Seafood Savvy, an ongoing effort through START (Solutions to Avoid Red Tide) is gearing up to go full steam ahead this fall when visitors and seasonal residents flock back to this area.
Local START President, Bruce Neill, PhD., who also serves as executive director/co-founder of Sanibel Sea School, says the initiative started last spring and the findings of that program have given the organization an opportunity to fine tune it and be ready to move forward in a big way this fall.
"The pilot program involved going into the restaurants and training them and giving them material," said Neill. "Our next goal is to go back and follow up to provide guidance on what we have trained and updates on changes that may have occurred in addition to further outreach to wholesalers and distributors.
"We did this as a pilot project in the spring and are gearing up so when the visitors arrive back on island, it will be very obvious. This will be done through newspaper articles, restaurants and the chamber of commerce. Our goal is to continue the dialog in the restaurants so that the servers are educated and the clients know to ask for sustainable options. Most servers don't know if they are asked a question about sustainable seafood how to answer."
Neill adds from an educational point of view, we are seeing across the board an increase in the number of people who choose to come to Sanibel and return to the island based on attending Sanibel Sea School.
"People who have always come because of our environment are now offered another alternative to educate themselves and be conscious of how they make their seafood choices." Neill said. "We are doing that at the school with the young people and know that the education they take with them will grow into a lifelong awareness of our delicate ocean and gulf waters."
As far as the community, Neill says Seafood Savvy is an interesting program.
"I think that we have made some headway, but have slowed down over the summer," he said. "Starting with four restaurants, we now have eight restaurants that are on board: Bailey's, Timbers, Doc Fords and Lighthouse Cafe have been joined by Traders' and Sweet Melissa's. George and Wendy's Seafood Grill and Lazy Flamingo have agreed to join and are in the process of starting promoting and utilizing the program."
There are many components to this initiative that need to be addressed. Distributors, wholesalers, markets, retailers, restaurant owners and chefs need to be more educated and diligent on who and where they buy their fish and it has to be a cooperative and diligent effort. Wait staff has to be educated to suggest sustainable seafood or answer questions from savvy consumers on which seafood offered in that establishment is sustainable. Finally, consumers have to be educated to ask for and demand that options be offered that are sustainable.
"Everything is still market driven," said Mark Blust, general manager of Timbers Restaurant & Seafood Market. "Our customers have requested it in the dining room and the fish market. Our servers get it and are able to explain to customers at the table while they are dining and are able to inform a customer about our choices. We have also gotten a lot of requests at our fish market also.
"We started asking our purveyors where their fish is coming from. Some are very informed and others are getting more informed since we are requesting that information regularly. One of our distributors, The Fish Lady, has been on board for a while and is very good about utilizing sustainable fish. "
Richard Johnson and Bailey's General Store have been involved since the original conversation with Neill and Ralph Woodring on how this awareness could be brought about in the community.
"I recognized that this was something we needed to be involved in since the beginning and we had our staff trained by Dr. Neill and his staff to help us understand what sustainable seafood is and why one fish is sustainable and why one isn't and what were the methods used to catch the sea food," said Johnson. "Our staff has been completely educated so that we can work in conjunction with our suppliers and make sure that we can accurately represent where the fish come from. If a customer comes in and requests a specific fish that isn't sustainable, we try first to offer a sustainable fish that will work first as an alternative and use that opportunity to educate that customer, if possible.
"We post the sustainable species that we have in the store on a blackboard so customers know day to day what sustainable seafood is. We still don't have a large amount of requests particularly for sustainable seafood with so many of our customers being seasonal or guests, so we have found that most of our work is in educating customers."
"It is clear to us that the word is not out there yet and we still have work to do educating the general public on sustainable seafood, but it is a cooperative effort that we are working hard to do," Johnson adds.
"We check many websites on sustainable seafood to make sure we are up to date on the latest information. In addition to the Seafood Savvy initiative, an additional website we utilize is Fishchoice.com."
Currently, the local START chapter is an all-volunteer board and fundraisers have brought funds to assist with education of all involved from fisherman to consumer. Restaurateurs are having a hard time finding out which is sustainable food that they purchase from their suppliers so START also has to educate outside the immediate island area into the community of fishermen and suppliers.
"We have hired a young man who will be working full time in the fall," said Neill. "Max Westendorf will be the liaison of all these components along with the online educational program we have started called the Coastal Classroom. Max is a recent college graduate with a degree in Biology and Marine Science and will be able to interface with restaurant owners and wait staff locally through the spectrum to the fish wholesalers. He will be able to represent all of those needs to come together to find a common solution that becomes habit for all of us.
This young man will be able, through his education and outreach for our local START organization, to lead us all to make correct choices."
It is START's hope that Seafood Savvy will be an added benefit to those visitors who already come to our area for the pristine environment and wildlife that we have.
If readers want to start educating themselves, the Coastal Classroom is on the START website at: start1.org.
That website also provides links through its resources tab of handy pocket charts for each area of the country listing the seafood that is sustainable.
"Everyone wants to do the right thing, but many don't know how," said Neill. "This is a resource that will educate everyone on how to do the right thing preserve our sea life by choosing seafood that is sustainable and avoid seafood that is overfished, caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment."
Important facts to know:
More than 80 percent of seafood in America is imported. Much of that imported seafood comes from countries that have no enforcement of fishing practices.
Unregulated fishing allows some commercial fishermen to use monofilament lined with hooks that are many miles long. These hooks catch many things including birds, dolphins and turtles.
Some other practices include dragging enormous nets, weighed down so that they drag along the bottom of the ocean, destroying habitat in addition to the sea life they are trying to catch.
Bi-catch is fish and other marine life that is pulled up in shrimp nets. Any sea life other than shrimp is crushed, killed and cast away in the process.
Some fish farms have potential hazards because they use hormones and antibiotics to spur the growth. They also pen off large bodies of water to raise tuna or salmon. Since these fish are not free to seek food on their own, other seafood is killed to feed the fish in the farms. Four to fifteen times the weight of the fish being fed is needed to raise that fish it takes 15 pounds of fish to produce a single pound of tuna; with salmon, 4 pounds of fish is needed to produce 1 pound of salmon.