Fish story

Environmentalists and some high-profile Dallas chefs say ocean food supplies are in crisis. But is their disaster cry simply publicity bait?

Massachusetts Georges Bank lemon sole in a macadamia-nut crust. Grilled fillet of Alaskan halibut with avocado quenelles. Sweet corn-crusted gulf redfish fillet. Pyramid of Atlantic swordfish.

Found on the new summer menu at Dallas' acclaimed seafood restaurant Fish, these dishes are aimed squarely at diners' growing appetite for distinctive seafood. But they could also get Fish Executive Chef Chris Svalesen in hot seawater.

Each of these four entrees features a fish species included on a list of "overexploited fish populations" distributed by the Earth Communications Office (ECO), a Los Angeles-based environmental group. Based primarily on information from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with supplemental data from the Audubon Society, the list serves as a guide to consumers and food professionals on what to avoid when ordering seafood from suppliers, markets, and menus.

That last dish is swordfish, the centerpiece of a national boycott initiated by the NRDC and SeaWeb, an ocean environmental group formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Since the February launch of the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, a one-year boycott of North Atlantic swordfish, 27 East Coast chefs have been joined by dozens of others--including Dallas celebrity chef Stephan Pyles--in stripping the fish from their menus. Royal Cruise lines vowed to stop serving it on all of its ships, while Bon Appetit magazine has sworn off swordfish recipes.

Other Dallas chefs have quietly removed the fish from their menus, among them Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, David Holben of FoodStar (Mediterraneo, Toscana, Popolos), and until recently, Svalesen.

"It's a hoax," he says of the campaign. "It's been blown so out of proportion. They make it sound like it's an endangered species, but it's not."

It's a conflict planted squarely on the dinner plate. As well-meaning environmentalists lead cries of impending menu-driven ocean collapse, the seafood industry toils to douse these flames before they consume their livelihood. Reasoned deliberation often gets drowned in the process. Are the oceans slipping dangerously into an ecological coma stemming directly from our dining and lifestyle habits? Or are the seas being cynically manipulated to serve a few narrowly defined interest groups?

Svalesen's charges echo the sentiments of the U.S. commercial fishing industry and some fishery management experts who claim the swordfish campaign is misguided. They say it unfairly targets U.S. and Canadian fishermen who are abiding by international quotas and restrictions set under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a treaty signed by more than 30 nations to protect the fish from depletion.

"Swordfish are not considered endangered," says Rebecca Lent, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species Division. "Current international quotas are set at levels that should allow the stocks to stabilize and even begin to rebuild." Though she admits there is little current evidence showing the fishery is stabilizing, she points out that the fisheries service is required by law to present a domestic long-term North Atlantic swordfish rebuilding plan by September 30, a project in which environmentalists voice little confidence.

"One of the problems with boycotts is that they're a marketplace action that doesn't necessarily translate into the desired management action," says Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to protecting ocean resources. "It's a world market. If the U.S. stopped eating [swordfish], it doesn't mean the rest of the world will stop eating or fishing. It will just shift."

But NRDC senior policy analyst Lisa Speer counters that North Atlantic swordfish populations have plummeted under fisheries management watch. Before 1996, when treaty regulations were given teeth via trade sanctions slapped on nations that violate quotas, harvest limits were often ignored. "Even if there was full compliance by every single fisherman out there, the rules are not going to bring that fish back," she says. "We've seen one population after another come crashing down under fisheries management."

Lassen also charges that the campaign misrepresents the problem because other swordfish species, such as those in the South Atlantic (where Svalesen gets his supplies) and the Pacific are not considered overfished, according to fisheries service data. In fact, Pacific swordfish populations, the species supplying nearly two-thirds of U.S. demand, appear to be healthy. Yet chefs and media reports rarely make these distinctions, leaving the impression that the global swordfish population is cratering.

SeaWeb Executive Director Vikki Spruill insists their campaign stresses that the problem is specifically with North Atlantic swordfish (the list of overfished species on NRDC's Web site makes no such distinction, lumping Atlantic and Pacific species together). But she also admits the real aim of the campaign is not to alter swordfish demand or markets. It's to inspire consumer activism.

"Our goal is to raise awareness about the problem of overfishing by using swordfish as an emblematic species" she says. "What I think is unusual and different about this campaign is that we are trying to give consumers a voice in this issue. This gives them something to do, which people are desperate for." SeaWeb ultimately hopes to enlist consumers to pressure Congress and the fisheries service to toughen regulations, implement effective recovery programs that reduce bycatch (incidental fish caught in nets that are discarded and often killed), and protect fish nurseries.

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