We Took Our Support for Sustainable Seafood to Capitol Hill

Chefs meet with Congressman Jared Huffman of California’s Second Congressional District in his office at the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill. L>R – The author Sammy Monsour, Rep Jared Huffman, Sheila Lucero, Danielle Leoni and Bun Lai. (Photo Ken Cedeno, Courtesy Chefs for Fish)

Between my junior and senior year at Culinary Institute of America in New York, my class took a month-long trip to California, and that was my first real lesson in sustainability. We visited a seaweed farm, toured sustainable wineries and learned all about the concept of farm-to-table. Since then, I’ve served up local cuisine in restaurants along the East Coast, from North Carolina to Boston, but that trip really stuck with me, and when the time to move West came along, I jumped at the opportunity.

I opened my restaurant in Los Angeles five years ago. Since I’ve been out here, I’ve really focused on deepening my understanding of sustainability and learning all I can about the stewardship movement.

About a year ago, I started to realize that what really pulls it all together is policy. That realization has inspired me to use my voice as both a chef and a citizen to advocate for policies that protect natural resources, including our oceans and the creatures that live in it. To help with this, I partnered with a variety of nonprofit organizations—including Monterey Bay Aquarium—to learn how best to use my voice to create change.

As a member of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, I worked with other chefs to craft the Portland Pact for Sustainable Seafood. The document signals chefs’ commitment to buying and serving sustainable, domestic seafood whenever possible and asks that our policymakers support this commitment by enacting laws that keep our fisheries strong.

In late April, I was honored to join other chefs from throughout the country and head to Washington, D.C. to deliver the Portland Pact to Congress. I was nervous, but also really excited. To get ready, I crammed everything I had ever learned about the Magnuson-Stevens Act – the law that prevents overfishing by ensuring everyone is accountable for the fish they take from the ocean. By the time I got to Washington, I had my stuff down—but, it was still a little terrifying. Fortunately, I had three other chefs with me.

The night before we headed to our meetings on Capitol Hill, Chefs Bun Lai (Miya’s Sushi, New Haven), Danielle Leoni (Breadfruit and Rum Bar, Phoenix), Shelia Lucero (Jax Fish House, Denver) and I sat down to decide who would talk about what. Chef Leoni and Chef Lucero had great stories to tell about how fisheries management impacts their businesses – even though they are in landlocked states.

Chef Lai and I each identified stories that help explain the importance of healthy fisheries on the East and West Coasts. Everyone brought a strong voice and an even stronger passion to the conversation. Once we got rolling, all nerves gave way to excitement.

Chefs Sammy Monsour, Danielle Leoni and Bun Lai all excited for hitting the hill! (Photo by Sheila Lucero) 

Over the next two days, we met with 26 Congressional offices to talk about the Portland Pact and the importance of keeping U.S. fisheries strong. The nearly 200 chefs who signed the Portland Pact serve a wide variety of food at very different restaurants located in both coastal and inland areas around the United States, but we all share a strong commitment to keeping our customers’ favorite seafood dishes on our menus. In each of these meetings, we explained that doing so is directly connected to the long-term health of our fisheries and our ocean.

I am fortunate that most policymakers from California get this connection. I met with the offices of my two U.S. senators as well as U.S. representatives from four different districts in California. They were all interested in hearing what I had to say.

Policymakers from inland states were also really receptive. It was great to have the opportunity to explain why this is such an important issue for businesses and constituents far from the U.S. coastlines.

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Chef Bun Lai speaking to Rep Jared Huffman on Capitol Hill, joined by chefs Sammy Monsour, Sheila Lucero, and Danielle Leoni (Photo Ken Cedeno, Courtesy Chefs for Fish)

Chef Leoni shared a great story with a policymaker from Arizona about the time she arrived at her restaurant to find a line of waiting customers wrapped around the building. She strolled up incognito and asked someone what all the fuss was about. He told her they had all heard that the restaurant offered sustainable seafood. This proves it doesn’t matter where a restaurant is located—people know that sustainable seafood caught in U.S. oceans tastes better and is better for the ocean.

Today, the United States boasts some of the most sustainably managed wild fisheries in the world, and American seafood is a preferred choice for many chefs—including me. Thanks to our strong federal fisheries laws, overfishing is at a historic low and chefs throughout the country are able to offer a variety of U.S. seafood in our restaurants without worrying about harming the fishery. In fact, after being declared an economic disaster at the top of this century, the recovery of West Coast groundfish is giving me access to a host of new, catch-of-the-day offerings.

As chefs, we value the power of food and have immense respect for the impact our food choices have on our lives, our planet, and the lives of what we choose to eat. We have a responsibility to use our voice to speak up and let policymakers know that we care deeply about the health of our nation’s ocean fisheries. Ultimately, this is about our livelihoods.

We also have a responsibility to our customers to be informed about these issues. Our customers trust us to know what we are talking about and where their food is coming from.  The Portland Pact is all about chefs learning about this issue, and committing to making the best, most sustainable seafood available to customers.

I hope chefs everywhere will continue to join us and add their names to the Portland Pact. And I hope customers will actively seek out and support restaurants serving sustainable seafood. It is our business and responsibility to do all we can to protect these resources now, and into the future.

Check out Chefs for Fish and please consider signing the Portland Pact for Sustainable Seafood! Diners you can Find Chefs and Support Their Restaurants!

Related Reading by Chef Clifton Long: Poisonous Plastic: The Secret Ingredient On Your Menu and Eels on the Brink of Extinction: Can American Unagi Turn the Tide?

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