Seven seafood purveyors seeking solutions for the ocean's issues
By Simon Houpt
The Globe and Mail
John Bil cares about the fate of the planet. But he would like it very much if people stopped using the word "sustainable" to talk about seafood.
"What are we trying to sustain?" asks Bil, the respected proprietor of Toronto's laid-back fish shop and restaurant, Honest Weight. "Are we trying to sustain the food system we've established? Are we trying to sustain the Earth itself? Trying to make our guilt less?"
It's time, he says, for the conversation to broaden out, to include all of the other thorny issues around seafood, from appalling labour conditions to toxic farming environments. "Sustainable," he says "has served its purpose and we have to move on. It's like, one day we took lead out of gasoline, but that didn't stop cars being [bad]. We need to say, 'Okay, we've broached the subject of sustainability, which wasn't even broached 10 or 15 years ago. Awesome!' "
His knowledge of the industry is built on decades of experience, from oyster farming and shucking (with award-winning speed) to owning his own seafood shack in Malpeque Bay, PEI. And he's happy to talk about the issues with anyone who walks into Honest Weight.
"If we source our fish at the cheapest price point from the furthest-flung regions of the world, we are no longer employing people in our community or people that respect the same environmental concerns," he suggests. "It's complicated to purchase food these days, if you really want to think about it, right? I mean, it's easy to go buy food, but it's complicated if you want to be thoughtful about it. So I think what I like to do is engage people in this really complicated conversation."
Bil is one of The Globe's Food 53, the influential players we're spotlighting this summer who help shape what the country eats. Here's how, in words and deeds, six other Canadians are contributing to the discussion about "sustainable" seafood.
Steve Johansen, Organic Ocean, Vancouver
For more than a decade now, Johansen and his fellow independent fishermen at Organic Ocean have been supplying restaurants across the country with glistening, sustainably caught salmon, halibut, ling cod and other local species, and delivering them directly to chefs. He spreads the word through events such as the Spot Prawn Festival, a wildly popular bacchanal celebrating (and eating) the local species, most of which used to be exported to Asia. In the winter months, he travels the country, evangelizing about British Columbia's bounty.
Johansen acknowledges that one of the objections to seafood, which is often flown thousands of miles inland to markets such as Toronto and Montreal, is the large carbon footprint. He also mentions so-called "slave shrimp," a shadowy industry in Thailand using forced labour, which the Associated Press revealed last year in a series of explosive reports.
"The chefs and the people of Toronto have two choices," he says. "They can order a big, fat, beautiful wild spot prawn from Vancouver that's good for you; and that's, what, 3,000 miles? Or they can do what is basically still the norm, unfortunately, and that is eat farmed Asian tiger prawns – which you'll find in every restaurant from here to Timbuktu – from 10,000 or 12,000 miles away, that are farmed unsustainably."
Mike McDermid, The Fish Counter, Vancouver
While overseeing the Vancouver Aquarium's certification program Ocean Wise, Mike McDermid kept running into retailers who said sustainable seafood could never be a viable business for them. So, a few years ago, he set out to prove them wrong.
He conceived of an alternative economic model, opening a seafood counter that also serves cooked food, which allows him to incorporate scraps, bones and off cuts in sauces and chowders. "There's a big trend in the restaurant scene of snout-to-tail, but nobody's talking about that with seafood," he says
If you walk into The Fish Counter, you'll immediately notice that it doesn't have the usual stacks of fish – McDermid said most fishmongers are trained to put "mounds and mounds of fillets" in their display cases to convey abundance. "Every fish store you walk into, anywhere in the world, smells like fish. Good fish doesn't smell like fish," he says. Stacking a display case with more fish than can be sold before it spoils results in an amount of waste he finds "unacceptable," which is why the display case at The Fish Counter, on the other hand, "is very minimalist."
"It's representational of whatever's local and seasonal, and we only cut what we'll use in the day," he says. "So, we operate kind of like a bakery, where at the end of the day we'll be out of a lot of things. And the next day, we start all over again, we cut the fish for the day. So, it allows us to maintain quality."
Ned Bell, Chefs for Oceans, Ocean Wise's executive chef, Vancouver
Two years ago, when he was the executive chef of Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and Yew seafood + bar, Ned Bell biked across Canada to fundraise for sustainable-seafood awareness. "Seafood is really the last wild protein that we actually get to eat, so why aren't we protecting it more?" asks Bell, who used the money raised to start his foundation, Chefs for Oceans. "Why aren't we paying attention to overfishing being the largest threat that faces our world's oceans?"
Last May, Bell left his Four Seasons post to join the Vancouver Aquarium as the executive chef of its Ocean Wise conservation program. "Two billion people rely on the world's oceans for their daily source of protein. The health of our oceans is vital to the success of us as a human race."
Bell believes part of the solution is aquaculture – a.k.a. farming. "That is a hot topic because I live on the West Coast, where farming Atlantic salmon is a four-letter word," he says. "But aquaculture is a very important conversation we need to have. We actually farm-raised more fish last year than we landed wild species. So, if we're going to feed nine billion people by 2050, we're not going to do it by fishing from the ocean. We're going to do it by ranching the ocean."
