After two decades or so of devoting himself to sublime preparations of swimmy, pinchy, and crawly sea and lake-faring creatures at venerable spots like Oceana in New York and now at his flagship restaurant, rm seafood, in Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay, Chef Rick Moonen knows a thing or two about the what lies beneath. Here, he anchors with Toque for a few poignant questions–and honest answers–about the state of sea life today.
What do you believe is the most dangerous threat to ocean life right now?
Aquaculture and big business, is the easiest answer, but the real answer is man. Aquaculture is the impact of farming, in particular, as well as carnivorous and invasive species of fish, open-net pens, and man’s interference in the ecosystem and disregard for having any kind of responsibility for extinction and destruction of the habitat. I don’t feel as though there’s enough of an embrace from mankind to understand that we co-exist with the water and if the ocean collapses, so does man. We’re done. And the world will keep on turning and it’ll find a way to just keep on going and continue to evolve; billions of years passed prior to our existence. The World is perfecting itself – we’re just interfering with it. Stressing a part of nature that wasn’t designed to have that concentration or that activity.
Well, with that in mind, what was your response to the enormous oil spill shenanigans in the Gulf last year?
Anger and fear, at first. In retrospect—and this isn’t going to sound like an environmentalist here because I’m a chef and, ultimately, I want to maintain a healthy ocean for my personal reasons—here is a body of water that sounds small because it’s called a gulf, but if you’ve ever been there, you know it’s as big as an ocean. It’s enormous! And guess what that environment has been adapting to for billions of years? Petroleum. That environment has been dealing with seepage and the presence of petroleum in its world forever, and is constantly being fed by warm, fertile waters and the Mississippi River and everything else. I have a belief from my perspective that it can be rectified. It’s not as if 25 full oil tankers pulled into the center of an area of the world where oil never existed and released all of it at once. Now you’d have a disaster because there’s no defense. Was [the Gulf] ready for such an input of oil at one time? Probably not. But it will probably rectify itself much quicker than you might imagine. I’m more concerned about the dispersions and chemicals we’re using to sweep the slicks under the water.
What kind of misconceptions do you find many eaters have about the threat to fish?
I don’t feel as though there’s enough of an embrace from mankind to understand that we co-exist with the water and if the ocean collapses, so does man. We’re done.
Most people are completely in the dark. They don’t know the impact that farmed salmon has on the environment. Why would they? I mean, farmed products are what we buy. There is very little that’s wild, and there is certainly nothing wild that’s carnivorous, except for fish. But I mean, it’s as if we were serving lion for dinner. “I need a little corralled lion for my Sloppy Joe’s tonight!” And I’m not even getting into the effluents, the sea lice, the strain and stress on the environment, and the destruction of an area that was already perfectly designed to proliferate wild species. And they’re going away, which is great for business. If all those pesky wild salmon were to go away, we could put up as many hydroelectric plants as we want! And we could make a lot more money controlling a sure thing.
It IS terrifying! And the money is bigger than you can possibly imagine. It’s the number one selling fish in the world and most of it’s coming from farms.
I’m amazed at how often I still see stuff like Chilean sea bass on a menu. But sometimes I feel like I’m part of the problem by simply opening a can of tuna–what are the best choices for seafood lovers these days?
Rather than preach, this is when I pull out my Seafood Watch hat and put it on my head. From my single-subject study and focus for 20-years-plus, I find that this is the best resource for people to follow because they touch upon all five criterion of concern for ocean and human symbiosis.
- Overfishing. But that’s technology – our capability to for removing every last single section of the world of its biomass.
- By-catch, which is the inadvertent capture of species that are not targeted and there’s not a market for it for whatever reason – it’s not legal, the fisherman doesn’t have a license to sell it, or there’s not demand for it. A lot these salmon farms are in the Pacific Northwest, and that’s horrible. They are wreaking havoc on the environment. And then there are the [wild] salmon that go out into the middle of the ocean or the Bering Sea, jumping and playing and eating swimming and doing what fish do. Now, along comes these traveling factories going after pollock to make surimi and they’re sucking up all kinds of things, including the wild salmon. Pollock is such a huge industry, and no one knows that. No one knows what it is, but pollock is everywhere! It’s in anything frozen, fake crab meat, billions and billions and billions of pounds of it. So let’s say the by-catch of that is point five percent—well, point five percent of a billion is way too many salmon!
- Aquaculture, good and not so good. There is good—there are non-carnivorous fish, like catfish and tilapia. Dig a hole in your backyard, stick a hose in it, and you too can be growing catfish. The not-so-good –open net pens. Me, I would like to see close-container systems where you can control your effluents, which is the by-product; a recipe of fish poop, uneaten fish-food pellets, and dead fish. Those things together create a suffocating blanket of death in the immediate area and way beyond of thick-ass goo. You basically create a black zone on the bottom of the ocean. And there are fish down there and crabs down there and shrimp down there and eel grass down there where fish need to hide in so they don’t get eaten and can survive.
- Health concerns. We find out there’s mercury in our food and we’ve been dumping it in the water thinking the toilet is going to flush itself, and that the fish will just magically reappear.
- Habitat destruction. Which is major. No one sees the habitat destruction because it’s covered in water. It’s shiny and the sun reflects off it and you smile because it’s beautiful. But not so much down below. Dredging and dragging large heavy nets on the ocean bottom is basically like clear-cutting a forest in order to get deer for dinner. And it’s the size of the continental United States in habitat that we destroy annually.
Right. So we’re painting them into a corner, we’re taking too many of them because we’re at the top of the food chain and we want to eat all the big predators, and then we’re surprised because there’s large pockets of species that have mercury in them. There are lots of species [at the bottom of the food chain] filled with omega 3s, delicious to eat – yum, yum, yum! – and we’ve got to create an industry where we’re more than happy to work with them. The real solution at the end is open your horizons—there’s a lot of biomass that we don’t even consider consuming. People are mostly comfortable eating about 5 species.
On that note, last night on television I saw this really splashy ad pushing tuna saying how good it is for you. But even recently, I read yet another disturbing statistic about alarming levels of mercury in tuna—what do you think that’s all about?
Tuna industry is big money still. That’s why.