Ned Bell has no shortage of opinions about seafood. He grew up fishing Pacific salmon off the west coast of Canada and now evangelizes for the future of fish as the founder of Chefs for Oceans and the executive chef at Ocean Wise, a nonprofit organization based at the Vancouver Aquarium that develops criteria for sustainable seafood and lends its logo to vendors and restaurants that meet its standards.
Bell has worked in the tradition of activist chefs who aim to change minds by first filling stomachs. “I have to focus on what is within my wheelhouse,” he told Oceans Deeply, after meeting at the recent Sustainable Brands Vancouver Conference. “I feed people.” He means that literally, but sees his cookbooks, videos and other attempts at public engagement, such as appearances on various TV cooking shows, as another form of “feeding” us – in this case, inspiration for a more sustainable future.
“I joke, if I put something tasty in your belly, you’re going to like me, and if you like me, you’re going to listen to my message,” Bell said. “I want to make sure that when I’m sharing a message, that it comes from a place of fact and experience, not just opinion.”
Bell spoke to Oceans Deeply about the travel and conversations that led him to embrace the seafood we’ve been conditioned to suspect – farmed fish and frozen fish chief among them – and how he hopes to change the global conversation around sustainable eating one plate at a time.
Oceans Deeply: Can you share some of your thinking in terms of what brought you around to seeing aquaculture as a good, sustainable option?
Ned Bell: Aquaculture is the future. Was it a come-around? Yes, absolutely. I grew up on Vancouver Island, where fish farming was a four-letter word. But that’s just because we didn’t know better. It’s just because we listened to the rhetoric, we listened to the environmental crusaders, we listened to the headline news and unfortunately we didn’t spend enough time with the fish farmers ourselves, challenging them to dive into technology and improve what they were doing and where they were doing it. And underneath our noses, they have been doing that.
Is aquaculture perfect? Absolutely not. But we don’t eat wild animals. Most of us eat animals that we raise for our consumption. Most people don’t even know what they’re eating half the time, let alone whether it’s farmed or wild. They just see fresh fish and they think, “Oh, it must be good.”
Oceans Deeply: As a chef, how do you think about working to change that narrative?
Bell: I think if I could choose one thing that I’m going to focus on in the next decade, it’s to educate my peers. It’s not about promoting the next cool, really popular, unsung hero seafood. No. It’s about getting them to appreciate what responsible aquaculture means, and how to celebrate it. Feeding an ever-growing population needs to be something we’re focused on, and also getting clean, healthy protein in the mouths of people.
Farmed fish is scary for many people, so they just end up staying away. Unless it says “wild,” they for some reason forget that wild fish can also be unsustainable Certainly if it says “frozen,” there’s, “Oh, my gosh, there’s no way that frozen fish can be of high quality.” This means it’s old. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Fish caught, processed and then frozen immediately during its transportation, when you take it home and thaw it under cold water, is going to be way fresher than a fish that lived on the boat for up to 10 days, got to the port, got processed and then was shipped on to your grocery store and could be upwards of 10 to 14 days old by the time you bring it home. No wonder the fish you grew up eating tasted fishy, because it was.
Oceans Deeply: When you say “responsible aquaculture,” what does that look like?
Bell: From my perspective as the Ocean Wise executive chef, the fish that we deem responsible meet our criteria. We have a number of criteria that we base on science, the where and how of raising fish, so whether it’s closed containment, land-based, what they’re eating or what type of fish is being grown.
I feel as though we’re only a few steps, and maybe a few technological improvements away from having most farmed fish be pretty darn “sustainable.” We’re going to fix the feed problem. We’re going to fix the siting of farms – where they are. We’re going to fix the species problem – what we’re growing. We get good at things if people are willing to support that journey. I’m literally having for lunch today some wild Pacific albacore that I torched last night at home. Aren’t I lucky to be able to eat that for lunch? Yeah. But if it was land-based coho salmon grown a couple hours from here, that would be amazing. If it was a species grown in net pens somewhere where I knew that it wasn’t having impact on the other Pacific species of fish or an ecosystem, I would support that.
Oceans Deeply: If we don’t think a lot about where the seafood comes from, we probably think even less about whom it’s coming from. What did your visit to Vietnam teach you about that aspect of sustainability?
Bell: We import 80 percent of the seafood we consume in North America. Why is that? Well, because it’s cheaper. By far, the most consumed seafood in North America is shrimp. So I wanted to go to Vietnam to go see the good, the bad and the opportunity of the shrimp farming industry in a country where we import a lot of those shrimp into my country.
Whenever I go to a place where an industry has an impact on the community, I’m always amazed when you peel back the layers. When I went to Vietnam, I definitely saw some bad. I saw some of the low-end of the shrimp farming industry and the commodity shrimp farming production of large-scale, cheap product for some retailers and/or restaurant groups in North America that need inexpensive product. But then I also saw some really great sustainable stories that really focused on the family and the community. One of the farmers said, “You know, I live on top of a gold mine. All I have to do is take care of these organic black tiger shrimp, and they sustain me, my family and my community four, five, six times a year,” depending on his crop.
So here’s a guy who directly understood that the environment and the ecosystem that he is nurturing is giving him his livelihood, and I think we forget that when we’re all the way back across the ocean in North America, going to our local premium grocery store and buying an organic black tiger shrimp. We forget that by choosing sustainable, by choosing Ocean Wise-recommended, or by choosing Seafood Watch green, whatever the equivalent is depending on where you live, you are having an impact on a community, or fisher folk or a family.
Oceans Deeply: When you talk about clean, healthy food, does that mean you see that as something that can come out of aquaculture as well?
Bell: Yes. And I’m not saying that all aquaculture is good. We have work to do. But I know that I will have a larger impact on the industry by working with them as opposed to working against them.
By being welcomed into the conversation, they’re going to share with me almost everything I need to know to make my own mind up. Of course, they might skew it slightly. You never know the full truth of everything, but I’ve spent 10 years now of my life in this space of healthy lakes, oceans and rivers and sustainability, and I’ve just started to feel confident enough to start championing the good stories that are out there.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. This story was produced as a result of a partnership with the Sustainable Brands Conference.