In 2018, when more than 50 B.C. chefs put their names to a letter calling on the B.C. government not to renew 20 salmon farm leases, one name was conspicuously absent—Ned Bell's.
If any chef in B.C. can be called a sustainable seafood advocate, it's Bell. The celebrity chef is the official ambassador for the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program and is the author of Lure, a cookbook based on sustainable seafood from the West Coast.
Unlike many of his peers, Bell thinks fish farming, including open-net fish farms, is becoming an increasingly important source of sustainable seafood. It's a highly polarized issue within the conservation world.
"If you live on the south coast of this province, and if you want to talk about farmed fish, get ready for an environmental crusade that's going to come knocking on your door in a real hurry," he said.
"I honestly think we've done a disservice to probably the most sustainable opportunity for protein consumption, which is farmed fish, and also the healthiest.
"Farmed fish is superior in many, many ways. That said, there are challenges with it. It's not to say all farmed fish is good, but certainly not all farmed fish is bad. But equally, not all wild fish is good.
"Would I cook it? Absolutely. Do I put it on my menu? Currently no, because it's not Ocean Wise recommended."
Bell splits his time between his roles as the culinary director of the Vancouver Club and as executive chef and ambassador for Ocean Wise. He concedes there are problems with eco-labelling, one of them being fraud and mislabelling.
"Is seafood fraud an issue? Absolutely," he said. "We know it is. Traceability is probably the largest conversation that we're all having right now, when it comes to the seafood that is in our grocery stores or on our plates, mainly because we import so much of the seafood that we consume in North America. Eighty per cent of the seafood that we consume here in North America is imported."
The Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) chain-of-custody verification system is one of the reasons he trusts the label, because it avoids the kind of mislabelling that can often occur in restaurants, he said.
But as Bell pointed out, MSC covers only some of the world's largest fisheries. He therefore relies on other sustainable seafood recommendation programs to cover the gaps.
The four certification or rating programs he uses as a guide are MSC, Ocean Wise, SeaChoice and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. These programs sometimes disagree with each other, and fish farms are one such area.
While open-net farmed salmon remains on the "do not eat" lists of some seafood guides such as Ocean Wise's, Bell said fish farming will have an increasingly important role to play. In some cases, it may be better to eat fish that are raised in the oceans than to eat wild fish that are overfished, he said.
"The reality is we need aquaculture. There's not going to be more fish in the ocean unless we lay off wild species. Probably the best things we could do would be to lay off some species indefinitely.
"Look at Atlantic cod. We have been in a commercial moratorium for that fishery since the '90s, and it's still not a commercially viable fish. If we want to continue to consume seafood, we need to grow fish."
This article originally appeared in Business in Vancouver on Nov. 6, 2018.