Want to make a big impact on the health of our oceans? Think small, top chefs say. As in anchovies and sardines.
Larger fish under threat
That's the message from 20 of the world's leading chefs, who gathered in north-eastern Spain this past week to draw attention to what they hope is a simple solution to the threat facing many of the larger fish species that overfishing has pushed to near collapse.
Their take: If more people ate more little fish – anchovies, sardines, herring and mackerel, for example – both human diets and seafood populations would improve.
Ferran Adria, of Spain's now closed elBulli restaurant, joined with Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea, Massimo Bottura of Italy's Osteria Francescana and more than a dozen other chefs for a summit with the U.S.-based ocean conservation group Oceana to discuss leveraging their star power to get these fish not just onto their own menus — which only a lucky few will ever eat from — but into restaurants and homes worldwide.
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"It's the right moment and the right ingredient," said Gaston Acurio, the co-owner and chef of Peru's famed Astrid y Gaston restaurant, during an exclusive round table discussion with The Associated Press.
"One of the best markets in the world is health and wellness, and anchovies and small fish are health and this is wellness that is good for society."
Driving the chefs' involvement is the campaign by Oceana aimed at convincing consumers to embrace eating more small oily fish. Known as "forage fish", they're part of the food chain that feeds larger fish, such as tuna or swordfish, both of which are threatened. The smaller fish are abundant enough to feed both the larger predators as well as plenty of people, says Oceana chief scientist Michael Hirshfield.
Delicacies in the Mediterranean
But though anchovies, sardines and similar small fish are treated as delicacies in the Mediterranean, in the rest of the world they often end up as feed for farmed salmon, chicken and pigs.
"They feed 3 pounds of fish to make 1 pound of salmon. That's not a great way to feed a planet," said Andy Sharpless, Oceana's CEO and author of The Perfect Protein. ''We can feed tens of millions more people if we simply eat anchovies and other forage fish directly rather than in form of a farmed salmon or other animals raised on fish meal and fish oil."
Their point isn't to criticise the farmed seafood industry, the chefs said. Rather, they want to lead by example. They agreed to serve small oily fish at their restaurants as much as they can, to train younger chefs that the fish are as good for the planet as for the plate, and to develop recipes that make it easy for the average consumer to prepare them at home.
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"We need to take advantage of species that there are in great abundance," Acurio said. "We as chefs with the magic and the passion and the talent we have can provoke and convince people to consume them and influence the market. As chefs we can create a consciousness to inspire many other cooks."
The chefs scoffed at the idea that people – particularly small fish-wary Americans – might be reluctant. They said the same food revolution that has turned sushi into convenience store food around the world can work just as well on this.
It doesn't hurt that the chefs gathered in San Sebastian are known for their innovation and for taking raw food materials people would never think of buying and transforming them into delicacies.
Re-inventing meals with small fish
Acurio said the chefs' best contribution to promoting consumption of small fish might be creating simple meals anyone could cook. "If we can invent concept products, like the best burger you have ever eaten mixed with anchovies, that's one way to popularise it," he said.
For Joan Roca, who runs Spain's famed El Celler de Can Roca with his brothers, the involvement with the campaign boils down to his feeling that "all chefs have a responsibility to be visible".
"This campaign is trying to raise ethical and environmental public awareness," he said. "If you take care of your health, you also take care of the planet's health. It is as simple as that and it is something that everyone needs to understand."
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Image: Grilled sardine from Shutterstock