How Denver is Tackling Sustainable Seafood in a Land-locked City

As fish consumption gains popularity in health trends, the world’s population is eating seafood at a rate that cannot be sustained by the world’s oceans. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported earlier this year that since 1961 the average annual growth in global fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth. To help combat the exponential decrease in fish stocks, consumers should focus on supporting sustainable seafood – both fished and farmed – to ensure the oceans’ stocks return to a healthy level.

The first step is understanding how seafood can be sustainable in a land-locked area such as Denver. Ocean Wise defines sustainable seafood as “species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.” Resources such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch give consumers the information they need to consume seafood responsibly. Seafood Watch ranks the sustainability of seafood options for each region in the US (click here for a downloadable guide for Colorado). But this still puts a lot of pressure on consumers to research before purchasing.

Luckily Colorado is home to a few incredible aquaculture farms and seafood suppliers. Based in Denver, both Seattle Fish Co. and Northeast Seafood supply Denver chefs and restaurants with fresh, sustainable seafood. Seattle Fish Co. recently celebrated 100 years of bringing the best fish to our city. In August they hosted a symposium to gather some of the city’s leaders in the seafood industry to discuss the future of Denver’s seafood.

READ: Seattle Fish Co. Celebrates 100 Years in Denver with a Sustainability Symposium

Along with a summit hosted in October by the James Beard Foundation, chefs and fish suppliers are continuously working to ensure the city’s access to sustainable seafood. This trend is country-wide, but the landlocked city of Denver is becoming a leader in the national effort. Chefs, restaurant owners, aquaculture farmers and distributors are committed to reduce Colorado’s impact on our global fish stocks and the ocean’s environment.

JBF Smart Catch in Colorado

Photo by Lucy Beaugard.

As Denver’s food scene develops, so does the city’s desire for great seafood. And while it’s difficult to see our effect on our oceans in comparison to port cities like Seattle, our consumption of seafood majorly impacts the oceans and fish stocks. The best way to consume sustainable food is by eating locally from small farms and ranches, but it’s difficult to consume local fish in a land-locked state such as Colorado.

There are a few local aquaculture farms such as Frontier Trout Ranch and Colorado Catch that use sustainable practices to reduce or completely eliminate waste. But these two local farms can only satisfy your trout and striped bass desires. Fortunately, many leaders in the Denver food industry are working with suppliers to increase the availability of sustainable seafood – selecting fish from trusted fishermen and fisheries following ethical practices around the world.

Chefs don’t have to know it all to source products from trusted fisheries and farms. The James Beard Foundation (JBF) helps restaurants evaluate the sources of seafood products with their Smart Catch program. In October, JBF invited some of the city’s favorite chefs to a Sustainable Seafood Issue Summit. Chefs had an opportunity to talk with the foundation’s sustainable seafood partners, including Australis Barramundi, Blue Ocean Mariculture, Riverence Trout, Skuna Bay Salmon and Verlasso Salmon. Members from the nonprofit and advocacy community were also part of the conversation, such as Inland Ocean Coalition and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Jax. Photo by Glenn Ross for 303 Magazine.

Attendees discussed the challenges that Denver faces with sustainable seafood compared to the rest of the country as well as challenges that individuals face in sourcing sustainably for their restaurants. Vice President of Impact for JBF, Katherine Miller, explained that they wanted attendees to have a forum for “a discussion about all the regulations, all the perceptions, all the misperceptions around what we need to do to diversify seafood action.”

This summit was an opportunity to hear from the chef community, but also to offer Denver chefs resources to make sustainable sourcing easier. The conversation continued as representatives from the JBF explained their Smart Catch program. Designed as an educational program, Smart Catch helps chefs diversify their menus both in seafood choices and sourcing options and trains and challenges chefs to be environmentally responsible in sourcing seafood.

Utilizing data from Monterey Bay Aquarium, NOAA and Oceana, the program also makes information available for consumers to know more about the source of their seafood and discover chefs that are dedicated to sustainability practices. A full list of restaurants committed to the Smart Catch program can be found here

Locally Committed Chefs

JBF has long included Denver chefs in their various programs, including their Bootcamp for Policy and Change. Miller explained the foundation’s desire to host a Sustainable Seafood Summit in Denver, “It’s a place where we know that chefs are really interested in being better food system advocates and certainly in a place where the issues related to sustainable seafood especially around high-quality aquaculture and mariculture are important because it is a landlocked state, with the exception of rivers and lakes.”

It’s true – the foundation is currently onboarding 10 Denver chefs for the Smart Catch program after the meetings in October, in addition to some chefs who are already part of the program and others who are looking to join soon. Impact Programs Manager for JBF, Sarah Drew, explained the importance of the Smart Catch program in a food-oriented city like Denver.

“Once chefs realize the power that they have in putting pressure on the suppliers to provide green rated seafood items – you know whatever a chef thinks is sustainable – that’s really when the system is going to change.” – Sarah Drew

And chefs in Denver are taking note.

Sheila Lucero – Photo courtesy of Big Red F Group

Sheila Lucero with the Big Red F Group is learning a lot about cooking different species of fish herself. As a leader in Denver’s seafood industry, she recently moved into the executive chef position at Lola Coastal Mexican. There, she’s learning about coastal recipes that use varying fish species.

Though she expanded her repertoire, Lucero hasn’t backed down on her sustainability mission. The chef sources from certified sustainable fisheries and farms and is excited about a few new fishing innovations. One of her new favorite products is processed and frozen at sea. This method eliminates waste and allows for a fresher taste – fishermen typically freeze their catch at sea and are then thawed to be processed on land before refreezing for transportation and distribution.

