercial industry would consider whether a given fish population is in a healthy stage of its breeding cycle for fishing and consumption — that's when it's sustainable — and alter their schedule accordingly. But since that's not likely to happen without considerable external pressure, consumers need to do their part. In other words, we shouldn't expect to find sea bass or swordfish at the fish market year-round. As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea, so let's not go for all of them at once.

In 2009, Relais & Châteaux partnered with Ethic Ocean, the non-profit bringing sustainable practices to the fishing industry, and committed to only serving sustainable seafood at its outlets. One successful pledge not to serve bluefin tuna helped prevent the collapse of the stock in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, protected the species during its critical breeding season, and allowed stocks to replenish.

"Overfishing, climate change, farming methods, consumer expectations, the distribution network, mislabeled species, and all other challenges make it difficult to source seafood responsibly – whether wild or farmed, marine or freshwater," says Lars Seifert, Chief Communications & Sustainability Officer at Relais & Châteaux. "The fishing and aquaculture industries are complex. A wild fish might be caught in one body of water, shipped across the planet for processing, pass a variety of intermediaries, and end up in yet another country's fish market in another corner of the world."

From left: Chef Isaac Olivo, chef Jason Bangerter, and pastry chef Whitney Stancil.
Chef Olivo prepares a deconstructed clam chowder.
Chefs Olivo and Bangerter work together in the kitchen.

I attended the World Oceans Day six-course feast created by chef Isaac Olivo of Chatham Inn's restaurant, Cuvee, and chef Jason Bangerter of Langdon Hall in Ontario. Ethic Ocean vetted and certified each course on the menu with their sustainable and ethical stamp of approval.

While most menus at a fine-dining restaurant include the ingredients, wine pairing, and price, this menu was far more complex. Each course described how Ethic Ocean certified the seafood, including such criteria as the species’ scientific name, the fishing or aquaculture techniques used, and the exact fishing zone. On the menu were bait-trapped Northwest Atlantic lobster, clams and line-caught black sea bass from the Cape Cod bay, and long-line-caught halibut from Maine.

Throughout the dinner, chef Bangerter spoke about how the state of the fish population is the most important criterion of sustainable seafood. If a stock is in good condition and if the fishery is well-managed (meaning population quotas are respected), then the capture of animals does not weaken the stock, whether that's during the breeding period or not. Seifert added that consumers often don't have the right information to make sustainable choices at the supermarket, the fishmonger's, or a restaurant. "Different species can be sold under the same name. For example, 'tuna' and 'bass' are common names for a multitude of species that can have widely varying sustainability ratings, especially depending on catch/farming method and origin. Guests often don’t receive information about these critically important criteria. This is why the chef’s role is so important."

An ocean-inspired dessert by pastry chef Stancil: passionfruit sorbet in a dark chocolate seashell.
Sea buckthorn sorbet with crispy lettuce chips and sea sponge.

Throughout the month of June, hundreds of Relais & Châteaux chefs will be showcasing and deep-diving into seafood seasonality — on their menus, in their cooking classes, in special events — to encourage consumers to become advocates for the oceans by starting with what's on their plate.

"The values of fine dining trickle down and create trends in the global food system," says Seifert, "We know it is our responsibility to future generations to ensure we innovate consciously."

So the next time you sit down for a round of oysters or sushi, or buy fish from your local fishmonger, take time to ask where the fish comes from, how it was caught, and how far it traveled before reaching you. Learning about the traceability of our food has a ripple effect in changing the way we care for our planet, the oceans, and ultimately, ourselves.

After all, at the end of the day, we're all just made up of salt, water, and air.

Click here for Relais & Châteaux's SEAsonality campaign and events and learn more about seafood seasonality in the video below.

Keep Exploring Ways to Support the Ocean

Go Under the Sea to Save It with Jean-Michel Cousteau
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