Roger Berkowitz is the President and CEO of Legal Seafoods. Based in Boston, Legal Seafoods operates restaurants, mail order, and a catering service.


Do you think it would be a good thing if other restaurants served fish caught from sustainability managed fisheries?

The interesting thing now is that seafood is getting very popular so it presents us with a conundrum. People finally understand how healthy it is, so it is becoming very popular. But they are suddenly becoming aware of this at a time when seafood is lowest in terms of availability. So, I think that people really have to strategize as to how we are going to use fish now. We have to really have a strategy.

Do you think a restaurant like yours provides a way for consumers to play a role in conserving and restoring marine resources?

I think that we all have a responsibility in business, regardless of what business you are in. And if we are in the business of selling fish, I want to be able to sell fish twenty years down the road and so really I have to be a conservationist in terms of how I approach it. I want our guests to feel good about what we are doing and feel confident that we are doing the right thing — that we are not being exploitative. And if they understand what we’re doing and they buy into our strategy, then it is a win-win for all.

By and large, have the customers here appreciated your efforts?

I think so. It’s interesting. Some people look at us and say, "You’re a conservationist? You believe in conservation?" I think they are pleasantly surprised and they feel good about it. There are stories out there about supplies being low and what’s being done. I think that if we can explain to them what we are doing to make sure that the seafood is sustainable — and that we do have a vested interest in making sure that the supplies are there not just today, but five or ten years down the road — they feel better about it.

Would you care to speak to the potential of consumer choice in contributing to marine conservation efforts?

Consumers today are more informed than ever before. And particularly we find that those who eat seafood are the most informed. We always like to joke that fish is brain food and that the most intelligent people eat seafood. It is a lifestyle thing and people understand that when they eat fish, it is a healthy alternative and the best source of protein.

From a consumer standpoint they really want to feel good about what they are doing. They want to have as much information as possible. Its sort of like reading a label — seeing what the fat content is, what the sodium content is. They want to make intelligent choices and I think giving them information where they can go and make a choice between a sustainable source of seafood and one that is endangered is important to them.

To what degree do you think that consumers can make a choice to come to a restaurant like yours or shop for fish that they know has been produced is a sustainable way? To what degree do you think they are creating an incentive for fishermen or fish farmers to adopt sustainable practices?

I don’t think consumers completely understand the power that they have in terms of motivating people to do certain things.

But any time consumers vote with their feet, the marketplace is very quick to change and pay attention. So as long as consumers are going into places and saying, you know, "I don’t want that species, it might be endangered," or "I want this," — you know, the fishermen aren’t stupid. It all goes back to the whole issue of swordfish. I think that the movement on swordfish has been very good, because it has gotten a lot of the focus off of small swordfish. Now the issue is becoming one of how it is harvested, which is a good issue. The larger fish aren’t endangered, but if we can get the industry back to harpooning, then it is a win-win for all. People are just starting to understand the problem, but they need more information. They cannot blindly say we don’t want swordfish at all because that's not the solution. The solution is not to get swordfish off the menus: the solution is to have the largest swordfish there caught in a sustainable way.

What is your sense as to the relationship between sustainably caught fish and quality seafood?

I think that there should be attention paid to how fish is harvested as a country or as a business or as an industry. Over the years even though it’s a somewhat primitive industry, it has become very efficient over the past fifteen or twenty years. You know, they now have fish finders that can go out and find every bit of fish in the sea or at least that is what they propose in their advertising. The nets and the trawling become very, very efficient, but it is interesting. You can get good quality fish off a net or a trawler. I’m not so sure about gill netting but when it comes to the hand lining or the hooking there is really much better quality. And that is really the most primitive way of harvesting fish. So if we go back to some of the most primitive forms of fishing, I think we are going to end up with uniformly better quality across the board.

Go back to harpooning — are you kidding?

The interesting thing from a consumer standpoint, if it were explained to consumers, is that first of all, the harpooned fish, is THE best tasting fish you can get, because it is a quick kill, it comes right out of the water, it really is a spectacular eating fish. I think that if the demand went—that if pe ople knew that they were paying more — it cost me more per pound to buy it. And I’ve explained to my consumers that this is the finest caught swordfish and that is does need a premium in terms of what it costs on the plate, I don’t think that's a barrier. I think that people will migrate towards that, creating a demand for more harpooning of swordfish to go on out there, and that's what is going to drive the fishermen. To the extent that people really don’t care then there’s not a driving force. But I’ve been trying to talk to the fishermen, to tell them, "Look, I will pay you more." I want the large, harpooned fish. Aside from anything else, it does better for the species. But it is a better eating fish to begin with. Better with fat content — everything.

