Sam Hayward is the chef and co-owner of Fore Street, a contemporary restaurant in Portland, Maine. Sam became interested in sustainable seafood in the mid-1970's while cooking for faculty and students at the Shoals Marine Lab in Maine. The menu at Fore Street focuses on the best raw materials from a community of Maine farmers, fishermen, foragers, and cheesemakers. In 2002, Fore Street was named Number 16 in Gourmet Magazine's Top Fifty Restaurants of the United States, and in 2002, Sam was named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation.
What is your favorite seafood to eat?
It’s cliché because I live in Maine, but I really have a fondness for Maine lobster. In finfish, it’s striped bass, sometimes known as rockfish in states to the south of us.
What’s the most popular seafood item you offer/on your menu?
It depends on time of year, as our menu is very seasonal and changes daily based on availability. One of the few items that is on the menu every day, and has become a signature dish, is our wood oven roasted mussels. It’s also our most frequently requested recipe.
How did you get interested in the issue of sustainable seafood?
I began cooking professionally in 1974, when I left another career to take a working vacation cooking for faculty and students in a marine science laboratory at the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky islands 10 miles off of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery, Maine. The Shoals Marine Lab was new at the time, and I was surrounded by an academic community studying the marine sciences, including a lot of fieldwork counting, classifying and collecting species. At the time, traditional seafood harvesting in the Gulf of Maine was going through a huge transition as targeted species began the collapse that still affects our communities.
In the mid-70s, we were right on the cusp of the big change in the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine because of overfishing. The Gulf of Maine was still open to foreign fishing fleets. From the Shoals, we’d see a nighttime horizon filled with foreign factory ships and their tenders, lit up like a city ten miles distant to the Northeast. It was dramatic – they had the dragging and processing capacity to virtually vacuum up from the Gulf of Maine everything that could swim. That was the beginning of a downward spiral. The New England fishing fleet couldn’t compete, so the U.S. declared the 200-mile limit and made it easier for the New England fleet to finance larger and more efficient boats. With the incredible increase in efficiency, we saw a greatly accelerated decline of groundfish stocks, conspicuously cod. Working among biologists and students for those years was an invaluable experience for me.
How would you describe your philosophy on ocean conservation?
We try to inform ourselves about all the foods we purchase, including seafood. We are picky about the fisheries that we use. We try to educate staff as much as possible. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect; I do my best. Occasionally I consult fisheries population experts, such as scientists as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to get the condition of certain stocks. In short, our philosophy is based on self-educating as much as possible to keep abreast of current information and only participate in those fisheries that are approaching sustainability or appear to be well-managed.
How has your philosophy changed what fish you serve?
It informs those decisions every day and that means constantly changing the mix of species that I use.
Have your customers noticed?
Some customers care; some pointedly do not. I had one customer tell me the other day that sustainability was a bogus concept. If the fish is available, it means that it’s already dead and therefore it doesn’t matter. There is no guilt, for him, in buying that fish. Generally, I think we look a little more deeply at the issue than a lot of the public.
Although it works both ways – I’ve also had customers give me information that was really valuable.
Do you feel it limits what you can offer?
No question about it. But it also presents some opportunities.
How has the sustainable seafood movement affected your bottom line?
Movement or not, my choices are my choices. We have to be more creative about making sure that we can make some margin out of the species that we do purchase. We are pretty disciplined about that. Our cost of raw material has certainly climbed a bit. But we are in an enviable position that we are able to pass some of that cost on to the public. And I’m grateful that the public seems willing to try some of the unfamiliar species that we offer. So far, I’ve been able to do that and keep our costs pretty much in line with where they need to be.
Have your seafood purveyors worked with you on getting sustainably caught seafood?
Yes, there were two or three that I worked with over the years and I let them know what my standards were. Then five or six years ago we created a little seafood wholesale company, called Upstream Trucking, to service Fore Street and our sister restaurants, Street and Company. Upstream Trucking is basically a seafood forager; he buys from the Portland auction, the Boston market, and local shellfish harvesters to supply us with all the seafood we need.
What trends have you noticed in seafood in the past 10 years?
There is less New England groundfish available now, including cod, pollock, haddock, monkfish, halibut, and flounder. Controversial regulations are in place that control the targeting of certain species and may give them a respite from overfishing.
Shipping from other fishing regions is a growing trend. More and more fish are shipped in from Iceland, Hawaii, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, and the eastern Atlantic. Fish has become a global commodity; it travels around the world by air freight very quickly. Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia lobsters are shipped live globally. The fish that are shipped here arrive in impeccable condition, sometimes only 24 hours out of the water. In some cases the fish from away has been out of the water for a shorter period of time than fish that comes off of New England draggers, which may have been out at sea for as long as two weeks.
But we made a conscious decision some years ago to buy from fisheries in Maine and New England whenever possible, even if that means that some very popular species don’t make it to our menu. Maine’s fisheries have supported families and communities for four hundred years, a tradition we think should be actively supported. We want the regulations to have a chance to succeed, but we also want our fishing families to prosper and to be able to keep their boats.
Do you have an opinion on offshore aquaculture?
I’m guardedly optimistic about it. Maine has gone through a cycle of boom and bust in its salmon farming. Much of it was sited close to land, within sight of the shore. Some stakeholders in coastal communities objected to having large industrial facilities in their view.
Two other objections were the incredible amount of fish waste and the unconsumed feed that many people believed were polluting our bays. Within the past few years, about half of our inshore fish-farming capacity has been eliminated because the state decided that fish farmers had to have an overboard discharge permit to dump fish mature. But this was too much for the fish farms to handle, so most of them closed down. Now there are some dry land fish farms where fish are being raised in tanks on land in closed systems that don’t pollute. There are several experimental programs around. We’ll see where they lead.
But the biggest long-term problem with fish farming, inshore or offshore, that I see is the amount of wild ocean fish that has to be harvested to make fish food. We may be killing as much as 6-8 pounds of wild ocean fish to convert into one pound of salmon. Most of the fish we use tend to be clupeids, members of the herring and sardine family, which are what we refer to as keystone species, that is, bait or prey species for many other predatory fish and upon which entire marine ecosystems depend. We don’t have complete information about what happens to these systems when we remove massive amounts of the keystone species from the ocean. It’s clear that by making fish food from wild clupeids we are eliminating a tremendous amount of biomass that other fish species need to live on. The best fish farmers are learning to reduce the amount of wild ocean fish going into fish feed, but there are many other industrial demands on wild fish populations, including livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, pet food, and fertilizers.
The idea of offshore fish farming is intriguing. There could be issues with shipping and interfering with whale migration, and pen fish occasionally escape and could weaken the genetics of wild populations. So sitting fish pens way off shore could be problematic.
Why do you work with Seafood Choices Alliance?
I belong to a lot of organizations that are concerned with sustainability issues. I’m on the board of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. I’m a member of Slow Food and Chefs Collaborative. Seafood Choices is one of the many sources that I rely on to give me the information I need to make informed decisions about my food purchases.
Posted October 18, 2007
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