Red Fish, Green Fish 

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Fish is selling better than ever in Richmond, in both restaurants and stores. But consumers and diners aren't usually asking where it came from or whether it's sustainable, despite an international movement to protect the overfished varieties and promote better environmental practices. China remains a big source for fish production, and consumers have a difficult time finding out the true origins of what they're eating.

Customers at Ellwood Thompson's can track the "safe to purchase" and "red/avoid" lists through the store's involvement in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which studies patterns of overfishing and sustainability. Red snapper, sturgeon, turbot and haddock are currently labeled red, along with two dozen others. Among the safe group are catfish, dogfish, line-caught mahi and most farmed fish, though some activists have additional concerns about aquaculture and health.

More customers at Ellwood's ask about mercury levels in fish than about sustainability, but environmental consciousness plays a factor in their purchases, as it does at Good Foods Grocery. There, manager Will Taylor says people who worry most about the sources of their fish sometimes choose to use fish-oil capsules instead. "We get a lot of questions about where our fish come from -- even canned fish," he says. "Standards are sometimes misleading, and it's hard to be sure where some fish comes from, but a lot is from China," he says. The store sells only wild-caught salmon and tuna, and no farm-raised fish. Varieties that are overfished or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment are not sold at either store.

Local restaurant menus are vague about the origins of most fish, although many keep red snapper on the permanent menu.

Chef Bill Foster at Café Zed says he uses only sustainable fish, particularly the farm-raised hybrid rockfish or wild-caught shrimp. But "keeping up with the constantly rotating list" can be a challenge, he says. "I didn't realize monkfish was on the red list, but one thing I won't buy at all is Indonesian shrimp, which are raised in really filthy conditions."

Not all Richmonders share such concerns.

"We have seen almost no reaction to that [published list] in our shop here," says Brian O'Donohue of Tuckahoe Seafood. "We're selling tons of Chilean sea bass, cod, Alaskan king crabs, orange roughy … and all are on the avoid list. But people are still loving it and buying it, and so far I would have to say that I'm not really seeing any impact from this particular document.

"Any effort to manage this finite resource is a good thing," he continues, "and at heart it's a good thing. But I don't think it's the consumer who needs to understand it — it's the fishing community and the providers who should be responding to it. It's the processors and wholesalers and regulatory authorities who have to do a better job of managing this resource." O'Donohue recommends halibut and striped bass as good alternatives to the red-listed fish.

At Yellow Umbrella Seafood, co-owner David Whitby says more people ask about mercury levels or PCBs than about threatened fish. "The price of sea bass has actually fallen because they're improving the level of sustainability," he says. "When you look behind the scenes, there are a lot of efforts to bring the numbers back," especially at the big Alaskan fisheries.

A hotter topic now, Whitby says, is the increasing demand for bluefin tuna. It's so sought-after in Japan that consumers pay exorbitant prices, particularly for the sardine-fattened and oily fish that so-called tuna cowboys corral and harvest. In Richmond, when he can get it, Whitby prices the stuff at $35 a pound, and it's always sold out by the end of the day. His other big sellers are rockfish, tuna, halibut, wild salmon and swordfish, some of which are on the "avoid" list.

Bon Air Seafood advertises that it imports no fish products from China.

Other retailers say the list appears to be making little or no impact on their customers' habits. If the fish is in the case, it's fair game, they reason, and as long as suppliers are fishing legally, the list is rarely a factor. "Consumers can refuse to buy certain fish, and that will send a message ultimately," O'Donohue says. But so far, that's a protest that's been hard to discern among the rank and file in Richmond. S

For more information, see www.endangeredfishalliance.org or www.seafoodchoices.com.

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