One of about 60 chefs across the US, Lucero is a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. These leaders meet a couple times a year to discuss healthy ocean sourcing and brainstorm methods to be better seafood advocates. Last year, Lucero traveled to the nation’s capital to speak on behalf of the seafood industry. Along with two other chefs – one from Florida and the other from California – Lucero defended the current Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. Amended in 2006, the act has enabled the United States to have some of the best-managed fisheries in the world. The current proposed changes would weaken the act’s strong sustainability measures.

Kristofer Lofgren – Photo courtesy of Sustainable Restaurant Group

Owner of the year-old Bamboo Sushi, Kristofor Lofgren, takes his business’ carbon footprint into serious consideration. After the first location opened in Portland, Bamboo Sushi was named the first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. A part of this honor is due to how Lofgren constructed and operated his restaurants. In addition to using low impact lighting and recycled materials to construct the building, Lofgren’s business plants seagrass – a plant that sequesters carbon at about eight times the rate of trees – to be a carbon-neutral company.

Based in Portland, Bamboo Sushi opened a location in Denver last year. They recognized that Denver is a city where consumers are interested in knowing the story of their food. Named the Sustainable Restaurant Group, Lofgren’s company hopes to set a precedent for sustainability in the restaurant industry – leading by example. Before the Denver location opened, Lofgren worked with local suppliers to ensure they could source from the same trusted fisheries and farms he has worked with for his Portland locations. The owner wanted consistency in his restaurants and commitment to his partnerships, but he also wanted to give Denver chefs an opportunity to discover new sources for their seafood items. “Buying sustainable products, that’s step one, if you want to be a sustainable restaurant,” Lofgren commented. And while that is only the first step, it’s an important one.

Frontier Trout – Photo courtesy of Frontier Trout Ranch

“Wild fisheries are kinda at their capacity,” the JBF Smart Catch Sustainability Director Corey Peet reported. “That then leads to aquaculture which is definitely the fastest growing form of food production – and arguably is the most efficient form of food production.” As the head scientist working with JBF, Peet insists that though aquaculture is important to the future of seafood it has to be done well to truly be an improved and better option than overfishing the oceans.

Two Colorado fisheries are doing their best to raise healthy, sustainable fish with little to no impact on the surrounding environment. Both Frontier Trout Ranch and Colorado Catch – raising trout and striped bass respectively – strive to be as sustainable and considerate to the environment as possible. Both Kermit Krantz from Frontier Trout Ranch and Tyler Faucette from Colorado Catch understand that a large part of sustainability is optimizing every resource to its capacity. Both farms source water from a deep well – uncontaminated by water runoff from surrounding farms. Their own runoff, Krantz and Faucette divert to their own farmland, using it as a fertilizer for their other agricultural enterprises.

Krantz also views fish excrement as a valuable resource. He removes the excrement from the tanks, spreads it out on his land to pulverize, and eventually bags it up to sell as fertilizer. To be as sustainable as possible, Krantz finds value in every aspect of his farm to reduce waste and provide a great product.

But as a former finance guy, Krantz sees the opportunity beyond his own business to reduce waste in the seafood industry. Each week he takes a load of fish to his processor and distributor, Shamrock Foods and he always returns with a load of unwanted fish parts – spinal cords and skeletons included. Back at his ranch, Krantz grinds up that waste and adds an organic sugar source as well as a digester bacteria to create organic fertilizer. A large part of sustainability is addressing each part of the process – from hatchery to the dining room. Krantz helps Shamrock reduce their waste by turning it into a viable money-making resource for his own farm.

These innovative practices in raising fish are similar to Kristofer Lofgren’s work in the seafood restaurant industry. The incredible stories of Frontier Trout Ranch and Colorado Catch help sell their sustainable products – making it an attractive alternative to wild caught fish. Faucette understands that there will always be a demand for a wild-caught product. But he also recognizes that the whole world can’t be fed on wild fish. Once the oceans are fished at a sustainable level, “the demand for seafood exceeds what we can catch in wild-caught, so then aquaculture needs to step in and fill the void behind that.”

Other experts in the seafood industry also recognize the importance for farmed fish such as Chad Petrone from Northeast Seafood. He explained, “we’re on the tipping point where people are starting to realize that farm-raised fish is the way of the future.” When raised well by farmers like Krantz and Faucette, fish farming is one of the most sustainable animal proteins we can consume. Petrone added, “If we start having the conversation of farm-raised fish versus farm-raised beef versus farm-raised pork and chicken, it’s not even a competition as far as sustainability. The fish is going to come out on top every time.”

What You Can Do in the Mile High City

Jesus Silva and Jeff Osaka of Silva’s Fish Market (now Tammens Fish Market). Photo by Lucy Beaugard

It’s easy to make assumptions when purchasing products at the grocery store or selecting from a restaurant’s menu, but there is so much hidden in the seafood industry. The laws of supply and demand mean that what consumers want, consumers get. But they have to know that sometimes what they’re getting isn’t really what they want. If more consumers want a sustainable option when purchasing seafood, restaurants and grocery stores have to ask for that from their suppliers, who in turn have to tell the fisheries and farms that they need to create a sustainable product.

Consumers have the power to change the seafood industry, but they also have to be willing to pay the price and put in the hard work. Below are actions you can take as a consumer to better our seafood options in Denver, support the sustainability work the industry is doing in Colorado and help protect our oceans to give fish a healthy living environment.

Support JBF Smart Catch participants – a full list can be found here
Hold restaurants accountable.
Research before you purchase seafood in grocery stores and opt for smaller local markets or transparent suppliers.
Support local fish farms.
Reduce your use of single-use plastics.
Donate to or volunteer with Inland Ocean Coalition.

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