Aquarium encourages restaurants to go sustainable
Seafood lovers may soon see something new on menus of high-end restaurants across Tampa: A logo for The Florida Aquarium.
No, this doesn't mean fish cooking in kitchens at the Columbia and Mitchell's Fish Market came from tanks at the aquarium.
Rather, those restaurants and others are joining an aquarium pledge to serve seafood from ever more sustainable sources, thus raising the aquarium's profile and helping restaurants tap into a growing desire among consumers to know the source of their food.
“It's hard to quit anything cold turkey,” said Debbi Stone, vice president of education at the aquarium. “And we're not telling anyone to stop fishing or eating fish. But we're trying to educate the consumer on the choices available to keep seafood available for generations.”
The project is in the early development phase. Aquarium officials are circulating draft contracts with restaurants to detail what both sides would be allowed and expected to do. As of last week, that preliminary candidate list includes the Columbia, Mitchell's Fish Market, Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House and Mise en Place.
“I was the first to contact The Florida Aquarium about such a program,” said Columbia owner Richard Gonzmart.
On one side of the contract, the aquarium will provide training to restaurant staff and explain how to encourage diners to pick sustainable seafood from the menu. The aquarium won't police the restaurants or “in any way endorse” or disparage a restaurant, according to language in the draft contract.
On the other side of the contract, restaurants can promote on their menus and websites that they follow “guidelines provided by The Florida Aquarium's Seafood Now program,” and similar language about California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, which many sustainability projects use for research help.
Neither pledge involves a payment, Stone said, as the project is a voluntary goal more than a commercial contract. However, the deal also gives restaurants the chance to use The Florida Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium logo if they seek permission.
Projects such as these jump on a white-hot trend in the consumer market, said Kathy Hayden, a restaurant analyst at the market research firm Mintel.
More people are interested in not just what they're eating, but where and how their food is produced. More restaurants and grocery stores are moving toward greater transparency.
In this vein, Whole Foods Market recently pledged to label any food with genetically modified traits. Sweetbay Supermarket recently launched a project in cooperation with The Florida Aquarium to sell only seafood from sustainable sources — fresh, frozen or packaged. McDonald's recently made sustainable seafood the core of a new advertising campaign that features Alaskan fishermen catching pollack used in the new Fish Bites.
Meanwhile, seafood sales are rising. As sales of beef, poultry and pork slipped in 2012, fresh seafood volume rose 8 percent, according to market researcher Nielsen.
Perhaps the thorniest part of the trend is what “sustainable” means.
Research groups have different criteria for defining “sustainable.” Though some species may be endangered in one area, they might be more plentiful in another. Swordfish may be at one level of population, but the method used to catch them may also catch far more sharks, which are discarded in the process.
Dozens of research groups are involved in measuring seafood populations and fishing methods, including Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, the Ocean Conservancy and the Marine Stewardship Council.
Hence the attraction of using a local brand name such as The Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
“There's no single regulation or government oversight on seafood claims,” Hayden said. “Partnering with local aquariums and well-regarded watch groups is a popular way to gain consumer confidence.”