NAPLES — When customers walk up to the seafood counter at Randy's Fish Market, they are looking for more than just dinner. Often they are looking for answers.
"They like to test us," fishmonger Ben Giles said.
The questions run the gamut from whether the fish is farm-raised or wild to whether mercury contamination is a health concern, but the questioning hardly never touches on seafood sustainability, Giles said.
Sustainability is a growing concern for many U.S. seafood consumers, but the topic is not as big a priority around most Southwest Florida dinner tables as price and origin, restaurant owners and sustainability experts say. A push is on, though, to spread the sustainability message.
"Sustainability is starting to make its way up there," said Naples-based Florida Sea Grant agent Bryan Fleuch, who recently organized a sustainable seafood workshop that attracted a handful of restaurant workers, including Giles. "We know they're a segment that interacts with the public a lot. It's a start."
Americans consumed 4.7 billion pounds of seafood in 2011, the second-largest helping of seafood in the world behind China, and more than 90 percent of it is processed overseas, Fleuch said. Half of that comes from fish farms.
As sustainability has become more of a buzz word in the industry, various industry groups have established sets of standards that must be met for both wild and farm-raised fish to be labeled as sustainable.
Most definitions of seafood sustainability require that the fishery can meet current demand and that production can be maintained or increased without damaging the ecosystem.
"It's easy to throw out a two-line definition but when it comes to doing it, it's complicated, it's real complicated," said seafood specialist Guy Ewing of Naples, who travels the world as a certified sustainability auditor for Food Plans International.
Inspections can take days and cover a lot of ground. A sustainable wild-caught fishery, for example, must not take food from other fish, must not harm populations of birds or marine mammals and must meet fair and safe labor standards.
Inspectors also calculate the carbon footprint of getting the seafood to market and must be able to trace the catch back to its origin, Ewing said.
Aquaculture facilities that raise farmed fish, in natural settings or in man-made lakes, must not block traditional access to the fishery, must use only approved antibiotics or chemicals and must use minimal amounts of fish meal or fish oil in their feed.
They must prevent farmed fish from escaping into the wild, not pose a pathogen or parasite risk to wild fish populations and can't destroy sensitive coastal habitats, Ewing said.
U.S. demand for sustainable seafood is being driven, not by the public, but by large retailers like Wal-Mart that are increasingly eschewing commercial fishing in favor of buying from certified fish farms.
For some Southwest Florida chefs, putting together sustainable menus is as much a matter of personal ethics as it is a decision aimed at the bottom line.
"We have choices as chefs," said Chris Jones, executive chef at the Old Collier Golf Club and president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. "Is the demand out there? No. But it's something that should be pushed forward."