AUDIO INTERVIEW EXCERPTS WITH INTERVIEWER CESLIE ARMSTRONG
CeslieArmstrong: Hi Poull, welcome to Grapes, Grains & Grub. How are you my friend?
Poull Brien: Fantastic. So happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me on your show.
CA: Absolutely. Today we’re going to talk about seafood sustainability and I’d like to start off with you telling our listeners a bit about what Wild Fish Direct is and the mission behind it.
PB: Yeah, sure. So Wild Fish Direct dates back to a TV show that I created and executive produced for the Weather Channel which followed commercial spear fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and we spent four months, three or four days a week underwater filming with these guys and while I was down there I really was starting to be curious as to why those species weren’t available. The species that they were catching weren’t available up in New York. I hadn’t even heard of a lot of these species, and they were delicious. We were eating them while we were filming the show, which is definitely a perk of doing that project; so, I started Wild Fish Direct and brought on my partner Alton Peacock. We wanted to supply sustainable seafood across the United States, starting in places like New York, but really across the U.S. Since then it’s kind of evolved to where now we’re really targeting restaurant chains. We began selling primarily to award winning chefs, but, there’s enough people that are supplying them with high quality seafood and alot of it is sustainable. There wasn’t much attention given to the lunch crowd. So we targeted healthy fast-casual brands and expanded out to just general restaurant chains from there. But the goal was to convert as many meals as possible from being unsustainable untraceable seafood to being fully sustainable and being rated by one of the rating systems like MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) or ASC (The Aquaculture Stewardship Council) or the Monterey Seafood Watch. So that’s our platform. That’s what we did. And then we just expand it out across the U.S. and now we’re dealing with brands coast-to-coast and putting more sustainable seafood on menus.
CA: So you went out to do this show that you are the executive producer of for the Weather Channel and it sounds like you found a new religion. And then, you turn that into a business. I mean that’s just a huge leap to say “we’re going to do this and it’s going to be nationwide and we’re going to reach out to chefs everywhere.” That’s a tall order.
PB: Yes. And it was a little bit of that entrepreneurs naiveté that allowed that to happen because subsequent to that we learned all of the complexities of the seafood industry is far more opaque and convoluted and just so much different than what we expected. And you know, tradition is tradition and its got its own momentum. Also you’re trying to shift that and shift what people are doing and then you’re also asking them to pay for it. So really it’s a tall order not only for us to be able to actually source and supply and deliver those items, but it’s also a tall order for the customer who’s got a very set price in mind that they want to pay for lunch. And, for our clients who have very rigid pricing structures to be able to hit that price for the customer and do it with a sustainable item, which invariably is more expensive than a commodity item.
CA: Give our listeners a bit of an insight as to being that customer that you just described, that knows they want to go in and they’re used to spending “X” amount for a certain type of lunch or dinner that they’re used to getting; and, maybe like most people, they haven’t really thought about where that fish comes from. What’s the education, what’s the learning curve here for our listeners to give them some insight of what questions they can ask?
PB: Sure. So, I mean, first I’d say that I don’t really look at us as innovators in the sense that what we’re trying to do right now really is the way seafood should be harvested and delivered, purchased and sold. It’s just sustaining the stocks of our fish in order to sustain ourselves on this planet, right? So I also don’t think of us as disruptors in the sense that we’re not out there trying to replace all the regional or localized traditional fish sellers. Hopefully what we’re doing is contributing to sort of a rising tide that’s going to lift all boats. And by that I just mean that hopefully our presence is going to encourage a lot of other brands and a lot of other seafood sellers, I should say, to follow suit and to supply sustainable items.Traceable items. As soon as the customer sees the need for that and sees the benefits of that, then I think they will follow suit and they will do that. And we’re seeing that already for sure. But you know, I that we fit very specific niche, which is on the leading edge of sustainability. Most people don’t even know, really don’t even understand what sustainable means. It’s thrown around so much. It’s almost kind of a “greenwash” word if you don’t know.
CA: Let’s explain it further for our listeners.
