When Robert Klein opened Fish Grill in 1986, sourcing of his seafood products stood as a top priority—even if the “sustainable seafood” term had yet to wiggle into the quick-serve industry’s lexicon.
“To me, it was all about quality,” says Klein, who now directs four Fish Grill locations in Los Angeles.
A decade ago, Klein heightened his attention to sourcing and began an aggressive investigation into ways he could further enhance his restaurant’s sustainability efforts, just as the movement gained traction.
Klein first sought education, traveling more than 300 miles north to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California-based aquarium among the first advocacy groups trumpeting the sustainable seafood message. He later dug into research from credible organizations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, and began asking more direct questions of his buyers and sourcers. As a result, he outlawed serving blue fin tuna and Chilean sea bass, two dishes littered with sustainability warnings. Today, 80 percent of Fish Grill’s menu meets sustainable criteria.
The move toward sustainable seafood, Klein says, made sense on a variety of levels.
“In the short term, I saw customers becoming more knowledgeable and seeking higher quality and health benefits on the table; I had to
match those expectations,” he says. “Then, knowing that I’m in this for the long haul, I knew that if fish stocks were to decline, prices would only rise and put stress on the business.”
Klein’s fast-casual eateries are characteristic of a sweeping industry trend. Sustainable seafood is here to stay and, many experts and operators agree, it’s a positive endeavor for restaurant operators seeking to balance consumer expectations, environmental concerns, and sound business principles.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sustainable seafood is “when the population of that species of fish is managed in a way that provides for today’s needs without damaging the ability of the species to reproduce and be available for future generations.”
No longer mired in obscurity, sustainable seafood emerged as a discussion point among scientists, government agencies, and restaurant industry insiders alike. Most telling of its validity is that the dialogue has morphed into action.
A widely cited 2006 study in the journal Science suggested that the loss of biodiversity was obstructing the ocean’s ability to produce healthy seafood, leading to projections that seafood could be absent from dinner tables by 2048. Though many charged the report with sparking unreasonable alarm, the study succeeded in highlighting the emerging environmental concern and, most importantly for quick service, its potential impact to business.
The following year, the NOAA told the United States Congress that 25 percent of U.S. marine fish are overfished or depleted. Similar estimates have prompted scientific concern about ocean health, particularly in the face of rising dinner table demand and record-level U.S. seafood imports. After all, Americans enjoy their seafood, consuming about 15 pounds of seafood annually, according to the National Fisheries Institute.