After completing a Master’s degree in Forestry at the University of British Columbia, Taina Uitto began scuba diving and found her love for the sea. “I went from tree-hugger to sea-hugger,” she laughs. She became increasingly distraught over the adverse effects of unsustainable fishing practices. Witnessing firsthand hundreds of shrimp trawlers scraping the bottom of the sea in Thailand, and decimating corral-reef ecosystems in the process certainly had an impact. “Did you know the trawl scars can be seen from space?” she exclaims.
Working with sustainable seafood was the perfect fit for Uitto. She’s now the national manager for Sea Choice, a Canadian sustainable seafood program delivered by the David Suzuki Foundation, Living Oceans Society, Ecology Action Centre, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club British Columbia. “I love working with the program because we get to find solutions from ocean to plate, in other words, working with everyone from fishermen, to seafood businesses, consumers and — my favourite — chefs,” says Uitto.
Enter the Canadian Chefs’ Congress. Chef Michael Stadtlander, who founded the Congress at his Ontario farm in 2008, opened the second annual Congress (held on Vancouver Island last fall) with a call for attendees to let politicians know they don’t want GMO salmon in Canada. Speakers representing all areas of the seafood spectrum discussed the food industry’s effect on marine life, and how that industry can help improve the health of the oceans. Here Uitto helped introduce “The Declaration for Healthy Oceans.” Participating chefs were encouraged to commit to the Declaration, which consists of steps to reduce harm and improve the health of the oceans.
The Declaration contains practical guidelines for chefs, including: serving seafood identified as sustainable by conservation programs; refusing to buy GMO fish and asking their suppliers to request non-GMO feed for farmed fish; securing direct and collaborative relationships with local, small-scale fishers, farmers, and specialty producers; and featuring a greater diversity of products from lesser-known species lower on the food chain.
“Chefs have enormous power to influence people’s preferences and introduce new tastes. The combined buying power of chefs is also huge. They can introduce new and underutilized species like sardines — which are currently one of the most sustainable seafood choices. Did you know that most of the sardines are going to tuna bait right now?” says Uitto.
What’s the biggest challenge in her role? “Canada-wide, we don’t have comprehensive seafood labelling laws right now. At the bare minimum, consumers need to know where their seafood was caught, what species it is, and how it was caught, in order to make a sustainable choice.”
The Declaration for Healthy Oceans opens with these words: “The oceans that sustain life on our planet are under threat from over-fishing and destruction of marine habitat, as well as the effects of industrial agriculture, pollution and climate change.” So who is responsible? “Every one of us is at least responsible to consider the impact of our choices,” says Uitto.