The Slippery Business of Sustainable Seafood in Campus Dining

6195352047by Daniel Russell ’19, Zilkha Summer Intern 2016

Where the Williams College Dining Services chooses to source seafood from and the species of seafood selected has much impact on the sustainability of the marine species as a food source. Exactly how sustainable is the seafood that ends up on your plate? The answer may seem simple, but depends on a host of intersecting factors.

Bob Volpi, Director of Dining Services, and Chef Mark Thompson, Executive Chef of Dining Services, have provided insight on what these intersecting factors are. But first, it must be noted that Dining Services does have a commitment to sustainably sourcing its seafood. Chef Mark has noted that Dining Services actively seeks out fisheries with either Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification or Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification, both of which are reputable certifications renowned for their commitment to ensuring that targeted species are only fished at levels that allow marine populations to indefinitely renew their numbers and not disrupt marine ecosystems.

For some background information, consider that among the practices that detract from the sustainability of using certain species are the mismanagement of fisheries, excessive bycatch, and destructive fishing practices.  The mismanagement of fisheries includes the lack of strong rules and regulations, which allows fisheries to extend beyond the boundaries of specific sustainable fishing capacities, disregard for scientifically supported fish quotas, and an insufficient amount of Marine Protected Areas for young fish to mature and reproduce. Destructive fishing practices include the practice of bottom trawling, in which a large net is dragged across the ocean floor, which destroys structurally complex habitats, such as coral reefs, that provide a home to certain marine species. There is also cyanide fishing, in which sodium cyanide is squirted into the water to stun fish, and dynamite fishing, in which explosives are set off underwater, both of which destroy the coral reef homes of marine species.

Chef Mark Thompson and Catering Chef Jim Guiden
Chef Mark Thompson and Catering Chef Jim Guiden

The most sustainable fishing practices are the kind that have been practiced by indigenous cultures for generations. These include hook-and-line methods, spearfishing, and cast nets, all of which carry an incredibly reduced risk for bycatch with the use of specific baits and by only targeting one fish at a time. In addition, indigenous cultures also only fish for certain species and at certain times of the year, and section off certain areas as spots protected from fishing, both practices that allow for the harvesting of marine species in way that also enables them to restore their populations. Jonathan Labaree 85, Director of Community Initiatives at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, has also suggested in a recent talk on campus, that targeting less familiar marine species for seafood would ease the pressure on other speciespopulation, while keeping the fishing industry in business, and avoiding the population endangerment of popular marine species for seafood.

However, although Dining Services actively seeks out fisheries with sustainable certification, their search does not come without its negatives. A troubling concern has been the use of frozen seafood from MSC or BAP certified fisheries. In the case of frozen seafood, fish is shipped to overseas locations to be preserved. Overseas shipping leaves behind unwanted carbon footprint with each trip across the seas, and on top of that, Dining Services is hesitant to serve seafood laden with preservatives. Another significant challenge for Dining Services is the sheer volume of food that they have to secure from suppliers. Bob Volpi mentioned that Williams College can eat through two hundred to three hundred pounds of seafood in one dining hall meal. Accordingly, although it would be more sustainable serve a variety of marine species as seafood, there is a specific focus on select species that have large enough populations to support the demand. In Williamscase, they are primarily cod and haddock. Still, Dining Services takes measures to not stress specific populations too much by switching up the locations from which they get them, such as getting a different type of cod from the Pacific Ocean after having used cod from the Gulf of Maine for a period of time. Other species can also be bought according to the current season of the year, such as tilapia and catfish, but it can difficult to get the student body used to the different textures of seafood it is not used to eating. Some of Dining Serviceslocal suppliers include Black River Produce of North Springfield, VT, and Masses Seafood of Chicopee, MA, however I was unable to find much information about the sustainability of the fishing practices they use. Other common, but less local wholesale vendors used are US Foods and Ginsbergs both of which have MSC certification.

Dining Services still has some possible kinks that could be worked out. They could still stand to expand seafood options to a wider variety of species. They could still stand to find more local wholesale suppliers with smaller carbon footprints. Williams Colleges Dining Services has a commitment to serving sustainable seafood, and they continue to perfect the process with a zeal for high quality food service.



Cover Image:  fish by the_photographer (2014)

In-text fish image:  Fish by Victoria Reay (2011)