PB: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, I think really what it comes down to is sustaining the resource for future generations so that it can sustain us. And so basically that’s management of our wild fish stocks. So right now we’re looking at a global oceanwide fishery that is ninety percent either at stocks or they’re fully exploited or they are overexploited. So there’s only ten percent of all fish stocks right now that are deemed under utilized or with room for further exploitation beyond the volume that we’re taking right now. So there’s a concept called ‘maximum sustainable yield’ and it’s kind of like a tipping point basically. Once you hit maximum sustainable yield in a fishery–and a fishery is basically a region, a community, it is what we’re calling these areas–and these fish stocks that are kind of combined into a source for us. The fishery could be a tuna fishery, it could be salmon fishery, and so on. They’re all over the world in different bodies of water. Once a fishery hits maximum sustainable yield, then what you end up having is sort of the rule of depreciating returns. If you wanted to say that this year we’re going to exploit and go beyond the maximum sustainable yield, which is really determined by scientists.
CA: Who makes that decision? Is there a governing body?
PB: There’s a few really in the U.S. here, it’s NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and they’re making the determination as to how healthy the fish stocks are. They’re setting guidelines on what is allowable and then states are setting quotas or catch limits depending on what system they’re using and all this is being monitored so that we don’t exceed maximum sustainable yield. So that basically that’s the maximum volume that you consistently take from a specific fishery or fish stock year after year without seeing smaller returns in the future. So without over taxing that population.
CA: And for our listeners that, that applies to wild fish, not farm fish.
PB: That’s exactly right. So right now we’re just talking about wild fisheries, and I mean the ocean covers seventy-one percent of our planet. It’s where the vast majority of livable space is on this planet and it’s where the majority of organisms are and it’s a finite resource. Right? So there’s a certain amount of each wild fish stock that you can harvest every year that will allow that stock to continue at that level. If you exploit it beyond that, what you start looking at is overexploited fisheries or fish stocks where there’s not a sufficient number of spawning adults to further the population. So you end up in a situation where each year you’re returning smaller and smaller catches and eventually it could lead to the collapse of a fishery, which is essentially there’s just not enough spawning adults left to be able to have a harvestable fishery.
CA: And does that happen? Does that happen often? I mean, I’m thinking about these remote areas around the world that, well, I don’t want to get too deep here; but, there certainly are indigenous peoples that we don’t even know about that exist and maybe have been eating certain seafood for many, many years. How does one monitor and measure that? I mean, this sounds like getting our brains around this task of seventy one percent of our globe, is well, incredible.
PB: You’re right. Some species are pelagics and they’re highly migratory species. They’re open ocean going species like a tuna and it is especially a hard to monitor because they’re constantly moving. So so that’s a problem. The issue with fishery management has typically been a localized one. Each country has its own monitoring process or not, and, they’ve got their own concerns and their own maximum sustainable yields of each different species to worry about. But now where we’re especially on our migratory species like tuna, is that you’re really looking at a situation that is really a global problem. This one species is a global issue because if you harvest too much out of one area, then the next subsequent area where they’re supposed to show up isn’t going to have as many fish. So there’s a lot of issues with open ocean fishing. It’s, it’s very hard to really monitor the entire body of water where these species are live; but, that’s what’s being done.
CA: OK, so just like there’s an international space station where countries who may not play nice when their feet are on the ground, but do when they’re in the international space station because they’re thinking about the good of the planet, the good of the human race. Is that happening in your world? I mean, we’re talking about an issue and a process that spans many times zones, many cultures, many governments. Are governments, and, are we playing nice with each other globally?
PB: I couldn’t really speak to that authoritatively, but I can tell you about what I do know from my own knowledge is that the answer is yes and no. Certainly there’s regulatory bodies worldwide that are speaking to each other that are exchanging results. There’s people that are trying to look at this in a more comprehensive global way. There’s even organizations out there that are trying to track the movements of fishing vessels worldwide to try to help us prevent overfishing or illegal fishing. So there’s a lot of people pouring resources and effort into that sort of globalized connectivity. I would also say is that there’s also a lot of people out there that just aren’t playing fair. I mean, look, there’s countries where slavery on fishing vessels is still a thing and it’s very much happening.
