The World’s Biggest Chefs Want You to Eat the Ocean’s Smallest Fish

An ocean conservation organisation has started a campaign to bring easily replenished small fish like anchovies and herring to restaurant menus. Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, and Grant Achatz are already on board.

Rachel Walker

Photo via Flickr user Stijn Nieuwendijk

"My son was mad that I got to come to this event today and not him," laughs Lasse Gustavsson, senior vice president at the European strand of Oceana, the world's biggest ocean conservation organisation. "You see, he's a chef and these are all his heroes lined up here."

Gustavsson points toward the stage at the Basque Culinary Centre. It's true. Using The World's 50 Top Restaurants as a guide, Oceana has got support from the head chefs at all top ten restaurants for its latest campaign, Save the Oceans, Feed the World. All but noma's René Redzepi (he penned his pledge rather than attending in person) but hey, Ferran Adrià from the elBullifoundation has made an appearance, and there's no disputing it's a strong turnout from all corners of the globe.

READ MORE: The Ethics of Eating Fish That'll Die Pretty Soon Anyway

The reason behind the star-studded line up is to initiate urgent change. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that the world population will have grown from 7 billion to more than 9 billion, meaning that we will have to produce over 70 percent more food to meet the greater demand.

Oceana believes that the answer lies in seafood and that if the oceans are harvested efficiently, they could provide a healthy meal for 1 billion people each day.

Ferran Adria's coconut soup with sardines. Photo courtesy Oceana.

Ferran Adria's coconut soup with sardines. Photo courtesy Oceana.
Andoni Aduriz's caramelised mackerel fillet with an infusion of mashed sesame seeds and milk skin. Andoni Aduriz's caramelised mackerel fillet with an infusion of mashed sesame seeds and milk skin. Photo courtesy Oceana.

The problem is that ocean-management can appear complicated, messages are sometimes conflicting, and consumers often become confused. Trickiest of all for Oceana though, is getting people to connect with ocean conservation in any way at all.

"Fish aren't cute or cuddly," explains Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless.

Plus, overfishing and dredging fall into the "out of sight, out of mind" category. If someone shoots a rhinoceros, then it's a fairly brutal scene for anyone to see—and photograph and circulate. But dredge a net along the ocean floor destroying everything in its wake and people don't even have to turn a blind eye. The damage is all below the surface.

Sharpless realised that people connected with the problem more when fish were discussed in a culinary sense. So he simplified the message to something easy for consumers to latch on to: "eat little fish." He then rounded up the world's most influential chefs to help spread the word.

"We're using a trickle-down approach," explains Sharpless. "These guys will put little fish on their menus and then the chefs who look up to them will start using them too. Little fish will start appearing more in cookbooks, on more blogs, and eventually in more home kitchens."

There are two reasons why Oceana is so keen to promote more consumption of little fish. Firstly, their misuse is symptomatic of a broken food chain. 98 percent of Peruvian anchovies—which are a delicious form of protein—are turned into animal feed for activities like fish farming.

When used as fish food, four pounds of anchovies produce one pound of farmed flesh. There's no disputing the fact that it's not an efficient use of resources, particularly with the predicted 2 billion more mouths to feed.

Secondly, small fish are a more sustainable option. In Britain, for example, 80 percent of the seafood consumed comes from a group known as "The Big Five": salmon, cod, haddock, tuna, and prawns. With the exception of prawns, they're all top-of-the-food-chain fellows.

"They require lots of resources and time to grow," explains Sharpless. "Which is rarely characteristic of a resilient and sustainable species."

It's true. Compare Atlantic Halibut (which can grow up to four metres if given the time) to a little herring, whose minimum landing size is 20cm, and it's clear which species is capable of replenishing its stocks fastest.

"Think of it like eating rabbits instead of tigers," Sharpless suggests. Just as rabbits are likely to be more abundant than tigers, so the same works with fish. There is a problem though. The "Tigers of the Ocean" are usually the species which appear on fine dining menus (black miso cod, Turbotin Jubilee, salt-baked branzino), while the "rabbits" (mackerel, herring, sardines) rarely make it through the doors of a high end restaurant.

This is where the chefs come in. Just as fashion is dictated by leading designers, so food trends are shaped by the chefs lined up on stage. They have committed to leading the charge, revamping the reputation of small fish to make them more appealing.

Grant Achatz has taken on mackerel and herring in his three Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, with "light salted mackerel, fennel, root end" and herring served with warm cow cheese, cold caviar, and rauwe ajuin appearing on the menu at Alinea.

Gaston Acurio's sustainable ceviche dish.

Gaston Acurio's sustainable ceviche dish. Photo courtesy Oceana.

Brazilian chef Alex Atala has elevated the humble sardine to loftier places with his recipe for sardine with oyster mayonnaise, and Rodolfo Guzman from legendary Chilean restaurant Boragó has also transformed anchovies into a thick mayonnaise, which anchors down a hollowed-out artichoke in a sea of scallop puree. A far better use for the anchovetas than animal feed.

Cynics of Oceana's scheme might accuse the chef strategy of being lightweight. That more drastic action is needed to initiate change. But it's just a small part of the organisation's crusade.

READ MORE: We Should Be Eating Fish at the Bottom of the Food Chain

"You might think that we're going to have to go to a United Nations meeting or something to get the job done," Sharpless says. "But it turns out that 90 percent of the world's catch comes from the national waters of just 30 countries."

So no longer is the organisation faced with the daunting task of "fixing the world's oceans." Instead, they are honing in on the 30 countries, canvassing the powers that be to do the basic things such as maintaining scientific quotas, protecting nursery habitats, and reducing by-catch.

With the global campaigning left to Oceana, what action can be taken at by the average consumer? Sharpless has three pieces of advice. Firstly: "pick one guide which is responsible and stick to it," he says, recommending the MSC app for basic information on fish sustainability.

Secondly, he advises buying local fish which is fresh and seasonal, and has travelled fewer air-miles, particularly if you live in Europe or America. Lastly, is Sharpless' message of the day: eat little fish. If the chefs here today stay true to their word, this shouldn't be a problem. It seems as if little fish are going to be the next big thing.