Eat to save the oceans, Vail Valley |

Eat to save the oceans, Vail Valley

Julie Sutor
Summit Daily News
Vail, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

VAIL VALLEY – Fishing communities around the world are grappling with declining, even collapsing, fish stocks, and the human appetite for seafood is almost entirely to blame. But diners can help reverse troubling ocean trends, armed with little more than some knowledge and a fork (or chop sticks).

The number of imperiled fish stocks has increased fairly steadily since the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization began monitoring fishery resources globally. Since 1973, global fish consumption has more than doubled to an estimated 118 million tons. In 2005, a staggering three quarters of the world’s fish stocks were fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from overexploitation, meaning they have been fished at or beyond their maximum sustainable limits, according to the UN.

Throughout the country, including in Summit County, diners and grocery shoppers increasingly have seafood options available to them that won’t add to the ocean’s woes. And a handful of conservation organizations are making it easier than ever to make sustainable seafood choices. They offer quick-reference guides consumers can slip into their wallets before a trip to the market or a night out at the sushi bar.

Vail Resorts – including Keystone, Breckenridge and all the company’s Rock Resorts hotel properties – exclusively serves sustainable seafood in all company-operated restaurants. The program started sprouting a few years ago at Keystone, when chef Scott Radek began bringing his environmental sensibilities to work with him. Organic and locally produced ingredients increasingly made their way into his kitchens. Sustainable seafood seemed like a natural next step.

“As chefs, we can impact what’s going on in the whole fishing industry,” Radek said. “If I can create demand for the right species of fish, suppliers will stop carrying the wrong ones. That’s kind of what’s happened with swordfish. Very few restaurants serve swordfish anymore, so it’s not on my fish list from fishmongers.”

Before long, sustainable seafood-purchasing became standard practice throughout the resort, including at Summit Seafood Company in the Keystone Inn.

“It was very easy for me to jump on that bandwagon. It doesn’t cost us anything – we just have to make careful choices,” Radek said.

All Vail Resorts and Rock Resorts chefs from Wyoming to the Caribbean now receive “Fishtails,” a monthly electronic newsletter and purchasing guide. Each Fishtails includes links to conservation and research organizations that provide the latest information on which species are being harvested at sustainable levels and in ways that don’t damage the marine environment.

Julie Klein, the company’s director of environmental affairs, said the program generates conversation and awareness among employees and guests.

“Through all our sustainable cuisine programs, we want to offer people variety in selection, and whenever possible, we want to offer sustainable options,” Klein said. “I think our guests respond very well to that, and hopefully we influence them to make similar purchases at home.”

It’s pretty easy to know what’s on the plate when it comes to cows and chickens. Fish, however, can get confusing quickly, since most consumers have access to hundreds of species. And even if a consumer can confidently identify a given species, it may be harvested sustainably in one part of the world while stocks are near collapse in another. Furthermore, many species are available both farmed and wild, which can make a world of difference when it comes to eco-friendly selection.

Several organizations have developed schemes to help environmentally minded shoppers and diners make sustainable choices. Among the most established are the Environmental Defense Fund and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which publish the Seafood Selector and the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide, respectively. Both resources have sushi versions as well, providing the Japanese names for dozens of sushi bar favorites.

The guides include up-to-date lists of best choices, good alternatives and worst choices, all based on the latest scientific and conservation research. They provide a good basis upon which to start inquiring about products on the menu or in the store.

“We really encourage people to ask questions,” Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson said. “Servers may not have all the answers, but the mere act of asking questions – Where did this come from? How was it caught? Was it fresh or frozen? – communicates that this is something you’re concerned about. That will help bring about the change to put more sustainable seafood on the market.”

Armed with a pocket guide, a diner can almost always make an ocean-friendly choice, even if servers or fish-counter workers don’t have answers. For example, wild Alaskan salmon is harvested sustainably. The vast majority of farmed salmon, on the other hand, creates a number of environmental problems – including deposition of fish excrement on the sea floor and transmission of parasites like sea lice – to wild populations.

If a server can’t tell you whether the salmon is farmed or wild, trout and mussels are nearly always good alternatives, environmentally speaking.

Tetsuo Shimoda, owner of Mountain Flying Fish sushi restaurant in Breckenridge, said he typically hears customers raise sustainability concerns about once a week. However, species in serious decline, such as bluefin tuna, remain among customer favorites.

Bluefin tuna, called “toro” or “tuna belly” on many sushi menus, was dealt a blow earlier this month when UN delegates voted down an American-supported proposal to impose international protections for the dwindling species. Bluefin tuna populations have dropped to 10 percent of historic levels, according to Peterson.

Shimoda said he has heard of sushi restaurants in Europe that no longer sell bluefin, but his customers “keep ordering and ordering and ordering,” so he feels the pull to keep serving.

“It seems like most people in Summit County don’t care,” Shimoda said.

Third-party certifications, or “eco-labels,” are another tool consumers can use to identify sustainable choices. Much like a USDA Organic logo, a seafood eco-label can provide assurance that an independent organization has verified a product as sustainably harvested from healthy stocks.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has the most widely used eco-labelling system. Products or menu items certified by the organization feature a blue logo with the organization’s name and an illustration of a fish. Large grocery store chains, including those in Summit County, carry MSC-certified products to varying degrees. Natural food stores, like Alpine Market in Frisco and Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers in Dillon, generally have wider selections.

According to Peterson, market-based pressure has made an impact in recent years. In the 10 years of the aquarium’s program, 34 million pocket guides have been distributed and 200,000 people have downloaded the Seafood Watch iPhone application in the past year alone. MSC has certified more than 3,000 seafood products worldwide.

“Major seafood buyers have gotten the message and are starting to turn things around,” he said.

Large seafood retailers, including Target, Kroger (which owns City Market), Walmart and Safeway, have begun to make changes in their approach to seafood sales.

In January, Safeway partnered with a nonprofit organization called FishWise, which helps seafood retailers, distributors and producers operate more sustainably. The store is also a member of the Food Marketing Institute’s Seafood Sustainability Working Group.

“We’re looking at methods and processes for how we can be more environmentally sensitive in the types of fish we procure,” Safeway spokeswoman Kris Staaf said. “We’re screening out suppliers that don’t meet our seafood sustainability policy.”

Target announced in January that it eliminated all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen and smoked seafood offerings nationwide. All salmon sold under Target-owned brands will now be wild-caught Alaska salmon. All of Target’s salmon sushi will make the transition by the end of the year. Target also carries a number of MSC-certified products.

“Target’s decision to source sustainable wild-caught salmon, instead of farmed, will have a real impact in the marketplace and ultimately, on the health of our oceans,” Monterey Bay Aquarium director Julie Packard said.

Walmart is partnering with MSC, Environmental Defense Fund and the Global Aquaculture Alliance for a broad overhaul of its seafood. Nationwide, the company carries 28 MSC-certified products. All of Walmart’s farmed shrimp products meet the criteria of the Aquaculture Certification Council, and the retail giant aims to purchase all its wild-caught fish from MSC-certified fisheries by 2011.

Kroger has entered into a program with the World Wildlife Fund to improve the sustainability of its seafood products, and the company does not carry any salmon from Chile, where crowded salmon farms have been breeding grounds for a widespread epidemics of infectious salmon anemia and sea lice.

Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Marine Stewardship Council

Aquaculture Certification Council

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

Support Local Journalism