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Legal Sea Foods CEO: Can Everyone Stop Getting So Upset About Our Unsustainable-Fish Dinner?

Tiger shrimp: A forbidden treat.

Tiger shrimp: A forbidden treat.Photo: istock

A couple of weeks ago we brought you news of Legal Sea Foods' "blacklisted" fish dinner hosted by CEO Roger Berkowitz. We raised our eyebrows then, and things have only gotten fishier since. Berkowitz stopped to talk to us about the fallout.

"It all happened very innocently. I wasn't looking for a media opportunity," he told Grub Street.

Well, someone sure was! A few weeks ago, we received a vibrantly worded release on behalf of the Culinary Guild of New England, a co-sponsor of the four-course educational feast. The evening was advertised thus: "President/CEO Hosts Dinner of Supposed 'Blacklisted' Fish to Educate the Public on the Truth about Sustainable Fishing Practices."

("Maybe 'blacklisted' was a little inflammatory," Berkowitz admitted to us, though he said he didn't issue the release.)

The forbidden menu features hake, tiger shrimp, and cod cheeks, items that Monterey Bay Aquarium's well-respected Seafood Watch guide recommends people avoid. At the time, Berkowitz told the Gloucester Times that "frankly, a lot of people have been brainwashed" by powerful eco-labelers. He went on: "There's no scientific basis for what they are saying."

Innocent people have been brainwashed into avoiding ... cod cheeks? Berkowitz rests the blame for this Orwellian scenario on the shoulders of groups like Seafood Watch and Chefs Collaborative, who have been blinded by science.

He told Slashfood in an interview: "I always found it curious that chefs and restaurateurs were the last to get information about sustainable seafood. Oftentimes it was from Monterey [Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program] that blacklisted everything, or a group like Chefs Collaborative, you get a group of people that work off a particular science, and I would argue that science isn't necessarily balanced." (Chefs Collaborative issued him an extremely diplomatic letter yesterday, thanking him oh-so-sweetly for bringing the debate to light.)

The Berkowitz we encountered was infinitely more diplomatic and repeatedly declined to point the finger at any one eco-labeler. Brainwashing and blacklisting aside, he insisted there's better science out there and that people need to pay attention, dammit!

He thinks that current fishing legislation is "draconian" and should be influenced by cutting-edge sonar technology that maps the ocean floor in four dimensions, originally developed by MIT and Northeastern for the Department of Homeland Security, and currently operating out of the Marine Science Center in Nahant, just north of Boston. The technology, per Berkowitz, allows scientists to more accurately track fish populations. He says even bigwig politicians like Governor Deval Patrick, Representative Barney Frank, and Senator John Kerry want to secure more funding for the program. But for now, he says, the legislation is "arbitrary" and based on outmoded science, governed by slow-moving vessels that can't observe large swaths of ocean.

Oh, but if only things were that simple! "Some of the environmental groups have legions of attorneys. They're very powerful. Fishermen don't have anyone to advocate for them," he lamented to us. "The restaurant industry only hears from one side. The good news is, the Massachusetts government is understanding what's going on."

Er, or maybe not ... on Saturday, it was reported that U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke denied a request by Governor Patrick for emergency increases in fish catch limits, saying there’s no new science to justify them.

The Guild, meanwhile, declined to speak to Grub Street about the initial, strongly phrased release, though a rep explained in an e-mail that they "leave it up to the professionals to answer any questions that pertain to the issue at hand."

Seafood Watch tells us that they stand behind their recommendations.

The dinner, followed by what we can only imagine will be a spirited Q&A, happens at the Park Square branch of Legal Sea Foods in Boston on January 24 at 7 p.m.

Mass Restaurant Offers Blacklisted Fish Dinner [Globe]
Legal Blacklist Meal Backs Fishermen [Gloucester Times]
A "Blacklisted" Fish Dinner [Slashfood via Jacqueline Church]
Feds Reject Request to Expand Fishing Limits [CBS]
Legal Sea Foods, Thank You [Chefs Collaborative]
Earlier: Here's Your Chance to Eat Outlawed Seafood at Legal Sea Foods

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