An Admirable Non-Profit: Living Lands & Waters

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Passionfish readers: I want to let you know about an incredible nonprofit organization based in Illinois that has, since its inception, fished out about 4 million pounds of trash from several of our country’s rivers including the Mississippi and the Ohio. Inconceivable, right? The mountain of garbage they have removed includes refrigerators, bowling balls, automobile tires, dolls, vast amounts of styrofoam, you name it. It’s not a pretty picture. These hard-working people are directly saving and restoring ecosystems and are obviously worthy of all the support they can get. Take a look at this CBS News video about Living Lands & Waters, support this group, and think seriously about the impacts of dumping junk in our waterways. Thank you to Chad Pregracke and his team at Living Lands & Waters.
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Also, if you haven’t seen the impact of the plastic floating around our planet, check out this story on Salon. (You’ll have to wait a bit for their advertisement to finish). Then, consider replacing your plastic grocery bags with a nice, sturdy cotton tote from us here at Passionfish.

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Under Pressure: Teaching Sustainability While Sidestepping Advocacy

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Hello Passionfish readers. I’m Gerard Viverito, Director of Culinary Education for Passionfish. That means I help navigate the seafood sustainability subject while keeping it real for student chefs, professional chefs and cooks at home.
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Later this week, I’m giving a talk at the Seafood Summit, which is a three-day affair of panel discussions on the sustainability subject. I’m on a panel with professional chef Barton Seaver of Hook restaurant in Washington, D.C., and Stephen Potter, Food Enterprise Development Officer with the Hastings Borough Council in the U.K.
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My talk is titled, “Pressure Cooking: Teaching Sustainability while Sidestepping Advocacy in the Classroom.”
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In addition to my volunteer role at our nonprofit Passionfish, my paying job is as a faculty member at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. We feel we have a huge responsibility since we not only train our next generation of chefs about culinary techniques, but we teach them how to run a business as well as mentor them on critical thinking to navigate complex issues like sustainability.
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In my own training and career development, I have traveled the world learning about various cultures, traditions, and cuisines. I have always loved seafood! Also, I have always been active in learning about and advocating for “sustainability” of our resources. However, when it comes to “seafood sustainability,” I’ve discovered that there are so many competing and conflicting messages that I end up spending a disproportionate amount of time trying to tease out fact from fancy.
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Over the years, I’ve witnessed campaigns aimed at chefs to stop serving a particular species, whether it was Chilean sea bass, Beluga caviar or swordfish. We all worry about when the next boycott will come and which of our fishing colleagues could go out of business. At the same time, of course we chefs want to “do the right thing” for our environment and our planet’s future. Meanwhile, we don’t want to sacrifice our company’s bottom line or the jobs of fishermen or fish and shellfish farmers. We want high-quality and consistent products, caught or raised responsibly, at competitive prices so our businesses can thrive.
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We chefs are on the receiving end of marketing campaigns from the seafood industry and the environmental advocacy groups, and yet we also want to rely on our own government’s recommendations. Advocacy groups would have us believe that government-funded scientists don’t have our best interests in mind. The seafood industry would have us believe that everything is okay in our seas. We really don’t want to be stuck in the middle of a turf war; however, considering most people eat seafood in restaurants rather than cooking it at home, chefs are indeed in the middle of a political tug-of-war.
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I’m at once weary of the seafood sustainability issue and charged up by it. Weary, because chefs like me do not want to be used as political weapons. Charged up, because I know that what we have done and are still doing at Passionfish is making huge differences in evolving the dialogue on this issue. Our approaches over the years have always been based on critical thinking with the outcome of pure education and a dose of optimism, and that’s what people respond to positively – certainly more so than being told what to do or being manipulated by special interests.
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To understand an issue demands more than mere knowledge. It requires a willingness to consider facts and figures along with values and beliefs. On any environmental issue, the waters get murky and the skies get cloudy. Too many people founder and grasp for the first fact that floats by, clinging to it for dear life. Without trying to be overly philosophical, the person who has lost their desire to understand the world is the one most likely to get lost in it.
