Fishing with Rick Moonen

The chef and author talks about sustainable seafood

Rick Moonen runs what could be considered an oxymoron: a sustainable seafood restaurant in Las Vegas. His RM Seafood, in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, serves crab cakes, gumbo, sushi, and grilled fish. But unlike most other chefs in Vegas, a landlocked desert city that serves tens of thousands of pounds of unsustainably caught shrimp a day, Moonen is picky about getting stuff he knows isn’t contributing to the demise of the ocean. CHOW caught up with Moonen, on tour for his new book Fish Without a Doubt (cowritten with Roy Finamore), to find out how he sources his seafood, and how you can, too. Lessley Anderson

How did you first become concerned about overfishing?

When I was executive chef at [New York’s] Oceana, the National Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb asked us to take part in the Give Swordfish a Break campaign. I had been going to the Fulton Fish Market for years, and had seen a lot of changes in terms of size of fish and quality on the market, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I became the spokesperson, and it ended up being a historic campaign that actually forced the government to take action.

What were you seeing at the Fulton Fish Market that scared you into action?

Well, in 1988 I could buy a swordfish for large banquets that was 200 pounds or larger, and it was still fairly local. As the years passed by, there were fewer of those, and today, they are more frequently below 100 pounds. The reason the quality was [lower] is [the fishermen] had to go farther and farther out to catch a certain amount of biomass to make it worth their while. So the first ones they caught could be 20 days on ice and frozen by the time you got it.

That sounds like a really dramatic shift in a short period of time.

Trust me, we’re in big, big trouble. The wild Atlantic salmon is commercially extinct. An entire fishery—Oregon and California—got shut down this year. We think we have a God-given right to take as much as we like, tearing up the ocean floors, throwing pollutants everywhere, and the technology has advanced so far that we’re capable of going out farther, deeper, and more efficiently than ever before. If nothing’s done to change the way we’re purchasing, consuming, and removing biomass from the ocean, all commercially available fish will be extinct in the next 35 to 40 years. That was reported by [biologist] Boris Worm in Science in 2006 [free registration required]. It’s scaring the hell out of me.

How should we be shopping for seafood?

Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website [which has up-to-date info on which fish are sustainable and which aren’t]. Ask your purveyor questions like “Is this line-caught or is this farm-raised?” Ask where it’s from. Eat smaller fish: They’re lower on the food chain, and better for the environment and your health.

You spoke recently at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood conference Cooking for Solutions about America’s favorite seafood: salmon, shrimp, and tuna, a.k.a. “the big three.” Despite their enduring popularity, they’re some of the hardest to source sustainably. How do you provide Vegas diners with the big three responsibly?

I do not serve farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Wild salmon is the only [kind] I’ll serve when I can get it, and this year it’ll be extremely expensive. When it’s not in season, I’ll serve arctic char to satisfy people’s pink, Omega-3 fish jones. I have a sushi bar in my restaurant, and tuna is very difficult not to serve. I get line-caught from Hawaii, which is a naturally smaller fish, so there’s less concentration of mercury. I don’t buy bigeye, bluefin, and yellowfin, to be honest with you. There’s albacore, which is OK, but from a culinary standpoint I think it’s damn boring. Shrimp is a category I like to avoid, because there is no wonderful example here. The Asian-country farm-raised shrimp should be avoided. Generally speaking, they’re destroying the environment, ripping out mangroves to farm shrimp, throwing chemicals all over the place, and it’s not regulated correctly. The best alternative is farm-raised or wild from the Gulf of Mexico. I get them, but it’s not easy for your average person.

What’s the deal with farm-raised? Why is it bad? It seems like it would be better for the environment.

Open-net carnivorous fish, like farm-raised Atlantic salmon, are bad. Fish escape and cause genetic pollution when they mate with the wild population. They compete for food. The feces and dead fish from the nets create a mucky goo on the base of the natural environment: a suffocating blanket of death. In some cases, antibiotics and chemical pesticide use make it so if one fish gets sick, they all do. What’s good? Farmed fish that are not carnivores, like tilapia and catfish. There are a few good new aquaculture operations I’m working with: Kona Kampachi is a fish from Hawaii that’s a carnivore, but it’s more responsibly farmed. Cobia: Keep your eye out for that. It’s being raised in a responsible, cutting-edge farm in southwest Virginia, and it’s a fantastic fish.

Isn’t it hard for the average person to buy a weird fish they’ve never heard of and figure out what to do with it?

Fish are pretty interchangeable in many, many ways. We’re creatures of habit, and think, “Finally, I found a fish I like, and it’s good for me, and then I order it wherever I go.” That mentality coupled with [the influence of] celebrity chefs … and the media telling you something’s good for you, then everybody jumping on the bandwagon, is hurting us. In my book, I’m going to give you a recipe for arctic char. But guess what? It works well with halibut, tilapia, catfish, and cobia. Be flexible!

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.

Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe

See more articles