Cornel Ceapa, Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar, Saint John
Caviar has a bad rap: Years of overfishing and poaching have threatened many species of sturgeon (which provide the eggs for the salty appetizer) with extinction. But Cornel Ceapa, a Romanian-born marine biologist who moved to New Brunswick in 2003, is trying to rehabilitate both the industry and its reputation.
Ceapa is a multiplatform sturgeon purveyor: He cultivates and ships larvae to sturgeon farms, sells live fish for restocking, sells caviar and meat from a small annual harvest of wild fish, and – his long-term project – is currently raising thousands of sturgeon in captivity while he waits for them to (soon, very soon) start spawning eggs, which he'll harvest for caviar.
But aquaculture is a delicate business, and you don't want to mess with nature. There are those, he notes, who might try to make the fish grow faster by warming the water. "But guess what? We tried that with chickens 30, 40 years ago, and we got the broilers in two months and it didn't taste like chicken any more," he says. He advocates for what he calls a "free-range kind of clean aquaculture" that produces tasty eggs and fish meat, and is environmentally friendly.
Kristin and Dan Donovan, Hooked, Toronto
'Instead of using a word like 'sustainable,' we prefer words like 'respect,' 'thoughtful,' 'responsible,'" says Kristin Donovan who sells fish with her husband Dan in Toronto and Ontario's Muskoka region and will soon open a store in Halifax.
The Donovans have put that respect into practice by building and patronizing a network of small-boat suppliers. "The people we're dealing with are out there harvesting responsibly, either because they've fished for a really long time or they've gotten into it to do it right," she says. Hooked, for its part, commits to buying whatever is harvested.
"They're letting us know when they're going out, what we can expect or hope for. And we pay them pretty much as soon as it's landed, even before it's shipped. We ask them what they need to be paid. Which is, for a lot of them, the first time that's ever happened."
Like the others on this list, Donovan relishes conversation with customers. "I want them to ask questions about where the food's coming from," she says. "I want people to say, 'How do you know that's from there? How do you know that's well-farmed? What is well-farmed?'" The Donovans are dedicated to "slow fish," the seafood manifestation of the slow-food movement. "Really," she says, "it's about good, clean, and fair."
Claudia Li: Her NGOs promote food justice in the context of Chinese culture and cuisine
By Cliff Lee
The Globe and Mail
The future of Chinese food and culture in Canada has never been as secure – and it's because Claudia Li is looking to her roots to find the way forward.
Seven years ago, the Vancouver resident founded her first non-profit organization. Called Shark Truth it raises awareness of the environmental consequences of harvesting shark fin, one of the most coveted delicacies in Chinese cuisine. By working closely with restaurants and couples choosing a wedding menu, the group says they've managed to save more than 8,000 sharks from becoming an ingredient in about 80,000 bowls of soup.
In 2013, Li co-founded the Hua Foundation, a group that works with Chinese-Canadian youth to promote environmental and social change. One of its biggest successes has been The Choi Project. To fight against the carbon footprint of imported produce, the initiative teaches young people in Vancouver how to grow Chinese vegetables locally right in the city.
"You have to give people the tools and resources to grow their community the way they know how," Li says.
Li, 29, says she is inspired by the enthusiasm for cultural change she sees in other people her age. She has paid attention to the work of indigenous youth groups, for example, and how creative they've been while doing it trying to preserve language, honour elders and pass on traditions.
Food, in Li's experience, is the best vehicle for effecting change in her own community. She notes that many Chinese, in a custom rooted in harder ancestral times, often greet visitors at home not with "how are you?" but rather "have you eaten yet?"
And so the Hua Foundation has also hosted dumpling-making classes led by elders keen to pass on the knowledge and worked with grocers to create bilingual signs that highlight locally grown vegetables.
Li, who is also a fellow with the social-entrepreneurial network Ashoka, recently stepped away from the day-to-day operation of the Hua Foundation. She is looking for her next big project. While she is still unsure what form that will take, the progressive achievements of Shark Truth and Hua are never far from her mind.
"The root of where my work comes from is the story of my grandmother and the dishes she taught me to cook," she says. "Those will stay deep inside my bones until I die."
Vanya Filipovic: She is giving natural wines their due, and a following in Montreal
By Stéphanie Verge
Special to The Globe and Mail
'Vanya hasn't jumped on the natural-wine bandwagon – she's pulled the bandwagon," said Joe Beef co-owner Frédéric Morin. The 33-year-old Filipovic has had Canada's wine scene on lockdown since she started working at the Montreal restaurant in 2005, when it first opened.
Since then, she and the Joe Beef team have opened Vin Papillon, the convivial wine bar right next door. It's the place to drink gorgeous, small-batch bottlings from special little corners of the world, all of them natural, organic or bio-dynamic. Those are also the only type of bottles Filipovic offers through Les Vins Dame-Jeanne, the import and distribution business she started two years ago.
"People are buying organic food more than ever," she says. "With wine, however, there seems to be two main groups: those in complete ignorance who eat organic vegetables but drink the wine equivalent of Kraft Singles, and those who buy something because it's labelled organic or biodynamic without knowing if the product is delicious."
She admits that natural wines can be imperfect, but cautions against writing them off. "The answer isn't to say these wines are flawed so let's go back to the chemicals, things were better that way. In 2016, that kind of thinking isn't pertinent."