published Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Chefs to teach seafood conservation in the kitchen at Tennessee Aquarium's Serve and Protect event

Conservation efforts aren't just influenced by what Americans put into the water, but also what they take out of it.

It was a book with a three-letter title — "Cod," by Mark Kurlansky — that shifted how chef Virginia Willis looked at the entire ocean.

"I realized we were over-eating a species," Willis said. "We're fishing into extinction."

Willis now serves on the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of chefs who raise awareness about sustainable seafood. She will be giving a demonstration during the Tennessee Aquarium's upcoming "Serve and Protect" event, along with chef Susan Spicer.

"It feels very overwhelming when you first talk about the scope of the problem," said Willis. "But if more people change the way they purchase, all those things add up."

Tamie Cook, an Atlanta-based chef who has been working with the aquarium since the inception of "Serve and Protect," agrees.

"I think making people aware of eating with conservation in mind is a big factor in connecting them with the larger picture," said Cook. "Many people just don't know, and we make indiscriminate choices about what we eat."

She encourages people to read labels and to buy American, since the United States has stricter, more conservation-minded regulations than other seafood producers such as China.

Cook also says people should get more adventurous with the kinds of fish they cook, eating less large "steak-like" fish such as tuna -- which takes more resources to farm -- and trying trout, oysters, snapper and crawfish.

Many stores offer fish that has been labeled as approved by the Marine Stewardship Council -- a certification program for sustainable seafood.

Willis suggested apps shoppers can download, like "Seafood Watch" or "Seafood Finder," which help them pinpoint sustainable seafood retailers.

Some of Willis' simple tips: Farm-raised imported fish is bad. Instead choose farmed catfish and trout, or wild salmon and shrimp.

"If you're eating shrimp that's from the Gulf or the Atlantic, you're putting money back into your local economy," Willis said. "People may be wary of the word 'conservation,' but you can get everyone on board when you talk about putting money in your local economy."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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