You look at Thailand and you look at the immigrant workers that come to Thailand and they’re promised a job on a fishing boat and it turns out that if they get on that boat, they can never get off. Or, maybe they do get off three years down the road and they come back with very little money having been under horrible abusive working conditions. These are the kind of the reasons that you want to support sustainable and traceable seafood. I’ll give you a classic example: One of our first targets (and this really dives just straight into the core of the problem) we set out a couple of years ago, back in like 2017 when the fast casual boom was really in full swing. The Poke boom was really in full swing too. We had an early Poke client, one of the first here in New York that we were working with, and we realized through that there’s a lot of volume here already, and, potentially more if we can just source enough sustainable tuna for them. They’re all healthy, fast-casual brands, especially the ones we are working with that are billing themselves as not just fast food but healthier meals.
CA: Well there’s a Poke restaurant in every strip center in every city across America now. They’re everywhere.
PB: A lot of them build themselves as healthy, sustainable, conscious sourcing, and responsible sourcing. You see these words being thrown around and all the time. So we went out and really targeted them. And I can tell you after speaking to the majority of Poke restaurants in the United States, there’s so few of them that are actually doing that. That are sourcing responsibly, that are sourcing sustainably; and, the reason for that is because it’s very expensive to do that with tuna. Tuna is not an inexpensive item, it’s a very expensive item and part of the allure for customers was, ‘Oh Hey, I can go get tuna in a bowl for like twelve bucks.’ What they don’t realize is that these guys are selling untraceable unsustainable fish from overfished fisheries and they don’t even know the working conditions on the boat. There’s nobody that’s even looked at some of these fisheries; and, the people that have had do not have good things to say. They’re red listed typically. That’s how you get cheap tuna and that’s how you can sell a twelve dollar bowl full of tuna. There is two ways they do it: Either serving unsustainable fish or using artificial colorants to make something that is really of questionable quality look much better.
CA: It comes down to the old saying to the consumer, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. I mean, I think we can apply that to our sensibilities that a big beautiful bowl of tuna for twelve dollars is unrealistic.
PB: Yeah, exactly. But the problem is that seafood happens very far away from us. It might as well be happening in outer space for most people. They don’t understand it. It’s challenging. It’s intimidating because you go buy it at the store and it’s a very highly perishable protein that has to be handled just so. The majority of Americans get their seafood at restaurants. Two thirds actually. And for a lot of Americans, that’s the only place they get it. There’s not really that intimacy or that understanding and appreciation for the value of these fish. They just know that, ‘Hey, I had tuna before andI liked it. I want to have it again and here it is at this great price.’ What’s not happening right now? The biggest challenge? It’s that we’ve discovered is that consumers–the end customer–is not walking into the door of a restaurant and asking any questions about where the seafood is from. The minute that starts happening we’ve got we’ve got real change on our hands but that’s just not happening right now. A lot of people even at this point–because there’s so little knowledge in the general public about seafood–a lot of people would rather just turn a blind eye and ignore it. In the same way that you might if you were buying super, super cheap clothing from a store that had proven to be using unsafe working conditions or sweatshop labor.
CA: Well, the first, time you and I broke bread together, was with Chef Kerry Heffernan, our mutual friend. When we were trying to decide where to go eat while we were in LA, we narrowed down the list of restaurants based on if their seafood was sustainable and that took us all of thirty seconds. I mean, it wasn’t a whole lot of work to do that. And I think that for our listeners out there if, if there’s a restaurant (and it doesn’t have to be an expensive restaurant) that touts the fact that they are sustainable…what would they say? Is there a particular phrase that’s an official phrase Poull? Is it: ‘we are a sustainable seafood restaurant’ Is it just that statement for our listeners to look for?
PB: I mean, a lot of people are gonna say that, but I think as the customer you should ask a little bit beyond that. Typically what you’re looking for includes the most well known ratings groups in the U.S. is Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, so if a restaurant is a Monterey Bay Seafood Watch partner or a James Beard Smart Catch partner, if they’re either of the wo of those things, then you can be fairly certain that they are at least attempting to adhere to the sustainability guidelines that we want to see them adhering to that are widely accepted here in the U.S. So that’s really those kind of stamps of approval are really a good start. They’re not a solution, but they, they’re really a good start because it’s just something easy to look at and think of and remember.
