Barton Seaver used to be against the idea of aquaculture, but he now sees it as key for a sustainable future.
The renowned chef, author and educator was one of the speakers featured at this Seafood West Summit in Campbell River.
He spoke of his original opposition near the beginning of his talk on Friday.
“I didn’t like you all very much,” he admitted.
He gave a little bit of his background, which included growing up in Washington, D.C., and fishing on nearby Chesapeake Bay.
There, he developed his love of fish, which eventually led him into the culinary world.
Like many, he became concerned with the potential effects of aquaculture on wild fish stocks, and he made every attempt to go green in his business. He was then surprised when he lost a mark in one rating for ocean-friendly restaurants because of the amount of food that used fish he sourced from an aquaculture operation in West Virginia in an economically depressed region. He realized that part of sustainability lay with supporting people.
Seaver talked about the need for this economy in states like Maine, where he now lives, which suffers from one of the worst opioid epidemics in the U.S. and a stagnant economy. While industries like lobster-fishing are still strong, he added, they are vulnerable, and he thinks aquaculture can help.
“I look at seafood as a means to uplift them,” he said. “We have to approach this as an equity idea, as a justice idea.”
All of these factors meant rethinking the industry for Seaver, and he sees aquaculture as the means to help protect wild stocks. He admits there have been problems, but he pointed out that while traditional agriculture has had 10,000 years to make changes, aquaculture is only a few decades old.
“The last time we got to invent a food system was 10,000 years ago,” he said.
Yet, when there are problems with aquaculture, the entire industry gets rejected, whereas when other food production industries face problems, they do not meet with the same broad-sweeping criticism.
“We have to defend just to get to neutral,” he said.
The challenge, Seaver said, is to tell the story of aquaculture more effectively.
Part of this involves creating more acceptance of seafood from the public in general. Seaver said one in four Americans never eat seafood. Yet, as he pointed out, seafood tends to be healthier than chicken, pork or beef, and the industry has less effect on resources and the environment in terms of the resources needed.
“We are the product of resilient ecosystems,” he said. “We are wholly dependent.”
He outlined some of the historic challenges that date back to local, religious and cultural prejudices against fish in American society. Again, Seaver said that while any American can envision what the traditional farm looks life, few have the same imagination when it comes to fisheries.
In response, Seaver recommends targeting cooking students and chefs, as well as post-secondary institutions. He said at most, culinary students use salmon to learn how to grill but do not typically delve into seafood much more than that.
“It’s just orange fish. That’s all cooks are expected to know,” he said.
There is an opportunity, though, for making seafoods, he said, be more a part of the curriculum at cooking schools, an ultimately more a part of people’s diets.
“It is chefs that can teach us to like seafood,” he said.