Studying Sustainable Seafood in Seattle

By Brittany Flittner, Kadie McShirley, Henry Peterson, Emily Rhoades (University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs)

Seattle is a hub of seafood trading, a center of technical and managerial competence in fisheries, and has a reputation as a sustainable fish city. But does Seattle hold up to its reputation if we dig deeper?

For the past year, we have researched this question as part of our graduate program at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. The project, initially a conversation between The Nature Conservancy and our adviser, Professor Eddie Allison, turned into an opportunity for us to work directly with The Nature Conservancy to inform and develop its work in cities and marine systems.

First stop for our team: restaurants. We wanted to know if and why chefs and restaurateurs purchase sustainable seafood. We spoke with representatives from 35 restaurants and restaurant groups in Seattle that ran the gamut from seafood-centric spots to those with only a few fish items on the menu. Interviewees told us what matters to them when purchasing seafood and challenges that keep them from making more sustainable decisions.

 For some restaurants in Seattle, sustainable practices include purchasing from tribal fisheries to support culture and subsistence living. This image depicts members of the Swinomish Tribe, who use drift net fishing techniques on the Skagit River. Photo by Bridget Besaw.

For some restaurants in Seattle, sustainable practices include purchasing from tribal fisheries to support culture and subsistence living. This image depicts members of the Swinomish Tribe, who use drift net fishing techniques on the Skagit River. Photo by Bridget Besaw.

Almost all have some sustainably sourced seafood on their menus, intentionally or not. For some chefs, sustainability is paramount. They encourage customers to try unfamiliar fish to alleviate fishing pressure on popular species or they purchase from tribal fisheries to support culture and subsistence living. Conversely, other chefs are restricted by high operating costs and competition within Seattle’s market and they seek to keep their fish affordable for established clientele.

What motivates chefs and restaurateurs to be a part of the sustainable seafood movement? We learned they are motivated If it fits within their restaurant’s brand, if it aligns with personal ethics about the food they serve or if they identify as members of the fishing community. Most interviewees acknowledged that committing to sustainable seafood comes with a price — be that higher purchasing cost, training staff to tell the sustainability story or time spent to navigate the slew of guidance about sustainable seafood. When they opt in, in one chef’s words, “We choose to play that game, others do not.”

These interviews were only one piece of our project, albeit the most fun part. We also analyzed menus from nearly 300 restaurants across Seattle, combed through existing frameworks for sustainable food initiatives and catalogued seafood selection and prices at selected grocery stories in the city. We look forward to releasing a final report on our project soon, including specific recommendations and next steps.

So is Seattle a sustainable seafood city or do we have a long way to go? Our team concluded that we are on the right track! We were impressed by Seattle’s dedication to sustainable seafood. With some more concerted effort and commitment, Seattle can be a beacon for other cities to take steps towards seafood sustainability.

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