The National Aquarium took a step Monday to connect the dots between seafood consumers and local watermen.
The Inner Harbor institution brought together about 140 stakeholders for the first East Coast Seafood Forum, an event the aquarium hopes to hold annually. The full day of panel discussions and roundtable talks included voices from watermen to retailers — representatives from every point in the seafood supply chain — who spent the day touching on aquaculture, branding seafood, the challenges of promoting sustainable seafood and the benefits of buying locally.
TJ Tate, the aquarium’s seafood sustainability director, has been working since she joined the aquarium in January to make sustainable fish and shellfish a priority for the organization. Monday’s forum brought together groups of stakeholders in the region’s seafood industry that she’s been working with, but until now they’ve been somewhat siloed.
“We can create a program, but if we don’t have buy-in from every one of these stakeholders, it’s not going to work,” she said. “We’re going to celebrate the good things that are happening in this region, but we’re also going to figure out how to be a little bit smarter.”
Using the feedback from the forum, Tate will work to bridge gaps between watermen, consumers and everyone in between to promote local, sustainable seafood.
Getting the seafood program right was the most difficult part of getting Woodberry Kitchen up and running, chef Spike Gjerde said. Woodberry Kitchen made a commitment from the start to source its ingredients locally, and while meat and produce were easy, seafood gave him a tough time.
Eight years ago, when the restaurant opened, there was little transparency and no conversation around sustainable seafood. Now, that’s starting to change.
“The industry has shifted so dramatically so quickly,” he said.
“For me the biggest relief and the most gratitude goes to our guests who get it, who don’t press us for things that aren’t on our menu,” Gjerde said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to talk to our gusts to educate our guests when that makes sense, but also to do the right thing.”
John Shields, chef and owner of Gertrude’s, chairs the aquarium’s chef council — representing just one of the segments involved in the seafood supply chain. He said consumers will be willing to pay more for fish they know is sustainably sourced, though it costs more. But without strong storytelling that explains where the seafood comes from and why eating locally is important, that can be a tough sell.
“The bottom line is it’s a business,” Shields said.
Much of the conversation Monday centered on how wholesalers, retailers and restaurateurs can take the stories on the watermen that supply them and convey them to consumers. Tate said in order to effectively communicate those stories and the importance of eating sustainable seafood, their messages need to get back to the basics.
“We have to unmuddy those waters. We’ve muddied it ourselves to the point where we’ve confused the consumer,” Tate said. “When the consumer gets confused, they choose not to choose.”
Sarah covers hospitality/tourism, sportswear and casinos.
National Aquarium hosts seafood forum to bridge gaps between watermen, consumers