Media Credit: Debbi Snook, The Plain Dealer

All that was missing was the scent of sea salt in the air as dozens of chefs, restaurant owners and grocery buyers gathered Tuesday night for a sustainable seafood program sponsored by Catanese Classic Seafood, one of Northeast Ohio’s largest fish vendors.

It was, as one speaker said, “a hook-to-cook” event.Sheila Bowman of Seafood Watch, an environmental ratings system sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, set the stage with some dire statistics.

“Cod, swordfish, shark, grouper and salmon – they’ve all been center-of-the-plate proteins in restaurants,” she said. Yet, we’ve taken 80 percent of these “large table-fish” out of the ocean. The buyers guide from Seafood Watch takes a look at which fish are scarce, which are taken or grown in destructive ways. Then it makes recommendations on what to buy and what not to buy. The guide has been available for years, but Bowman now heads a 20-person outreach staff designed to educate all levels of the influential food industry.

Bowman said overfishing reached its peak in the early 1990s. World War II had given the industry sonar and other equipment to find and catch fish. The harvests were huge. By 1992, the global fish population crashed. “And we haven’t seen a re-bound,” she said, “not even with more boats and better equipment.”

Pressures on the remaining fish populations and their habitats are being threatened by human population growth, she said. The industrialization of China and India has made it possible for fish to be transported to the center of those large countries, where there are many more mouths to feed.

“Other countries around the world don’t think about this like we do,” she said. Today, she said, only 9 percent of the fish we eat is caught in American waters, and 50 percent of fish eaten globally is farmed.

“We cannot all eat salmon, shrimp and tuna,” she said, encouraging chefs to try new varieties and “know the story of your favorite fish.” She gave Lake Erie perch, protected by quotas, a thumbs-up.

“There’s nothing better than a sustainable fish from your own region. . . If we all take a step in the right direction, it can have a pretty big impact.”

Jason Delacruz, fishing company owner and partner with My Gulf Wild, a New Orleans non-profit exploring the health of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, talked about contemporary fishing practices there. His company tags fish as they are caught, so the buyer can know its origin.

“A lot of restaurants have no idea what they’re getting,” he said, recalling a genetic test in Louisiana showing that 1/3 of the grouper sold in participating restaurants was not grouper at all. His crew signs contracts to carry out the tagging honestly, and he has installed cameras in several of his boats to monitor the processing.

Julie Watson, program director for My Gulf Wild, said she’s now staging cook-offs for chefs using lesser known fish. A similar event was held in Cleveland last week, with Doug Katz of Fire Food and Drink and Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern collaborating on a “Trash Fish Dinner.”

Last up, Jason Mosley profiled his company, Verlasso, the only farm-raised ocean salmon company to be recommended by Seafood Watch. They received a “good alternative” rating, just below “best choice.”

Mosley said Verlasso got the rating in part because of its policy not to kill wildlife preying on salmon farms it runs on the coast of Chile; for not using hormones; giving fish more room to live, and for leaving farmed areas fallow for at least three months after harvest to let the ocean floor rebuild. They also use 75 percent less wild fish to feed the salmon, supplementing instead with yeasts containing Omega 3 fatty acids. It ordinarily takes 4-5 pounds of fish feed to raise a pound of salmon, he said.

“We’ve been in the market three years and we’ve saved six million pounds of feeder fish.” The brand is carried at Heinen’s supermarkets, which spearheaded the launch here. Each speaker got a warm reception.

Mike Singer, buyer for Buehler’s supermarkets, said the issue of fish sustainability is increasingly on the mind of his customers.

Dick Kanatzar, chef at Vaccaro’s Trattoria in Akron, said he’s been surprised at the wide range of fish considered sustainable. He likes the idea of fish being tagged.

“As chefs, we know how food should taste,” he said. “We don’t always know its carbon footprint.”

He’s tried Verlasso and liked it, and so have his customers. The price of Faroe Island salmon from the North Atlantic is equivalent, but he sees a big difference in environmental methods.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said.