There is an ever-stronger wave of seafood sustainability in the world of gastronomy, and some UAE restaurants are pulling out all the stops to ride the crest.
According to 2021 data by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the UAE consumes more than 220,000 tonnes of fish per year, or 28.6kg per person annually, which is higher than the global average of 20.5kg.
The UAE has always been transparent about its food security challenges, and it has identified fish as a staple in the country's burgeoning food scene. Coastal developments, climate change and other non-food elements are also critical parts of discussions around marine life conservation, but it is seafood sourcing that is almost directly related to people's daily lives and decisions.
World Oceans Day on Thursday, then, is a good time to start thinking about sustainable seafood choices.
Stay away from sharks
Shark meat, bluefin tuna, abalone, halibut, sea bream, grouper, wild sturgeon and wild-caught freshwater eels – these are but some of the 19 seafood types on the “avoid list” identified by Mandarin Oriental in 2021.
The hospitality group, which oversees operations at the restaurant-studded Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and Mandarin Oriental Jumeirah in Dubai, will phase out all the species not certified by international seafood watchdogs Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
“The group plans to stop serving anything on its avoid list of endangered seafood species, while simultaneously increasing the sourcing of sustainably certified seafood,” Torsten van Dullemen, director of sustainability and vice president of operations, tells The National.
The initiative is part of the chain's wider sustainability agenda, which also includes the recently launched vegan rooms at Emirates Palace.
Mandarin Oriental was also one of the first hospitality companies to ban shark fins. Now, about 18,000 hotels across the world have stopped serving the seafood, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The restaurant industry is a major player in the seafood game, with many venues competing to serve the freshest catch. This demand raises questions about supply, and rightfully so.
Last month, the Michelin Guide awarded three restaurants in Dubai its coveted green star. Food quality aside, Lowe, Boca and Teible were chosen based on environment-focused markers, such as the origin of their ingredients and how they manage their waste.
For Spanish-inspired Boca, championing local produce is one of the best ways to ensure sustainability. About 80 per cent of the restaurant's seafood products are locally or regionally sourced.
“We recognise that as a restaurant, we have a bigger responsibility than just serving good food,” founder Omar Shihab tells The National, adding that Boca has always sourced directly from local fishermen in Dubai's Waterfront Market. More recently it added another supplier, Fish Farm, which operates three facilities in Dibba, Umm Al Quwain and Jebel Ali. The aquaculture company cultivates hammour, which has been pressured with overfishing in the region, in a bid to create a more sustainable source of the fish.
Boca also uses oysters from Dibba Bay, sourced from the coast of Fujairah.
“We feel compelled to talk about the enormous efforts that local farming heroes are exerting in the desert,” Shihab adds. “We are constantly blown away by how much can be done here using new technologies and techniques with absolute efficiency and minimal impact on the environment.”
Local seafood sourcing is not without challenges, and the UAE government has taken steps to ensure that the country's marine life is not pressured beyond sustainable levels. The UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment published a fishing calendar in 2021, which enumerates and tags the specific species of fish that can be harvested year-round. Boca, located at the Dubai International Financial Centre, relies on this guide to inform its sourcing decisions.
Another important aspect of seafood sourcing is traceability, or the ability to trace a product's supply chain journey, from the point of origin to the point of sale.
Online marketplace Seafood Souq, for example, allows customers to order products with complete traceability. Each product description includes country of origin and a brief about the producer. It also mentions whether the products were wild-caught or farmed, as well as the delivery method.
“[Becoming sustainable] requires taking time to learn, measure and make changes within the restaurant’s operations, whether it is sourcing, waste management, addressing resource consumption, carbon emission reporting or assessing the community aspect,” says Shihab.
Is sustainability expensive?
Chef Avinash Mohan of Indian restaurant Cochin Harbour in Karama, agrees that procurement practices play a significant role in the sustainability of seafood sources. However, he says this may “come at a slightly higher price compared to conventionally sourced options, due to factors such as higher production costs, adherence to stricter standards or limited availability”. However, he adds, that “over time, as the demand for sustainable seafood grows, economies of scale may lead to more competitive pricing”.
Mohan says it's important to consider the long-term benefits of responsible sourcing, which include “cost savings, increased customer loyalty, an enhanced reputation, and alignment with evolving consumer preferences”.
At Boca, Shihab believes responsibly sourced seafood “usually increases the quality of the product, granting the restaurant the right to charge higher prices and, hopefully, contribute to increased margins and higher profitability”.
Despite the higher costs attached to sustainability, many UAE restaurants are increasingly looking for ethical sources, according to Ehab Sadek, vice president of commercials at Kaso, an online platform that connects restaurants with suppliers.
The company services about 8,500 venues across the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and Sadek says government regulations have pushed many venues to think about their procurement processes. “If restaurants don't partner with the right suppliers, they might get in trouble,” he adds.
The complex restaurant-supplier dynamic also inspires restaurants to get both conscientious and creative with their menus. According to Mohan, “building strong relationships with suppliers is crucial for managing seasonal changes. We always communicate our specific needs and preferences to suppliers, who then provide information about the availability of seasonal seafood or vegetable options.
“By anticipating shifts in ingredient availability, we adjust our menus accordingly and plan for alternative options or substitutions,” he adds.
This is typical across many middle to high-end restaurants in the UAE. Fusion Indian venue Masti, which sources its seafood from the Waterfront Market, regularly changes its menu based on the seasonality of ingredients.
Menu planning and forecasting are crucial aspects of restaurant operations in a country like the UAE. Mohan says that this also puts pressure on restaurateurs to educate customers about the ingredients kitchens use, be it through menu descriptions or staff interaction.
Customers, in turn, can choose to return to a restaurant because of its sustainability values or, indeed, make their own scrupulous choices.
Making a mark
As a consumer, it can be tricky to ensure the seafood you buy from a supermarket or order at a restaurant is truly responsibly sourced, but there are some ways to be more certain.
The most basic way is to ask the origin of the fish or fish product. Generally, seafood from the Waterfront Market in Dubai is safe, as the market is strictly regulated by the government. According to Shihab, patronising local producers is a consumer's best bet, and there are a number of home-grown companies in the market, including Dibba Bay Oysters and Fish Farm.
Whether a fish is wild-caught or farmed at an aquaculture facility, individual practices could still be scrutinised, so experts suggest reading about the companies, especially for products that are typically imported, such as salmon. Norway is a major global producer, and Norwegian companies are generally regarded for their sustainable practices.
Companies all over the world are becoming increasingly transparent about their fishing methods, on the back of regulatory pressure. A quick Google search of a company should give consumers an idea of their practices – if this information is not readily available, it's best to avoid these products.
There are also certifications and labels that consumers can look out for, such as stamps from watchdogs Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council.