The Tide Is Turning For Sustainable Seafood

With chefs like Michael Cimarusti leading the way, it's a new era for sustainable seafood

This April, join us as we take a deep dive into the future of food. Here's where now meets next.

"If you want to get into the dark places, you just need to shine a light," chef Michael Cimarusti says as he talks about transparency and traceability in the seafood industry. The multiple James Beard Award nominee is the chef and co-owner of L.A.'s acclaimed, seafood-centric tasting-menu restaurant Providence and the New England-inspired seafood "shack" Connie and Ted's. He's a longtime fisherman and tireless advocate for sustainable seafood.

"As an end consumer, as a chef or as a restaurateur, you just need to ask the right questions," he says.

Cimarusti hasn't only been asking the right questions, but he's also been a leader in the sustainable seafood movement for years. With Cape Seafood, a new market that just opened in L.A a few weeks ago, the chef continues to propel the movement forward, shining a light in all the right places (see his recipe for black cod with morels and asparagus).

Photo: Katie Foster/Tasting Table

He knows better than anyone that the seafood industry isn't what it used to be—and that's a good thing. Today, species that were once overfished have repopulated with great success, responsible fishing methods are catching on and restaurant chefs across the country are embracing underutilized fish like never before. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, (EDF), the number of overfished stocks dropped from 92 to 29 between 2000 and 2015, and overfishing is at an all-time low. A new campaign called Eat These Fish, which the EDF launched just last week, calls the recent recoveries in U.S. fisheries "one of our nation's greatest environmental achievements."

When Cimarusti describes the progress, his eyes light up. Talking to me about lingcod, a fish highlighted in the Eat These Fish campaign and one of his newfound favorites, he explains that it comes from a West Coast fishery that underwent a 14-year recovery process. Now most of that fishery is deemed sustainable, because of improved fishing methods, fewer boats and quotas that "will keep that fishery in a sustainable state for the foreseeable future," he says.

The East Coast has seen similar success stories. Maine's lobster population has almost tripled in the last 20 years, Luke Holden of Luke's Lobster tells me. Having reaped the benefits of regulations that were put in place around the turn of the century, the state's lobsters are a long-term case study of what's possible with responsible fishery management.

Chef Michael Cimarusti | Photo: Pornchai Mittongtare

"Over past years, increasing sections of our society, especially chefs, began to really comprehend the fact that our wild seafood resources on this planet are finite, and that if you are sourcing seafood from outside the U.S., you are almost certainly contributing to the destruction of wild fish stocks and their ecosystems."

That's Sean Barrett, cofounder of the revolutionary Dock to Dish, describing what he sees as a national wake-up call. Montauk-based Dock to Dish is a membership service that connects chefs directly with fresh, wild and sustainable seafood, and it has played a critical role in getting environmentally friendly fare into restaurants. The program gives small-boat fishermen a better price for their fish, and chefs traceability and sustainability. It started in New York and quickly expanded to Canada, California and Costa Rica. London and possibly Palau are next, Barrett says.

Cimarusti's Providence was the first California restaurant to participate in Dock to Dish's West Coast pilot program last year, and it will relaunch for the season with more restaurants.

"Right when it started, I started getting calls from other chefs who wanted to be a part of it," Cimarusti says.

Cimarusti thinks start-ups like Dock to Dish and Sea to Table, another community-supported fishery, cause a ripple effect, too.

"You're starting to see that even larger wholesalers are coming around to if not a similar model, at least they're adopting certain practices, like naming the boats where the fish were caught and naming the fishing methods that were used to collect the fish. And that's really important."

An assortment of sustainable choices from Cape Seafood | Photo: Pornchai Mittongtare

The optimism and sincerity is clear in his voice. Cimarusti has been fishing since he was a little kid, both in ponds and trout streams after school in New Jersey and in Maine during summertime with his father and grandfather. It's this very enthusiasm that has moved what was once a strictly environmental concern into the spotlight and onto some of the country's hottest tables.

Seamore's, which opened last June in New York and also uses Dock to Dish and Sea to Table, is singularly dedicated to the cause. Like Cimarusti, owner Michael Chernow grew up fishing and is passionate about the issue. Unknowingly using the same language as Cimarusti, Chernow tells me, "I wanted to shine a little light on fish I grew up with."

The fish burger Seamore's serves for its Montauk Monday series, which highlights the local community during the off-season | Photo: Alexander Stein 

But the trend extends well beyond seafood-centric restaurants and chefs who spent their childhoods fishing. No one bats an eye at the mackerel at restaurants like Nishi or Hearth. Anchovies are everywhere, too. Bagna cauda—an Italian anchovy-based dip—is having a moment, and Danny Bowien just hosted an anchovy-themed party at Mission Cantina. When poke became the latest It dish, people quickly questioned its environmental merit. As a better alternative, NYC seafood restaurant Crave Fishbar now serves a porgy poke.

In landlocked Denver, restaurants like Stoic & Genuine are sourcing responsibly, too. The restaurant started buying longnose skate, because it was affordable, before it even realized the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch calls skate a "best choice." And that's "the added bonus," Cimarusti says. The fact that sustainable fish are also affordable makes them an even better choice for chefs.

As diners see more of these fish in restaurants, they'll get more comfortable and perpetuate the demand. The next territory is home kitchens, which is where Cimarusti's new market comes in.

"People come into the market and are thirsty for knowledge," he says. "I absolutely love being able to talk to people face-to-face and tell them that they shouldn't be afraid, that this is no different than the other proteins that you're used to cooking."

When the chef says he teaches customers to use a cake tester to tell whether a fish is properly cooked, it's easy to see why these tools are flying off the shelves. He is incredibly disarming. No matter how afraid you might be of cooking seafood at home, or how suspicious you are of the yellowtail rockfish you've never heard of, Cimarusti will convince you to try it.

So how can you work more sustainable seafood into your own life? If you can't visit Cape Seafood yourself, look for a local community-supported fishery and use online rating sites like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch to see if a fish is sustainable. Cape Seafood sells only fish with a green or yellow rating, which is either a "best choice" or a "good alternative."

Whatever you do, don't get intimidated. With more and more chefs shining the light, all you need to do is follow. You'll not only find yourself buying more affordable fish, but you'll also help advance the great strides the industry has made.

The chefs are already on board. That puts you on deck.

Find Providence here, or in our DINE app.

Find Connie and Ted's here, or in our DINE app.

Find Luke's Lobster here, or in our DINE app.

Find Seamore's here, or in our DINE app.

Find Momofuku Nishi here, or in our DINE app.

Find Hearth here, or in our DINE app.

Find Mission Cantina here, or in our DINE app.

Find Crave Fishbar here, or in our DINE app.