Chefs and teams go out on the Chesapeake to get an up close look at the sustainable seafood supply chain.
By Lani Furbank, Edible DC contributor
“You guys are the front line,” Johnny Shockley says to a group of restaurant industry professionals gathered on the shore at in front of his company, Hoopers Island Oyster Company. “Clean water is vitally important and oysters play a critical role in cleaning water. We can’t get that message to the public without you.”
Oysters are filter feeders, which play a critical role in the Bay’s ecosystem. They improve water quality as they eat. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water per day. According to NOAA, harvests of native oysters are now at 1% of historical levels, but restoration efforts are trying to change that, in partnership with aquaculture companies like Shockley’s.
And so that “front line”, DMV area chefs and restaurant staff are spending the day on the Chesapeake Bay, getting to know the watermen who bring blue crabs, oysters, and rockfish from the docks of the Bay to restaurants in the D.C. area. Each of their restaurants or businesses source sustainable seafood from ProFish, a local supplier that sponsors several of these trips each year.
“Over the last six or seven years, we’ve taken over a thousand chefs out on the bay,” says John Rorapaugh, the sustainable director at ProFish who coordinates the excursions.
“What we’re trying to do with these trips is sell a message and paint a picture,” he says. “The groups come back with a story and that is passed on to their diners and to the people that come to the markets.”
For the participants, their trip itinerary includes visits to several of the fishing operations that ProFish works with to get up a close-up look at the links in the supply chain in real time, from how the seafood is caught or harvested to processing. This trip included a tour of Shockley’s oyster aquaculture business.
Shockley switched from harvesting to becoming an oyster farmer using aquaculture techniques in 2010. He recognized the challenges facing the oyster stock in the Chesapeake Bay and was looking for a sustainable solution. “We developed a company to build equipment to do oyster aquaculture based on the fundamentals of the traditional watermen’s way of doing things on the Chesapeake,” he says. The company now operates all around the country, raising oysters in the Bay and selling their equipment from Alaska to the Gulf Coast.
“It’s incredibly important to learn about the impact that oysters can have on the health of the Bay and create that ecosystem that helps the Bay thrive,” says Scott Drewno of CHIKO, who has taken part in the trip multiple times. “In order for them to be successful, we need to buy oysters. Our customers need to eat oysters. We need to continue to create a business around it.”
Drewno is an advocate for sustainable seafood at his Barracks Row restaurant, which sources local products like invasive blue catfish, served daily in fried rice. “If I can continue to learn more about [the Bay], I can translate to the guests,” he says. “I think chefs are uniquely positioned to be able to convey the message from the farmer and the fisherman to the world.”
Another stop on the trip gave participants an inside look at a crab picking house in Fishing Creek. W.T. Ruark’s employees pick apart crabs by the bushel, sorting the meat into containers of Maryland lump or jumbo lump crabmeat.
The refrigerated picking room is silent but for the constant crunch, snap, and crack of crab shells in the deft hands of the pickers. They’re awarded bonuses based on the speed and quality of their work.
“These ladies here are on what’s called H-2B work visas and they’re brought in seasonally throughout the crab season to work and to fill the demand for labor,” explains Jay Fleming, a photographer and Bay expert who works with ProFish. “These jobs historically were filled by Americans, but the picking houses here can’t find Americans who want to pick crabs. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world, but it’s a necessary thing.”
This work must be done by hand, because the machines developed to do the job were not effective at keeping the crab meat intact. “That’s why you pay top dollar for jumbo lump crab meat,” Fleming adds.
Mikala Brennan of Hula Girl said watching the pickers helped illustrate “why we pay the price we do, just because of the labor involved with how they do it.”
This was Brennan’s first time on the trip. Her Shirlington restaurant sources local seasonal items like soft shell crabs from ProFish. “I think it’s incredibly important, from a responsibility standpoint, that you know where your food is grown, where it’s coming from and how it’s processed,” she says. “[When you] order food from a vendor, you’re not necessarily seeing how that food is treated, and to see the love and care that they’re putting into it makes it all the better that you’ve made the right choice.”
The final stop on the trip was a boat ride out to watch fishermen pull rockfish from a pound net in the Bay. Then, a seafood lunch was served, featuring just-shucked Chesapeake Gold oysters from Hoopers Island and crabmeat picked at W.T. Ruark that morning.
For Rorapaugh, these trips help ProFish sell more local seafood. “We might have 40 oysters of the day, and 30 of them might be from out of this region, but if one of those chefs has been at Johnny Shockley’s farm and he sees Chesapeake Gold on the oyster list, he’s going to buy that probably three out of five times,” he says. “It builds more connection with a local brand.”
“As a seafood company, sustainability and traceability are always at the forefront of what we do, and we try to be transparent across the board with that, but the more local products you sell, the easier it is to trace things back. It’s much easier for me to find out where that rockfish came from if it’s a pound netter that’s in Hoopers Island as opposed to a mahi-mahi that was caught in Ecuador,” he explains.
Estimates by NOAA Fisheries suggest that more than 80% of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported. “Through these trips we’re really trying to change that number,” Rorapaugh says. “We’re 60% local and domestic. It’s the model that we want to promote to other companies.”
Domestic seafood is typically more accurately labeled and more sustainable—72% of fish landed in the U.S. is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
That’s a big part of why Drewno sources from ProFish. “We only have one planet,” he says. “We need to make sure we’re taking responsibly and making sure that we’re going to have great seafood from the Bay for generations to come. If we stay on the sustainable model and pay attention to those things, then I think we can protect the natural resources that we have down the road.”