PB: Beyond that, if somebody’s promoting themselves as sustainable, I think just even asking the questions: Who has rated you as sustainable? Who rates your seafood items? Who do you use to guarantee that your seafood is sustainable? If chefs start hearing that enough or brand owners start hearing that enough, they know that people care. Right now a lot of brands are able to skate under the radar. And I’m not telling you about the biggest brands, because the biggest brands typically get attention from the NGOs, right? That’s where a lot of the sort of watchdog kind of enforcement goes. For example, if McDonald’s started serving a a depleted species, let’s say they went back to Cod or something like that and the fish sandwich, which they wouldn’t do cause it would be too expensive, but if they were to do something like that, the NGOs would be the first people to step up because they’re just so visible and they’re everywhere and their massive volume, right? That’s why you have groups like Red Lobster, which is committed to going all sustainable via Monterey Bay Seafood Watch ratings by 2025. So that’s still a ways down the road, but they’ve announced that and they’re making moves in that direction. So that’s at least a start for us. I think that for all the brands that are smaller that the NGOs don’t pay attention to–I mean we’re talking anything from a mom and pop one shop type of place all the way up to regional chains–you could have thirty five locations and still have no attention put on you by the NGOs. So you could still be moving considerable volume of a species. I think the really important thing is just let them know that you care. Let them know that you’re interested in knowing where the seafood is from. Just ask anything about their seafood offerings. The more they’re hearing that, the more they know that people are tuning in and caring about sustainability.
CA: Well, the customer ultimately does have the power. You’re going to choose to frequent that establishment and therefore you’re going to pay the bill. So without those things happening, they’re not in business. So they do, they do listen to the customers. As you’re talking about the James Beard Smart Catch partners, I think about restaurants of that I frequent, particularly in San Antonio where we’re talking from right now, like Cured at the Pearl, which is adjacent to the Culinary Institute of America and restaurants like that, they proudly talk about it. Another point that I’m thinking about is organic versus natural and how this is fooling the consumer when the statement is ‘all natural ingredients.’ Well that’s not really a thing, so again, it’s buyer beware and really being educated in and understanding where your food is coming from and how it’s impacting the environment and what that means to us all.
CA: Let’s just speak just a bit about these interesting fish–delicious fish–that may not have a great name. To me, I’m thinking of the scene in the film Sideways and Merlot wine for any one who has seen that knows what I’m talking about. But in any case, it does come down to marketing. I mean, I think about also Chilean sea bass and these sorts of things. But, what you are saying is there’s incredible fish out there that may not have a great name. They may not look beautiful, but they have delicious flesh and we should be eating them.
PB: Yeah, for sure. It just gets down to the overall consumer awareness and chef’s awareness too, based on what they think that consumers will tolerate. If you have a chef, I mean again this is a little bit easier to talk about when we’re talking about an award-winning chef with a big track record and an ability to really embrace a lot of the different species. But if you’re, if you’re a consumer and you walk through the doors of the restaurant and say ‘what’s fresh?’ And similarly, if the chef is saying that to the fishermen that he’s sourcing from or the suppliers that he’s sourcing from, instead of ‘I need 200 pounds of yellow fin tuna this week,’ it’s, it’s just a different approach. It’s like the bouillabaisse approach in France where it’s basically whatever the catch of the day is, you throw in the pot. And so, I mean that’s, that’s definitely something that we can embrace. You know, I think that the challenges there is that there’s not necessarily consistency. So I think it’s, it really just kinda comes down to just familiarizing people with seafood. It’s not that intimidating white flaky meat fish that tend to be very similar a lot of times. Really it’s the freshness and not just that it has to be fresh. There’s also this misconception that fresh, fresh, fresh is how we need to market seafood. But in reality it’s it’s a lot more carbon neutral to, in a lot of cases, to utilize frozen seafood. There’s a lot less waste around that/ When I say fresh, I mean if it’s a fresh fish that it is of course fresh, and if it’s frozen, it was properly handled and frozen so that what you’re tasting is the fish, the way it’s meant to be tasted, that way it should taste the way it can taste if it’s properly handled.