If and when the Marine Stewardship Council starts certifying seafood products, will your restaurant start purchasing only those products?

I’ll focus on those products if the quality is where I need it to be. But yes. It will be a compelling reason to look at them first. I’m not sure that the Council will be able to be equally distributed across all the different varieties of fish that are out there. But certainly I think they are doing the right thing to target fisheries that are sustainable. Then it is up to us as the buyers to make sure that people are handling that sustainable fishery in the proper way. So I would pay attention to those first. But I’m not sure that it would solve the complete supply issue.

The interesting thing is that a fish industry or a fishery that is certified, say, by groups like the Marine Stewardship Council would be compelling for us to take a look at first because they are trying to do the right thing. So I would absolutely look at those fish first. Then it would be up to me as a buyer to make sure that people that are bringing in that product are handling it in the right way. But yes, I would absolutely take a look at that fishery first.

Part of our documentary series is about aquaculture. There is a lot of controversy about the salmon and shrimp aquaculture. We’re looking at a lot of the problems involved, we are also going to areas where are looking at efforts to do it right. There is a steep learning curve.

But as you are probably aware, certain people put a lot of stock in marine aquaculture as potentially one day taking a lot of the pressure off the world’s oceans. What's your take on that?

I absolutely agree. I think that aquaculture is going to be a vital part of the strategy in figuring out how to better manage the world’s fish supplies. We have to have something that takes the pressure off, and certainly fish farming does take the pressure off. And that balance, I think, will keep us and the world’s populations supplied with seafood and the world’s populations. We need the two. We cannot do it anymore with just one source.

A lot of the small boat fishermen are complaining that it is really tough for them now. Here in New England a lot of the areas that are closed are really near shore. The trawlers and the off-shore fishermen are raking it in, and small fishermen are having a lot of trouble. They are beginning to think that participation in the New England Fishery Management Council is biased toward big boat operators. Do you think that the emerging markets for environment-friendly seafood makes it more possible for smaller scale fishermen to take advantage of this niche market?

Absolutely. I try to think of myself at times. If I were a small boat operator, how would I market that product? They have a number of advantages over the larger boats going out.

I’m not sure that the Fisheries Council has taken them into consideration in an equitable kind of way. They may have some good complaints and some issues about being treated fairly. But a small boat fisherman certainly can sell his fish as boutique fish. He can control the quality of it much better. He is out at sea fewer days. If he does it right, it is to his advantage.

Some fishermen fear that the Marine Stewardship Council certification will put certain small-scale fishermen at a disadvantage because they are not going to be able to afford to be certified.

I’m not sure exactly how it is going to work in terms of cost structure to them. In one sense it’s good. One thing that the MSC brings to the table is it takes pressures off the fisheries that cannot handle the over fishing and it gives people alternatives. It gives some of the stocks the opportunity to come back. I think that long term, it’s not a huge expense and that it’s something that should be considered as a viable strategy.

There have been a lot of people saying that globalization of the fish market is what has made it possible for certain areas to be over fished — for example, orange roughy and so forth.

Well I haven't been to the Fulton Fish Market recently but you’re right: there are fish there from all over the world. You see very little from North Atlantic waters any more and twenty years ago it was virtually all from North Atlantic waters. I think that people are using alternatives, because they cannot get the cod and so are using a lot of South American fish. Selfishly, it is one of the strategies that the U.S. market can use to rebuild their stocks, so that they are not so reliant, and not everyone is bidding up every single piece of fish from the North Atlantic. It takes some of the pressure off of it. So selfishly, I’m glad that that’s sort of coming into the marketplace, balancing it out a little bit. My sense is that when the stocks start coming back, markets like the Fulton Street Fish Market will start to use more North Atlantic fish and be less reliant on the exotic fish coming in.

Several scientists are looking into the effects of bottom trawling. They are concerned that these heavy bottom trawls are knocking over a lot of the structure that is needed for juvenile fish to hide from predators. If they were to decide that bottom trawling is a big piece of the problem, wouldn’t that make a lot of the fish that you and others caught a potential problem?

Certainly there would be less supply, but it’s interesting.

This is sort of American ingenuity. There is an issue or problem; how do you respond to it? You see a lot more of the smaller boats out there and they have gear and can still harvest without doing damage to the bottom. Figure a way around it: that’s the American way.

There may very well be a problem with bottom trawling in terms of how it affects the habitat, but American ingenuity has always intervened whenever there was a problem. If they are told you cannot do that, they don’t hit the wall and stop. They figure out a way around it and develop either a different way of trawling, or a different kind of boat...whatever. But you cannot stop them from fishing. They’ll just do it according to whatever the new rules are. So if those are the new rules, if it comes out that bottom trawling is banned, they’ll figure out a way around it.