There's a moment early in the new film The End of the Line that's particularly troubling. Over historical footage of nets and hulls laden with cod, narrator Ted Danson explains how Newfoundland's cod population, once the most abundant in the world, was fished out of existence in 1992. It's one of many dire realities presented in the documentary, which addresses overfishing much as An Inconvenient Truth did global warming. Chief among them is the calculation that we will deplete edible fish stocks by the year 2048. At least 80 percent of fisheries are already classified as fully depleted or over-exploited.
Based on the book The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat by London journalist Charles Clover, the film is the centerpiece of a national screening series called Fish 'n' Flicks taking place at three Bay Area restaurants this month. A total of twelve dinner events in cities including San Diego; Washington, DC; Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and New York City will present screenings of a condensed 26-minute version of the film and serve special menus featuring sustainable seafood.
The first Bay Area event took place last Tuesday at Yankee Pier Lafayette, which has adhered to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch sourcing guidelines since opening two years ago. Head chef Michael Dunn said he's developed a strong commitment to the concept of sustainable seafood. "We've come to embrace it more and more as we've got involved in it. ... Once you learn the facts behind it, you become a believer."
Beyond the small price increase, a chief challenge for Yankee Pier and other family-friendly neighborhood restaurants, he said, is making proper sourcing choices while continuing to offer customers what they expect from a traditional seafood house on a year-round basis.
At Tuesday night's event, Dunn's arctic char — a salmon alternative that was farm-raised in Iceland and in this case glazed with barbecue sauce — was the focus of a menu featuring farm-raised Manila clams from Washington, farm-raised popcorn shrimp from Florida, and line-caught mahi mahi from Hawaii. Each is classified a "best choice" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.
There was one downside: Only five people attended, three of whom were loosely connected to the organizers. They paid $39 apiece for dinner and a movie and a brief presentation by Dunn. Even before the film's sobering message, Joan Friedman of Walnut Creek didn't need much convincing. "I'm concerned about the environment and how we are devastating the seas," she said.
On the other side of the hills, at the Oakland Italian restaurant Oliveto, a second Fish 'n' Flicks event takes place on Wednesday, January 20. Co-owner Bob Klein and head chef Paul Canales are deeply devoted to sustainability and the locavore principles of fresh, seasonable, and local. They take seafood particularly seriously, looking beyond the generalized framework of Monterey Bay Aquarium's watch list to what they call the "fine grain" of the issue.
"This is not a casual interest that we have," said Klein. "We've been very interested in fisheries policy. It's a horrible mess." Referring to industrial fishing operations as "rapers and pillagers," Klein believes a solution to the issue demands widespread changes to fisheries policy and politics along with a holistic understanding of seafood: how, where, and by whom it is harvested. "Buying the properly caught fish is always a little bit more complicated," he said.
Canales is equally passionate. He typically recommends supporting only small fishermen who employ traditional methods, even if other methods such as farming are approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (except in the case of shellfish, where wild catches are largely illegal). His three-course menu on Wednesday, which will go for $45 along with a screening of the film, will feature cage-caught Dungeness crab and a fisherman's stew of local line-caught ling and rock cod, seine-caught squid, and farmed mussels. All will come from the Monterey Fish Market, a thirty-year-old seafood purveyor out of San Francisco with offices and a popular retail store in North Berkeley.
The Monterey Fish Market uses trusted and long-standing relationships with small-scale fisherman, some of which extend back to the market's origins in 1979, to provide sustainable seafood to around ninety restaurants in the Bay Area, said co-owner Tom Worthington. Strict standards and a broad vision have helped make him a leader in the field. Klein calls him "the guy who keeps us honest." Worthington, in turn, is serious about sustaining the fishermen who supply his daily stock.
"The work that they put into it really stands out, and we really need to support these people," said Worthington. He's opposed to fishing bans like the current prohibition on salmon on the West Coast, reasoning that industrial fishermen have more tools at their disposal to weather downturns than do the sort of one-man operations upon which he relies. "From our perspective, it's in bad form to punish someone who's always done the right thing," he said.
Instead, Worthington advocates putting more pressure on governments, agencies, and the industrial fishermen themselves to reduce catch quotas and eliminate trawling. Consumers, meanwhile, can eat lower-level seafood such as sardines, squid, clams, mussels, shrimp, and crab, all of which can be farmed sustainably in and around the Bay Area. Ultimately, Worthington warns, we've already reached a point of crisis: "One way or another, there will be a day of reckoning."