“The New School of Fish”

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The Story

“The New School of Fish”
by Erik Vance
San Francisco, February 2011

The Pitch

I would like to propose a profile of Kenny Belov, owner of Fish, a restaurant in Sausalito that sells … well, fish. A few years ago, like every other restaurateur in the Bay Area, Mark realize that in order to attract high end customers, he had to start selling and advertising sustainable fish on his menu. So he started shopping in the usual places – wholesalers and distributors. What he found was that when he asked, every distribute immediately said, “Sure, sustainable fish, we got ’em.” In this day in age, it would be financial suicide not to say so.

But he also found that not all of these fish were as sustainable as they were said to be. Some claimed to have sustainably caught orange ruffy, which, according to the World Wildlife Federation, is impossible. Others claimed they had sustainable Chilean sea bass that would turn out to be a) not sustainable, b) not Chilean, and c) not sea bass. There were “sustainably” farmed salmon and tuna fed with wild-caught chum. What he found was that sustainable was more of a marketing tool than a classification.

So somewhere along the way, Belov just snapped. Now he has become a crusader for sustainable fish with his his wholesaling business Two If By Sea, and his non-profit, Fish Or Cut Bait. Belov decided that he could not take a wholesale’s or even a fisherman’s word about whether their fishing practices were good for the environment (Belov uses the term “renewable” rather than sustainable) so now only buy fish from people whose boats he has actually been on while in operation. He travels up and down the Pacific Coast, going on ride- alongs and evaluating who is worthy of the nebulous phrase “sustainable seafood.” He has very little patience for the state of the seafood industry and his politics are somewhere between left and near-militant left.

This story is perfect for San Francisco, magazine for the progressive eater. We all want to eat sustainable food and feel better when a menu says “We support sustainable fisheries.” But what does that mean? It means at least one thing on the menu might have met the somewhat lax California Sustainable Seafood label or the lackluster Marine Stewardship Council certification. I propose taking a trip with Kenny and watching firsthand how he evaluates fishing boats and how he separates the good from the bad. He says that it is less the kind of fish or where it is caught and more the method in which it is acquired. This is a messy way to try and classify fish,
which does not easily lend itself to easy consumer decisions. That’s not to say that your readers haven’t tried. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program began giving out its wallet guides in the area and has gone on to distribute more than 40 million across the country (the new iPhone ap is also incredibly popular). However, 60% of American fish is consumed in restaurants rather than in dining rooms, so in the end it will come down to restaurants like Fish.

Although the story would focus on Belov, it would also draw from the Bay Area’s vibrant movement in this realm. I have already mentioned the Seafood Watch program, which is enormously successful and was the first consumer-based seafood education program. I will also bring in consultants to big corporations like Safeway, who are very interested in these standards but are naturally drawn to the certifications with the lowest bars to get over. I would also educate the reader about a few types of fish that are not as marketable as ahi tuna but are much better for the planet and just as tasty.

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