Barton Seaver on Seafood

By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel

Buying seafood can be overwhelming. Doctors and nutritionists tell us to eat more seafood for a healthy diet, but environmental groups warn us that we’re overfishing the oceans to the degree that a number of species are in danger of extinction. The result is a dizzying array of rating systems meant to help consumers better navigate the seafood counter, but often simply add to the bewilderment.

Chef, sustainability advocate and author Barton Seaver has a different approach to the fish-buying dilemma. Raised on the Hudson River, Seaver grew up pulling giant blue crabs off the pilings at the docks and catching striped bass, bluefish, croaker, eel and more. When he was writing his first menu as a chef in Washington, D.C., he reached out to the local fish purveyor and asked for some of his childhood favorites. “Sorry, kid, we ate all those,” was the shocking reply.

“I realized then that the guiding hand of natural selection is quite firmly holding a fork, and that what we eat largely dictates how the world is used,” says Seaver. “I began to ask questions about how this could have happened.”

As he researched the issue, Seaver was unsatisfied with the answers that centered only on the environmental aspect of the equation—a story of guilt and shame about the negative impact of humans on the ecosystem. “You don’t come to restaurants to learn everything you’ve done wrong in your life,” he says. “I had to come up with a different narrative. When we talk about sustainable seafood, we’re actually talking about sustainable fisheries, which means sustaining fishing communities and the economics of the relationship with our resources.” 

Seaver urges buyers to start their seafood purchases by supporting domestic fisheries, which are strictly regulated, focused on restoration and create jobs in their communities. “It is imperative that we participate in buying American seafood,” he says. “Last year ninety-one percent of the seafood we ate in this country was imported and over sixty percent of what we caught was exported. It is truly amazing that we lack the capacity to support our own men and women on the water.”

The next step, according to Seaver, is for us to buy with courage—beginning with the all-important conversation at the seafood counter. He suggests we ask what’s freshest and best rather than arrive with a preconceived notion of what to purchase. The fisherman can’t control what fish are available, but the consumer can easily adapt a recipe. Seaver proposes switching the equation to let supply drive, rather than demand; to create a system that focuses on delicious products instead of certain species.

As an example of this, Seaver often cites the East Coast’s cod-verses-pollock issue. Cod is a much more popular fish—fetching three times as much as pollock at the docks. But both are delicious, flaky whitefish that can be easily substituted in recipes. Cod has been overfished yet pollock is abundant, but shoppers haven’t necessarily changed their habits to match what’s available. 

“If you walk up to the seafood counter and ask for cod, the fishmonger is going to hand you cod even if it’s not as fresh or sustainable,” says Seaver. “But, if you say, ‘I want a flaky, white-fleshed fish. What do you have that’s freshest and best?’ he can steer you towards what they have in abundance.”

Seaver also encourages buyers to support the domestic shellfish farming of mussels, clams, oysters and shrimp. These fisheries go beyond sustainability—having little or no impact on the environment—and they improve the water quality by reducing the upstream impact and adding nutrients to the ecosystem.

“Domestic oysters are environmentalism on the half shell,” says Seaver. “You can help save American jobs, restore domestic water quality and bring about a more holistic relationship with our ocean by drinking a six-pack of domestic beer and eating a dozen American oysters. That’s the kind of environmentalism people can get behind.”