Written by Robin Ove

The Monterey Bay Aquarium launched the Seafood Watch Program on October 20, 1999 on the 15th Anniversary of the aquarium’s opening.

The program is comprised of a science and outreach teams under the current direction of Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly. The Real-Cost Cafe, an interactive diner experience complete with a comedic chef, tableware, menus, and chrome stools opened in the spring of 2005 when the aquarium redesigned the entire Near Shore wing into an experience where land meets the sea, engaging the human interactions at The Ocean’s Edge.

Real Cost Cafe, Monterey Bay Aquarium
Real Cost Cafe, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Photo Credit: Robin E.H. Ove

Not long ago, I spoke with Karen Stratton, Partnership Program Manager for Seafood Watch about the cafe, the partnership program, and the impact these outreach programs have had on helping consumers and businesses make choices for healthy oceans. Last year the aquarium hosted over two million visitors and the Seafood Watch app was downloaded by 1.6 Million users.

In 2001, the guest experience of the Seafood Watch message was scary. “Scary to talk about it, and scary for the people receiving the information. The word sustainable was not in the common buzzword as it is today and we were asking people to change their behaviors; that was a big ask. A lot of people were very angry with the program, especially the fisherman, so it was important to be sensitive to the fact that these were people’s livelihoods; and to respect that and help them to affect change in the right direction.

Real Cost Cafe
Karen Stratton, Partnership Program Manager for Seafood Watch Photo Credit: Robin E.H. Ove

“Everyone eats, it is a universal behavior, so it is a great message to share.”

In developing the design and script for the exhibit, the team learned early on if you engage people in a way that they touches them directly, albeit with a bit of humor, it becomes far more meaningful. If it goes into your body or around your body, and relates to you personally, it connects ocean health and seafood sustainability on a very personal level.

Additionally a creative scripting decision was made to focus on humor and a more comedic approach that makes the conceptually doom and gloom of extinction, ocean health, and toxic seafood more palatable to consumers if offered in combination with calls to action and alternative choices to make things better.

They were even successful in recruiting Chef Wesley (aka Wesley Johnson, the voice of the of the Washington D. C. Nationals Hockey team)to reprise his role in the interactive video adding consistency and continuity as they revamped messaging balancing concerns about our fisheries with something consumers can do.

Chef Wesley at the Real-Cost Cafe played by Wesley Johnson Photo Credit: Robin E. H. Ove
Chef Wesley at the Real-Cost Cafe played by Wesley Johnson Photo Credit: Robin E. H. Ove

“It is so important to give our aquarium guests a behavior they can do beyond the aquarium walls – because they want to! No one wants to live in a world that is degrading around them.”

So, with just five words as their guide for the tenth anniversary of the cafe; the launch of the new script and simplified message, “Do you sell sustainable seafood?” encapsulated a level of success for Seafood Watch (and incorporates the many questions that define sustainable seafood.)

Real Cost Cafe Guest Check
Real Cost Cafe Guest Check Photo Credit: Robin E.H. Ove

Where is it from? How is it caught? Is it fished or farmed?

Instead of the nightmare litany of questions like the "Is this chicken local?" episode of Portlandia, it is boiled down to five words. People can do that. In asking that simple question you are helping a business understand what you are willing to pay good money for. Now from fisherman to restaurateurs, the word sustainable has become part of the vernacular. Part in thanks to the organic farm to table movements and the face of the supply chain for seafood has responded to this simple mantra.

In a recent dining experience Stratton recounted the impact of that simple question.
While dining in a restaurant in Marina and after reviewing the menu she asked the server, “Do you serve sustainable seafood?” The poor server didn’t have an idea; more like a deer-in-the-headlights look, yet she replied, “let me ask our chef.” When she came back, no more deer-in-the-headlights look, but proud as a peacock. “We do, we do serve sustainable seafood! In fact the item that was listed as Atlantic farmed salmon has been replaced by Alaskan wild caught salmon – we just haven’t reprinted the menu.”

The result of the exchange is a win-win-win. The server got a lesson in seafood sustainability and became more informed, the chef got a pat on the back by making the sourcing decision and the consumer got what they wanted.

This basic practice is replicated in the local and organic movement infiltrating national restaurants and retail chains. Fifteen years ago we did not see organic foods at a Walmart or Safeway, but now it is more common place and the prices are declining enough to make to product accessible. Seafood is next on the list for providing sustainable and fair priced proteins for consumers in addition to helping restore our oceans.

Do not underestimate the power of that question: Do you serve sustainable seafood?

Consumers ask, business responds, change happens, oceans thrive. That’s what we’ve seen happen in the last sixteen years of Seafood Watch.”

What’s Next?

Seafood Watch Partnership program embraces businesses and over 150 conservation organizations like zoos and aquariums and like-minded non-profit organizations in several countries including Canada, Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, Netherlands, and Hong Kong with the hope to continue to expand beyond US borders. Additionally they have established a Blue Ribbon Task Force of culinary leaders to represent sustainable seafood and to share their passion and personal stories.

Real-Cost Cafe
Real Cost Cafe Photo Credit: Robin E.H. Ove

The Real-Cost Cafe theme has even spawned four ATM sized mobile kiosks that are loaned to partner sites for 12-18 months and has proved so popular that the institutions are reluctant to return them.

One such site is the Los Angeles Science Center where the Endeavor is on exhibit. As patrons are waiting in line stepping past the kelp forest exhibit on the way to the Endeavor, they interact with the kiosk; a captive audience learning about sustainable seafood; much like the attractions and exhibits at Disneyland keeping visitors entertained and learning to ease the time waiting in line for the E-Ticket ride. Their next project is to make a mobile application with the irascible Chef Wesley to make the Real-Cost Cafe messaging accessible via mobile devices and provide content for their partners to use as they see fit, whether it be an entire exhibit or kiosks.

On the scientific front the Watch is examining two additional criteria for rating seafood as Best Choice (Green), Good Alternative (Yellow), and Avoid (Red) in upcoming months. Under review is the impact of the quantity and types of forage foods used to create fishmeal in aquaculture and other animal feeds. The variety of forage fish in our waterways is essential to the ecology of the food chain and are yet another component we must be concerned with.

“There will never be enough seafood on our coastlines to feed our growing population.” says Stratton.

So we need to also look at farmed fish - aquaculture. 60% of the seafood sold in the US is farmed, yet 90% of our seafood is imported.

Real-Cost Cafe Antibiotics
Real Cost Cafe By Antibiotics Photo Credit: Robin E.H. Ove

A hard look at the science and economic practicality of the practice of sending US caught seafood product overseas for processing only to be re-imported for sale to consumers is on face value is disturbing, not only in lost regional business and jobs, but also the impact of the extended carbon footprint and environmental cost for this type of production. Adding this additional scientific data on different types of seafood products will aid in making transparent the true cost of the fish we consume.

The tide is turning, consumers around the world are asking about where their seafood comes from, is it farmed or fished, how is it caught, what about by-catch, is there mercury or antibiotics in my food – or most simply, is it sustainable? In part thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Seafood Watch Program with it’s multi-treaded partnerships to provide real and engaging information to help us make better choices, beginning with a little brochure and a chuckle at the Real-Cost Cafe.

- Robin E. H. Ove is a founding member and editor with World-Eats.org

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