Sustainable seafood dives into the mainstream

Celebrity seafood chef Rick Moonen wants diners to vote with their forks for environmentally friendly fish.

Despite its blistering Mojave Desert location, Las Vegas is a city awash in seafood, from all-you-can-eat shrimp to king crab legs stacked like Lincoln Logs. Most of the abundant seafood offerings here are imported via a supply chain considerably less transparent than the average showgirl’s regalia. Which makes it even more remarkable that one of America’s most notable sustainable seafood champions has created an environmentally friendly oasis on the neon-lit strip.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Rick Moonen

“The majority of people who come into my restaurant aren’t aware we’re a sustainability-based restaurant,” says Chef Rick Moonen, owner of rm seafood, which follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations for sourcing seafood caught or farmed in ways that don’t harm the environment. “It’s something I’m trying to do in a non-preachy way,” he says, with subtle touches such as putting a sustainability statement on the menu.

Evangelizing about sustainable seafood, however, is exactly what Moonen is known for—at least among industry chefs, fishing communities and the media. He has delighted Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King with a finger-licking Sloppy Joe sandwich made with sustainable farm-raised catfish. And his wiry frame and quick smile are equally easy to spot in guest appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters,” where he slips in his message that consumers should give more thought to the seafood they select.

We’re going to need large-scale, high-quality, environmentally responsible solutions, and we’re going to need to support the companies that are doing it a lot better.”
—Rick Moonen

Before making the move to Las Vegas in 2003, Moonen had already established himself as a well-known seafood chef in New York City. By the late 1990s, however, he began to notice that the Atlantic swordfish he was able to source were getting smaller—far less frequent were the 200-plus-pound beauties he was used to getting. That’s when Moonen joined forces with SeaWeb, a nonprofit group that focuses on science-based solutions to ocean issues, and other prominent chefs and started raising awareness through SeaWeb’s “Give Swordfish a Break Campaign.” He’s gone on to testify about environmental and sustainability policy issues in Washington, D.C., and is actively involved with the Seafood Watch program.

Evolving ideas about sustainable seafood

Moonen says making sustainable fish mainstream is going to become even more important as the world’s population continues to multiply in the decades ahead, and he is committed to keeping up with the science and updating his message. Threats that include warming oceans, ocean acidification, illegal fishing, overfishing and migrating stocks can quickly change consumption recommendations by environmental groups like Seafood Watch.

In a surprising and somewhat controversial move in the spring of 2014, Moonen became a brand ambassador for True North Salmon Co., owned by aquaculture giant Cooke Aquaculture. True North brand is raised in the Bay of Fundy in both Canada and Maine, and is grown in ocean pens. Embracing a farmed salmon was a sea change for the chef, who had spent years refusing to put it on his menu. After all, farmed salmon’s reputation is still tarnished by concerns over escapes, disease, pollution, pesticide and antibiotic use.

But Moonen says the industry is changing, and it’s time to reward companies that are making important strides.

“I had always been supportive of closed containment systems on land, but we’re going to need to feed 9 billion people by 2050,” says Moonen. “We’re going to need large-scale, high-quality, environmentally responsible solutions, and we’re going to need to support the companies that are doing it a lot better.”

The chef didn’t take his new gig lightly. He reviewed the company’s procedures, its feed ratio, its commitment to steer clear of antibiotics and more. For example, True North’s freshwater hatcheries employ water recycling and filtering systems that use one-tenth the water used by conventional flow-through operations, according to the company, and it controls harvest-to-delivery process temperatures to minimize ice usage.

“I’m trying to find a solution for food security, and it’s going to come from large farms. If they’re doing it right, and I can help influence them to do it right, hallelujah,” says Moonen.

And he’s not stopping there. Moonen and his business partner, Adrian Zettell, are seeking funding to launch Las Vegas Urban Farm, a zero-water discharge facility they say can grow finfish like barramundi and cobia, shrimp, bivalves and more. The excess nutrients from the aquaculture side will be used to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables, along with fodder to feed livestock like Nigerian dwarf dairy goats and chickens. Moonen envisions an integrated agri-aquaculture farm with nutrient-rich water.

“For $4 million I can have the farm model up and running, and hopefully it can be transplanted anywhere in the world that needs it most,” he says, adding that the project could be operational within six months of being funded. “If it can make it in Las Vegas’ harsh environment without losing water, this can be done anywhere.”

Star-powered sustainability

Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for Seafood Watch, says chefs in general are influencers. That sphere of influence extends to their distributors, suppliers and producers, restaurant guests—and up-and-coming chefs who come to understand the impact of choosing sustainable seafood. With Moonen’s added star power, Bowman says his influence is further magnified.

“Rick is out there saying things need to change,” says Bowman. “We need the food supply to get better, and he’s out there connecting the dots from producers to groups like ours. He isn’t just waiting for things to happen. He’s out there stirring it up.”

Moonen says that despite the often grim news about the state of the world’s oceans, he remains hopeful and believes consumers are more aware of where their food is coming from than ever before.

“Have we reached a tipping point of motivation to move in the right direction? I believe we’re really close. My belief is there is a solution, and I’m pushing as hard as I can,” he says.

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Based in San Diego, Clare Leschin-Hoar specializes in reporting on seafood, sustainability and food trends. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, EatingWell, The Boston Globe and many more media outlets.

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