Despite beaches gradually reopening, the recent oil spill contaminating Orange County waters on October 2nd will have a lasting impact far beyond what the naked eye observes. Marine life in every form will struggle to live in a compromised ecosystem. Questions that come up include the sourcing of seafood on local menus. If a restaurant specializes in finfish or shellfish, where exactly is it originating from? And if/when is it safe to consume meals caught from the immediate ocean?
Founder and general manager of O Sea restaurant in Orange, Michael Flynn explains that his dining room isn’t defined by locally sourced fish, noting that the kitchen will purchase specific ocean fare when it’s in season and available. For National Seafood Month (occurring through the end of October), O Sea planned on celebrating by offering dishes featuring three ingredients sourced from California’s central coast: Grassy Bar oysters and rockfish from Morro Bay plus Santa Barbara spot prawns.
But can places like O Sea continue to serve based on recent events? “The spill appears to be traveling south instead of north.” Flynn says, which won’t impact the oysters and rockfish specials. However, seafood he sources from Mexico may become a concern in coming weeks.
Once he learned of the leak, the first call the restaurant made was to Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente-based non-profit dedicated to protecting and preserving beaches and oceans. Feeling it was strange to serve without acknowledging what happened, O Sea pledged to donate 10% from the proceeds of its featured dishes towards Surfrider’s efforts to repair the local coastline.
The trend for seafood consumption is much higher now than in the past. Flynn attributes an individual’s desire to lead healthier lifestyles going as far back as the 1980s. “It was one of the reasons I was attracted to working with seafood. I feel full, nourished and don’t need a nap afterwards.”
O Sea’s tagline, “Seafood for thought,” refers to the sourcing philosophy applied to every seafood item brought into the kitchen. When working with purveyors, questions regarding where it comes from, the catch method and if human dignity has been preserved throughout the product supply chain are asked. “These are factors that weigh into our sourcing process.” Flynn said.
The tagline also resonates with the current situation restaurants and diners find themselves in. Flynn believes an open discussion with consumers leads to better understanding, “Ask questions. The importance of knowing (where seafood comes from) really matters.”
In 2011, chef Andrew Gruel founded Slapfish food truck, ultimately transitioning into a brick-and-mortar establishment and expanding the brand into Fountain Valley-based Slapfish Restaurant Group with additional Slapfish locations around the United States and in London. His involvement with the sustainable seafood movement started prior to Slapfish, when he directed Seafood for the Future, a non-profit project by The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Gruel’s efforts in educating the fishing and restaurant industries and those associated with them about making environmentally responsible seafood choices match his beliefs to this day.
Currently, sales at all of the Slapfish locations close to the beach are down 30%. Yet he is more focused on what he recently learned. “If there is any good news, it’s that the amount of oil thought spilled (150,000 gallons) seems to have been an overestimate, and it could be more along the lines of 30,000 gallons. Still not good, but not as bad.”
On Friday, the Associated Press reported: “The company that owns and operates three offshore platforms and the pipeline has said publicly that no more than 126,000 gallons (477,000 liters) leaked. But Houston-based Amplify Energy also told federal investigators the total amount may only be 29,400 gallons (111,300 liters).”
Gruel warns that inshore recreational fishermen need to be careful about eating a contaminated catch and has concerns about the not-so-distant future, stressing the far-reaching effects on the entire marine ecosystem. “Many people don’t think about the migrating birds, shellfish, baitfish and inshore species, which while not directly affecting the food supply, are part of an important and bio-dynamic ecosystem.”
His advice to restaurants: Help fisheries once the coast is clear by pushing to buy local seafood, “especially spiny lobster, which is going to get hurt badly as a result of this spill.”
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.