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Virginia Aquarium Promotes Ocean Health Through Sensible Seafood Program

Over the last two decades, aquariums across the country have put more resources into educating the public about overfishing and protecting marine ecosystems. Many, including the Virginia Aquarium, are helping to spread the concept of sustainable seafood, influencing the choices made by consumers and restaurants. Catherine Komp has more in this edition of Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find out more about the Sensible Seafood program, including partner restaurants and what’s on the Mid-Atlantic Sensible Seafood pocket guide. Also, check out Virginia Currents (TV) and coverage of the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team.

Transcript:
The Virginia Aquarium’s Karen Burns says seafood was a big part of her childhood in New England:

Karen Burns: Digging for clams at my grandparents house in Rhode Island, we would go out and put our feet in the mud and get some clams and cook them.

Burns says she wants future generations to enjoy fresh seafood, but that means paying attention to the types of fish we’re eating and how they’re caught.

Burns: If you’re dredging the bottom of the ocean and you’re not only collecting the food fish that you want and destroying everything else, there’s not going to be habitat for them later so you really have to be attuned to what’s happening out there in the environment as well as just the population numbers.

Burns is Education Specialist for Bay and Ocean Literacy at the Virginia Aquarium, which launched their Sensible Seafood program in 2008. In partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, they produce a Mid-Atlantic pocket guide that puts local fish into three categories. Those on the green list are best choices, including farmed oysters and clams.

Burns: We also have Cobia that are found right here in our waters periodically throughout the year and of course croaker is a fish that is mostly recreational fisher, but a lot of our local restaurants do serve croaker and that is on the good list, and then things people eat and are familiar with are things like mahi mahi, farmed scallops and also rainbow trout, which is a farmed product right here in the US and in Virginia. The other big ones would be a couple species of tuna, big eye and yellowfin tuna that are available here in our local markets.

Fish appearing on the yellow list are good alternatives while those under red should be avoided. The pocket guide also indicates fish to limit or stay away from due to contaminants, like mercury. A primary goal of the the Sensible Seafood Program is convincing restaurants to sign up as partners and commit to serving at least one fish from the green list.

Burns: We hope that consumers will begin to recognize that those items that are designed on the menu are the best choices, and if consumers can drive the market and that’s what they’re buying then maybe some of the others will drop off menus and then pretty soon they’ll all be completely compliant with green choices.

Sixty-five area restaurants have signed up to the Virginia Aquarium program, and many of them are featured at the Sensible Seafood Fest. The annual Spring event helps raise awareness about local, sustainable fish populations and unique ways of they can be used in cooking.

Scott Simpson: Tonight I’m doing something very special...

As he prepares for the arrival of hundreds of people, Scott Simpson, executive chef of the Swan Terrace Grill, describes his creation made with Atlantic mahi.

Simpson: So I took the fresh mahi fillets, which was amazing, and we seasoned them lightly and seared it on the grill and turned into a ceviche.

With a focus on seasonal ingredients, Simpson also used local strawberries and cilantro in the ceviche, garnishing it a sea salt tortilla chip. Simpson says the Aquarium’s Sensible Seafood program influenced his decision to use as much sustainable seafood as possible at his restaurant.

Simpson: We use local rockfish, which is (sustainable), we also use fresh scallops, which are (sustainable), we use Graham & Rollins crab which is another item, virtually all the seafood we use, except for sometimes in banquets, would be 100% sustainable.

Other chefs are just as passionate about the role they can play in helping bring back threatened fish populations.

Greg Burroughs: We are doing dogfish…

More precisely Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, a small shark species, says Greg Burroughs with the Culinary Institute of Virginia.

Burroughs: We’re doing a cold, smoked dogfish with fresh May peas, use what’s around you, we got them from a farm in North Carolina, with tomatoes in a little potato cup.

Burroughs has been involved with the Sensible Seafood Fest since it started five years ago. He says it’s important to bring his students here, to show them the growing interest in protecting ocean ecosystems.

Burroughs: I’ve already cooked for 30 years, I’m not out there anymore, I can’t do it, I’m not ordering stuff, but I can maybe get them thinking right, to where they have a different view than we had. My generation it was, “We’re never going to run out, we’ll never run out of anything,” so fish, fish, fish, fish, fish and it’s not that way, so we’ve got to teach them to do it right.

Other chefs served local clams and oysters, seafood chowder, yellowfin tuna with lime and pickled ginger juice and seafood mousse served in savory tomato, spinach and squid ink cones. All of the fish served was sustainable. The Virginia Sensible Seafood Festival promotes sustainability in other ways too; guests were given glassware for beer and wine and a reusable spork, while vendors used compostable plates and bowls. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.