National Seafood Month may be coming to a close, but I think about seafood and where it comes from every day of the year. As a chef, I have a sacred duty to be mindful about what I’m serving — it must be delicious, yes, but I also want to know that the products I feed people are not harming the Earth, or other humans.
When I was a toddler, we lived in Kyushu, Japan, and mom would buy a fish the size of a tiny osembe cracker, one so small nobody else wanted it, because it was all she could afford. When I ask her about it now, my mom’s eyes sparkle and she seems to revert to her younger years when she used to prepare local fish for me when I was a baby. She tells me, “Every morning I would go to the fish monger and buy a small porgy that had just been fished off the nearby coast. The fish monger would laugh and say, ‘What are you going to do with such a little fish?!’ The little fish was for you. Each day I would steam a fish and carefully remove the flesh from the bones with chopsticks and mix it with rice for you. Other times, I would buy a single oyster for you. Ever since you were a baby, you have been eating freshly caught seafood and that's why you are so smart and strong.”
Later, when I was three, mom and I moved to New Haven, Connecticut. I spent much of my childhood summers fishing and visiting the Long Island Sound for shiners, snapper blues, flounder, sea robin, porgy, blue crabs, blue mussels, steamers, and clams. We used to know where all our seafood was from because we either caught it ourselves or bought it from a fish monger who worked with the fishermen.
Years later as a young chef at Miya’s, the sushi restaurant my mother started in 1982, we purchased seafood from a wholesaler, just like all the other restaurants did. Most of the seafood we used was imported from far away and none of us knew the fisherman or anything about how the seafood was caught or farmed.
Today, most chefs don’t catch their own fish or get seafood directly from a local dock. Most of the seafood that chefs cook with comes from foreign waters. In fact, over 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported and only a tiny percentage of the imported seafood is inspected by the F.D.A. Much of it fails inspection for a vast array of chemical and microbial contaminants like antibiotics, fungicides, salmonella, and even fecal matter. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems that chefs face because we do not have enough transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain; most times we don’t know the path the fish travels from foreign fisherman or farm to our plates.
As a chef whose mission is to cook in a planet-friendly way, it’s unsettling to learn that the U.S. imported $2.4 billion in seafood products derived from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in 2019 alone. Illegal fishing jeopardizes the health of our oceans, undermines healthy fisheries, and is often associated with forced labor and other human rights abuses.
The large volumes of illegally caught and fraudulently labeled seafood that enters U.S. markets every year make it difficult for chefs to verify that the seafood they serve is legally caught, sustainable, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled.
It’s clear there are loopholes in the U.S. traceability requirements and more must be done. IUU fishing, paired with mislabeling/seafood fraud, means that U.S. consumers everywhere are unwittingly eating illegally caught or mislabeled seafood, falling victim to a bait and switch.
We need more information about the seafood that enters our country. Not all seafood is traceable from the boat (or farm) to the consumer’s plate, but it should be — and more importantly, it can be. The government has the tools, technology, and authority to make this happen.
Chefs want to know more about the seafood we purchase; we should be confident in the seafood we serve our guests. And our guests deserve to know basic information about fish — what species it is, where it was caught and how it was caught so they can make more informed seafood choices.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that an imported fish was not the product of illegal fishing or human rights abuses unless there is full-chain traceability. But this burden should not fall on chefs or consumers.
The government must step up and make necessary changes so that all Americans can be as confident as my mother was in the seafood she was feeding me.
President Biden and Congress should expand the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to ALL species and implement full-chain traceability to eliminate contaminated seafood, illegal fishing, seafood fraud, and human rights abuses from our seafood.
Chef Bun Lai is a White House Champions of Change Award recipient for Sustainable Seafood and a James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef. His family’s restaurant, Miya's, is the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world.