PB: That really just gets back to the perishability of seafood, which is also one of the factors that makes it challenging for people to work with. But it doesn’t have to be, it really doesn’t. I think the more that we start these conversations and that we can just even have the conversation about seafood, then I think the more that it becomes a part of the vernacular and a part of what we are comfortable with and comfortable around. I think then you start opening doors to chefs being able to say, ‘Oh, you know what? I think my clients would be okay if I just served whatever is the catch of the day,’ or if you know, ‘if I started sourcing some high quality aquaculture species.’ I mean aquaculture–if you want to briefly touch on another area–essentially aquaculture is driving all of the increase in global production in seafood.
PB: Since 1994 the wild capture fisheries have been relatively flat so those catches have not gone up considerably year over year. All of the additional catch that’s going to feed our growing population, which is predicted to be nine to ten billion people by 2050, that’s all got to come from somewhere. And where it really is going to come from is aquaculture.
CA: Explain to our listeners what that is.
PB: So aquaculture is farm raised fish, essentially. And you know, right now there’s just a ton of misconceptions about aquaculture, about farm raised fish. There’s plenty of information if you Google farm raised salmon problems or issues, you’re going to find a gazillion websites and reports from environmentalist. And yeah, there are a lot of concerns. I mean there’s sea lice, there’s feeder fish concerns about the amount that are going into create, each pound of salmon ends up on the plate.
PB: There’s antibiotics and chemicals and effluent from the fish themselves when they’re pinned up in a small area. There’s all these things, there’s definitely issues to deal with. But what we’re looking at is a food system here and a food problem. We need to increase the amount of protein that we have on this planet available for people by up to seventy percent by 2050 if the numbers are right. So, I mean that’s a lot. And if you’re looking at the fact that seventy one percent of our Earth here is covered in water, there is just nowhere that makes more sense for this protein to come from, especially because it is far more efficient than land protein in those cases. Also because it’s a healthy protein. There are health benefits to it and there’s more environmental benefits to eating fish than there are certainly to eating beef, pork, or the chicken that we all eat far more of in this country than fish.
I guess to circle back to the conversation, if we can familiarize everybody with seafood a little bit more and becomes more of the vernacular. That responsibility is really on chefs; it’s on people like myself; it’s on storytellers; it’s on it’s on journalists;it’s on all of us; and, we’re working towards a new food system and that new food system is going to encompass and utilize all the different resources that we have that make sense and that are responsible. So whether that’s wild capture fisheries; whether that’s serving more catch-of-the-day and less focus on on tuna, salmon, shrimp; or, whether that’s people embracing a Monterey Seafood Watch or James Beard Smart Catch and really starting to look towards that; or, whether that’s aquaculture and embracing that. I always tell people that just the same way that there’s different land farms where there’s a different quality to different land farms–all farmers aren’t the same. Some people are doing it in a very responsible way and we want to support them and the same goes for aquaculture facilities. You know there’s farms out there now that are very cutting edge in terms of sustainability. We’re talking about Monterey Seafood Watch, green rated land-based aquaculture, which is coming to the U.S. and the next five years. It’s going to be here in a major way and it’s going to be available to communities that didn’t necessarily have access to fresh seafood. Now all of a sudden you’ve got a land based aquaculture facility that’s green rated serving high quality protein right down the street from you.
CA: That sounds like heaven. I mean this sounds like a partial solution to food deserts. That’s a show that we’re going to be focusing on soon. What you’re talking about not only impacts the environment but gravely impacts our health and wellness. For communities that don’t have access to that kind of seafood, this could make a giant impact on their wellbeing.
Well Poull, I can’t thank you enough for being on the show today. I think that the information that you’ve shared is more than making us a little bit smarter and we all have to take action. Your tips today have been very, very helpful. Listeners, as you go out and you choose what restaurant you’re going to go to or, the fishmonger behind your counter at your grocery store or seafood shop, think of some questions you can ask. It doesn’t hurt and doesn’t take that long. One at a time we certainly can make an impact in our future. Poull, we look forward to having you back on the show again soon.
PB: Thank you so much. I had a great time and I appreciate you having me on.