Chef Promotes Sustainable Fishing

Jun 27, 2014

Chef Rob Ruiz

The Roaring Fork Valley has some great sushi restaurants – Matsuhista, Takah Sushi, Kenichi – and those restaurants buy a lot of fish. In 2012, the seafood industry generated $141 billion to the US economy. It also supported 1.3 million jobs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. But not everyone is happy with how seafood is sold. Dorothy Atkins has the story.

Most people have no idea where the fish they eat comes from. And that's why one chef is trying to raise awareness about the world’s collapsing fisheries.

“My name is Robert Allen Ruiz, and I am a chef and an owner of my own restaurant in San Diego.”

Ruiz is a San Diego native, but in his 20s he moved to Hawaii to surf. There, he ended up training under some of the world's top chefs, who taught him that great chefs must know the source of every ingredient in a dish and every ingredient should be fresh.

“I started when I was 17 and I'm 36 now — If this is high school I think I'm in my junior year (laughs).”

Recently, Ruiz was in Aspen cooking up a sustainable meal for a charity. As a chef, Ruiz has cooked all over the world.

“Japan to Tokyo, Osaka, Nigoya, Kyoto to all the Hawaiian islands to New York...”

And he's witnessed first-hand the many illegal practices that are feeding the growing demand for seafood, and says Ruiz destroying fisheries. He says he has seen fraudulently caught fish being served in restaurants and he's witnessed fishermen illegally catching endangered species to make a profit.

“That's when I realized … that as a consumer you're not only voting with your dollars, your voting with you palette.”

At least 32 percent of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited and in danger.  That’s according to a report published by the United Nation’s Agriculture Organization. If behavior patterns don't change, that could get worse.

“Both globally and domestically we're looking at making sure we're ending over fishing — that is making sure that not too many fish are caught each year — so that we'll have fish left for future generations.”

That's Alan Risenhoover. He's the director of the office of sustainable fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association or NOAA. Risenhoover says the U.S. has put specific catch limits in place to keep fish at sustainable levels.

There are eight regional councils around the country that help create guidelines for the government. They're made up of scientists, conservationists and members of the fishing industry.  Those groups collectively give the government advice on what rules should be in place to manage the fish stock.

Still, fish don't know political boundaries and not all countries follow similar regulations.

“This is an issue globally as well to make sure too many fish aren't being caught each year.”

As Chef Rob Ruiz learned more about the problem, he wanted to help.

So he came up with the idea of placing edible bar codes on rice paper. The paper is used as garnish on sushi. Customers can then scan the code using an application on the cell phones. The code links to the website FishWatch.gov – which has information about the current fisheries.

NOAA runs the website.

“People can read a little about how healthy those stocks are, how those stocks are caught and even get a few recipes.”

Risenhoover says NOAA updates the website regularly so that people have up-to-date information on the fish they're about to eat.

So far, Ruiz owns one of the only restaurants to use his edible codes idea. But he doesn't think his efforts are in vain.

“It's so tough to get this message across to people because they don't see the problem. They go to the supermarket and they see all of the shelves stacked with this bounty from the sea and it makes no sense.”

But there is a problem here.

Ruiz says the best way to combat the problem is by knowing where your fish comes from. That is much easier because of the NOAA website.