Chef Ned Bell is tanned, lean and fit. His handsome, boyish face and impish grin make him look much younger than a guy in his early 40s.
I met Bell (executive chef of the Four Seasons Vancouver) recently at a Canada Day reception to launch his Chefs for Oceans bike ride, a journey that will take him on a three-month odyssey from St. John’s to Vancouver.
The ride is meant to raise public awareness about the poor health of our oceans, and the importance of seafood sustainability — not only for Canada but for the world.
As I watched him work the room at Raymonds, the famous St. John’s restaurant, I thought he had to be the perfect individual to take on this particular challenge. While guests tasted a four-course lunch of oysters, sturgeon, scallops, snow crab and arctic char prepared by Bell supporter Chef Jeremy Charles and crew (Chef Todd Perrin is also a supporter), we witnessed the debut of a new, passionate Canadian voice dedicated to helping our ailing oceans.
You may be asking why a chef should be so concerned about seafood sustainability. Consider this: “Two-thirds of all seafood is consumed in restaurants,” said Bell. “So chefs have this really unique opportunity or ability to spread the message.”
When confronted with the plethora of statistics that Bell comes armed with, it’s difficult not to share his concern for the future of our oceans and, indeed, humanity.
For example, he told us that “two billion people rely on the world’s oceans for their daily source of protein.”
Furthermore, he said, “We have overfished 90 per cent of the large ocean predators. We have to start paying attention to managing our wild fisheries better and looking towards aquaculture — sustainable, on-land aquaculture — as a way to feed nine billion people by 2050.”
Bell’s preference for land-based aquaculture is informed by his West Coast roots.
He cites environmentalist David Suzuki as an inspiring influence and a “real leader” of his Chefs for Oceans initiative. Some British Columbians are troubled by the fact that approximately 140 ocean-based fish farms now exist in West Coast waters.
Those waters are home to five species of wild salmon. Bell and others believe that the “foreign species” (farmed Atlantic salmon) pose a serious threat to the existence of the native wild salmon.
Bell is convinced that the way ocean-based aquaculture is currently done, with open net pens or cages, is too risky.
He believes ocean-based aquaculture (which we have in Newfoundland, by the way) is getting better, but thinks “it’s not quite there yet.”
Bell and like-minded chefs, environmentalists and others firmly believe that land-based aquaculture is the answer to feeding humanity, and rebuilding wild stocks without threat. But there are those who don’t share this view.
In May, CBC News reported on the topic of land-based aquaculture. Representatives of Cooke Aquaculture, which has operated salmon farms in Atlantic Canada and Maine for 20 years, argued that the cost of land-based aquaculture would be prohibitive.
Most important is a supply of fresh water. Cooke’s fresh water manager, Mitchell Dickie, told CBC that a single commercial farm would require 8,000 litres of water per minute.
Connell Smith’s CBC New Brunswick report went on to point out that finding land might pose a problem since one commercial farm would require “between four and five thousand tanks, all under roof.”
Then there’s the issue of acquiring the tremendous amount of energy needed to power a farm’s recirculating pumps.
Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse told Smith that Cooke’s past experience had shown that consumers would not pay the premium on the price of fresh, land-raised salmon that would be necessary to make a business successful.
While Mallard Cottage chef Todd Perrin offered no comment on the merits of land-based aquaculture versus ocean-based, he feels that chefs do have a role to play when it comes to raising awareness about the importance of sustainability.
“Chefs can do their part by talking to their diners, by putting their money where their mouth is and buying and selling sustainable seafood.”
Although Australia has large-scale, ocean-based fish farming, as well as land-based, Bell admires the Aussies because they are the only country, so far, to have declared a National Sustainable Seafood Day. It happens annually on March 18.
He and members of Chefs for Oceans (founded by Bell) want the Government of Canada to follow suit and make March 18 National Sustainable Seafood Day in Canada. Chefs for Oceans has been lobbying the government for two years to make this happen.
Bell links the federal government’s slow response to the fact that sustainable seafood is a hot issue in Canada these days.
“The government is not a fan of supporting the scientific research. They continue to take away the funding to support scientists and marine biologists in continuing to do the proper research for what a well-managed fishery looks like, and what healthy oceans look like.”
While the request to declare a National Sustainable Seafood Day has been tabled in the House of Commons, Bell knows it can only become a reality if the public gets on board, too.
Perrin hopes that if National Sustainable Seafood Day succeeds, it will offer an opportunity to “create an event that highlights the product, the purveyors, the cooks and the general consumers.
Something that brings everyone together and makes the connection to the sustainable natural resource that surrounds us here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
As he travels through Canada on his Ghost bicycle this summer Bell will be asking Canadians he meets (at 20 different events across the country) to sign an online petition in support of National Sustainable Seafood Day.
Before Bell got on his bike and rode westward from St. John’s, he left this thought:
“It’s up to my peers and my generation to start raising more awareness for how we try and turn the clock back. We don’t know how Mother Nature is going to respond to us actually taking care of her. We just continue to beat her up and we expect her to keep giving to us. But she’s not going to continue to give to us, unless we start taking better care of her. And she might surprise us. We don’t know what she’s capable of.”
Bell will stop in Deer Lake July 5 and Stephenville July 6.
He begins the Nova Scotia leg of his journey from North Sydney on July 7. He hopes to make Halifax by July 12.
You can sign the online petition and follow the progress of his Chefs for Oceans trip by logging onto www.chefsforoceans.com.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells.