Interview With Sarah Schumann Of Eating With The Ecosystem

Sustainable seafood dinners take you on a culinary and educational journey throughout a delicious meal

Schumann works to build awareness of fish sustainability.

Sarah Schumann is a commercial fisherwoman who works with Eating with the Ecosystem, an organization built on the importance of sustainable seafood awareness.She spoke with us about the purpose of the organization, the importance of knowing where your seafood comes from and the effects our consumption habits can have on vital seafaring populations.

The Daily Meal: First of all, at what point did you and your team come up with the holistic approach to teaching people about seafood sustainability?
Sarah Schumann: Our place-based approach to sustainable seafood is one that is inspired by the local foods movement. The local focus is key. A global approach to the sustainability of seafood must of necessity leave out any in-depth consideration of the ecosystem, because when you buy wild fish at a supermarket, the collection of fish assembled at the seafood counter derives from many different ecosystems all over the world. But when you buy seafood locally through a farmers market, community-supported fishery program, or at the docks, the fish that you buy are coming from a single ecosystem -- the ocean in our back yard -- and so it becomes possible to look at a couple of things that can't be taken into account on the global scale. The first is how the different fish species that we eat locally fit together in our local marine ecosystem. Removing one fish from an ecosystem can affect other fish there, and it's important that we start to take this into account.

"Removing one fish from an ecosystem can affect other fish there, and it's important that we start to take this into account."

I came up with this realization -- that the local foods movement offers new and unique opportunities to craft a new approach to understanding seafood sustainability -- two years ago, as a result of being involved with a project selling local seafood at farmers' markets. Eating with the Ecosystem was kick-started through the generosity of the Toyota Together Green fellowship program, a program administered by the National Audubon Society that "invests in high-potential leaders, providing them with tools, resources, visibility, and a peer network to help them lead the conservation actions necessary to shape a greener, healthier future." The series started in RI but has expanded to the Boston area thanks to this grant. 

Eating with the ecosystems offers a collection of events from dinners to sea-to table boat rides. Do you find this hands on experience allows people to become more intimate with the reality our marine environment is facing?
We try to educate people through all of the five senses: taste, touch, and smell, through the food on their plates; and sight and sound, through the narrations provided by expert speakers (marine scientists and commercial fishermen who discuss their observations on how our local oceans are changing and what we as consumers and citizens can do to take care of the ocean as a food source). The experience of eating while we talk makes the case, without saying a word, of why we have to take care of marine ecosystems: because they provide food for our dinner table and income for our fishing families. Food can also makes it easier to talk about difficult subjects such as climate change and ocean acidification, topics that can easily depress people. And lastly, food acts as a bridge between people, knitting all those present in the room -- speakers, diners, organizers, and chefs -- into an immediate community built around a shared experience. 

What kind of feedback have you received from the dinners so far? Most notably, how did the kick off dinner for the Boston area series at Henrietta's table go? Eating with the Ecosystem has now hosted three dinners in the Boston area. The spring segment included a Southern New England waters dinner at nourish, Lexington, and a Georges Bank dinner at Ten Tables JP. The first dinner of the fall, Southern New England waters, was at Henrietta's Table. The chefs at all of these restaurants have been delighted to host them and delightful to work with. And the dinners have all been delicious! At the Henrietta’s Table dinner, we tasted monkfish, steamers, razor clams, mussels, squid, bluefish, lobster, and a special treat: roe-on sea scallops. (Scallop roe is a part of the scallop that is typically discarded at sea, representing a waste of delicious, marketable protein; in Europe, roe-on scallops are considered a delicacy). Several attendees said that their understanding of seafood sustainability had evolved as a result of this conversation.

With each different dinner, what can guests expect as each dinner works alongside the chef's own sense of what is important to get across? Eating with the Ecosystem simply provides a framework, and the other participants, whether they are chefs, marine scientists, commercial fishermen, or the diners themselves -- fill it in. Each of these participants speaks in their own voice. The looseness of the format can lead to a somewhat disjointed and free-ranging conversation, but we feel it's important to bring in a rich diversity of perspectives. The chefs typically join us for a portion of the meal and explain their own philosophy that informs their work with local seafood. Sustainability is a multi-faceted thing, and it is important to bring in many voices when discussing these topics. 

Finally, do you think this is a good time to build a greater sustainability awareness based on the momentum of the growing interest in Boston's food community? Absolutely! Eating with the Ecosystem taps into an already growing trend of interest in knowing where your food comes from, supporting local food producers, and minimizing the environmental impact of food choices. We are one of a handful of groups working to make sure that fisheries are included in this movement. Our aim at Eating with the Ecosystem is to take this conversation to the next level: buying local isn't an end in itself, but a doorway into a whole suite of new ways to interact with and steward our local ecosystems.


One more dinner remains in the Boston area this fall and will be held at Tremont 647 in the South End on November 4th.  The menu will be determined just before the dinner, in true, sustainable and seasonal fashion.  Call (617) 266-4600 to reserve a spot now!