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What’s this got to do with the culinary classroom? Everything. Teachers and students alike, constrained by time, are easily tempted to clutch simple solutions to complex problems. And if any topic is complex it’s definitely food and “sustainability.”
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Thinking of this issue in terms of economic, environmental, and social dimensions (as Passionfish and the CIA do) is the sure way to make a supposedly “tidy” or “easy” issue much less so. At the same time, us chefs often find ourselves standing like deer in headlights with the bombardment of conflicting “seafood watch” cards (I think there are at least 50 different ones worldwide now), the government recommendations, and the seafood industry assurances. All of these seem to be based on science, right? So, you see why I named my talk “Pressure Cooking.” The release valve, it might seem, are the well-funded, eager advocates armed with readymade answers to questions about what’s “the right thing to do.” Which is what most of us obviously want to do anyway!
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But, what’s really at risk by grabbing for this or any quick fix is the integrity of our classrooms.
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Sustainability is a difficult topic for us all. It is ill-defined and intangible. Metrics are either non-existent or inconsistent. Balanced and scientifically sound information on this topic is hard to find and harder to interpret. Think of standing at the supermarket checkout, still, after all of these years, wrestling with “Will that be paper or plastic?” Whatever may be the “right thing,” making it “real” and “realistic” are different and difficult challenges facing teachers.
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Magnifying the problem is the paucity of educational resources that represent this topic holistically, illuminating its many economic, environmental, and social facets. Accurate and engaging training aids are needed. Project-based, experiential learning opportunities are difficult, time consuming, and costly to implement—and yet nothing substitutes for firsthand exposure.
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Meanwhile, simplistic “infotainment” is rampant across the media. Sound bytes, catchy slogans, slick ad campaigns. In a society saturated with information (not the same thing as knowledge), it is essential for educators to teach the importance of distinguishing facts from hyperbole. This is made more difficult by the complexity and fluidity of sustainable fisheries issues.
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Still, teachers must resist being mouthpieces for special interest groups no matter what side of the fence they’re on. Today’s reality is that the best funded views receive the most attention. The privately funded ocean advocacy groups have larger budgets, by far, than our own government’s ocean steward. Why is that? We need to question that, and what it means to us and for our customers—you, the “consumer.” I believe it means marketing could be taking precedence while education is underemphasized. It only gets more difficult when graduates enter the workforce where profits may trump principles and balancing competing values can get difficult.
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Like it or not, culinary professionals can’t hide in the kitchen. We are expected to be interested in and conversant about a great many issues and yet, at the same time, we certainly don’t want to make our guests’ dining experience a political one rather than an enjoyable one. After all, we are in the hospitality industry! To succeed, we must recognize, respect, and understand that around every issue revolves a constellation of diverse viewpoints and constituencies. For example, with fisheries, options such as sustainable aquaculture must be considered with an open mind.
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Our profession has a great deal of influence on the eating habits and preferences of society. We need leaders as much as any industry: people with a thorough understanding of the issues confronting them and the confidence to tackle them. People who can make things happen, people who move mountains and change the tides.
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In my capacity as a professional chef and an educator, I don’t pretend to have “the answers.” In fact, that’s a pretty arrogant place to stand. We’re sorting it out against the cacophony of competing interests so people may see that the subject of “seafood sustainability” is actually larger than the sum of its parts. And, I believe that combining optimism with participation—as we have done at Passionfish since our founding in 2000—is the way to keep advancing this important issue.
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Please join us, both Passionfish and the Culinary Institute of America, in celebrating “Poisson d’Avril” or April Fish Day, Passionfish’s annual fundraiser. We have several engaging educational projects on the horizon that speak to you and your concerns about the fuzzy “seafood sustainability” subject.

“Stinky Fish” Stinks. Let’s red-list it.

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Alright… this truly stinks. Our team laments writing this post because it’s a total drag to announce that a campaign was released on You Tube by two respected organizations—two organizations that we regularly, without any trepidation, have always recommended to anyone who writes to us at Passionfish. Those are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Mind you, since our founding in 2000, Passionfish has promoted both organizations wholeheartedly and we believe that they are doing the work that needs to be done and are deserved of all good praise heaped upon them. You can see from our own Passionfish newsroom that we have promoted MSC since the early days, and our own Executive Director has worked on well-respected WWF fisheries projects.
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Problem is, their campaign called “Stinky Fish” is meant to “educate” people about seafood that’s good for the environment and that has earned the MSC eco-label (a seal of approval for environmental practices) versus seafood that has not yet. Supposedly, in this campaign, seafood that lacks the MSC label is called “stinky fish.” Okaaayyyy, in addition to turning people off from seafood in general, the problem is that, the MSC is a PROCESS. In fact, achieving the MSC certification is an arduous and somewhat costly—and voluntary—process that demands much scrutiny and many layers of approval. It’s not easy to be awarded an MSC “seal of approval.” And those fisheries that do, are doing the right thing (whether they need the label or not is another discussion for another day). Those who achieve that MSC imprimatur are the models for all others that are on the trajectory toward ecological and economic stability.
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At the same time, those fisheries that don’t have the MSC eco-label are NOT necessarily “unsustainable” nor doing the “wrong thing.” In fact, only a handful of fisheries worldwide have the label. The label is still pretty invisible in the marketplace. And this anti-social “stinky fish” campaign will only make the MSC label have more trouble gaining widespread acceptance.
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So, why would WWF, a well-regarded eNGO (environmental non-governmental organization) launch such an ill-conceived yet no doubt costly campaign? Do they really think and feel so negatively toward people across the planet who are devoting their lives to sustainability? Their campaign uses a disturbing, creepy and sarcastic puppet (or muppet) to declare its in-your-face opinions to people who are clearly caught off guard. I admit that watching that stuffed animal about to drink a pint of beer is amusing. The rest is not at all funny, including the negative, misleading and blanket comments about farmed seafood—without which, most people wouldn’t be able to eat seafood at all.
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The entire campaign, sadly, belittles every single gain that has been made by WWF’ers and MSC’ers and all of us in the sustainability, media, education, science, political, fishing, seafood and advocacy sectors. We are concerned that it shows that some individuals (in this case hopefully a puny segment, perhaps a rogue element in the basement of the WWF) will go to all extremes to illustrate a point even if it destroys their own credibility. On top of that—which is far worse—it belittles people who care about the ocean and who enjoy eating seafood. In a clamshell, it’s an elitist campaign; whether the designers of this campaign meant to or not, it tries to make ‘consumers’ look like fools. But, the joke isn’t on us consumers. No, on the contrary, the joke is on those who think that the “general population” doesn’t understand or relate to the true concept of sustainability, in all of its many ecological, social and financial dimensions.
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At Passionfish, we want to believe that those “holier than thou” attitudes have died and gone to heaven. We want to believe that everyone involved in this so-called “movement” toward ocean and overall environmental sustainability are sincere and mean what they say, that leaps in thinking ARE truly happening, that the public can rest assured that the hard-earned money they’ve spent (donated) and keep spending has been toward true relevance, advancement and achievement. We can’t afford to take a giant step backward. These silly campaigns, in their many guises, have no place in today’s world.
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We will continue to support MSC and WWF. We believe in them. But let’s feed “Stinky Fish” to the bird brains that created it.

From Campus to Plate

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Here’s a story from the News & Observer about universities in North Carolina raising black sea bass for consumption at local restaurants. More and more of these local fish farms will crop up to meet the demand for healthy seafood. At the same time, researchers are working out how to make these operations cost- and energy-efficient. Supporters believe that raising fish close to home is more energy efficient than sending boats out to sea to catch wild fish.

“King of Sushi”: Plight of Bluefin Tuna Featured on 60 Minutes

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If you missed 60 Minutes last night in favor of Dateline NBC’s goofy Golden Globes award (non) show, check out the CBS story about bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna has been over-exploited, meaning we’ve scarfed far too much of it in sushi bars for it to easily rebuild its population. Thankfully, efforts are underway by the international community to try to help the species survive.