EVERY year, dozens of community-minded Canadians cycle, run or paddle across the country in an effort to raise awareness of a worthy cause. For Vancouverite Ned Bell, that happens to be the plight of the world's oceans.
Bell, the executive chef at Yew Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel, is in the midst of pedalling from St. John's to Vancouver in the name of convincing Canadians to eat more sustainable seafood and fewer threatened or harmfully farmed fish and shellfish.
"Chefs aren't necessarily thought of as being the healthiest guys and girls in the world," the 41-year-old Bell said Monday afternoon outside Winnipeg's Deer + Almond restaurant, the site of one of 20 "Chefs For Oceans" events he's hosting this summer.
"I probably could have driven across the country and done 50 events. I could have flown across the country in the next couple of years and done 150 events. I wanted to do something that was physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually challenging."
Bell's goal is the same as that of conservationists and supporters of small-scale fisheries across the planet: To halt or reverse the rate of overfishing and reduce the environmental impact of aquaculture.
A decade ago, marine biologists warned that the world's ocean-going fish species have already been decimated by overfishing -- and raised alarms about an ecological disaster that could have drastic consequences for the worldwide food supply.
"Two billion people rely on the world's oceans for the daily source of protein," Bell says. "We can't just keep taking from the oceans. We have to bring aquaculture into our lives in a more sustainable way."
Bell says chefs have the ability to convince consumers to make better choices. Oysters and mussels, for example, aren't just sustainable but actually improve the coastal environment. The West Coast halibut fishery is closely regulated to limit the catch. Arctic char and trout can be farmed well away from the ocean in inland tanks, where the waste doesn't pollute.
But there are barriers to preaching the sustainable-seafood gospel. There's no labelling system in Canada to tell consumers how and where their fish is caught. There's little knowledge of ocean fishing in landlocked cities such as Winnipeg.
Worst of all, sustainable seafood is more expensive. Good luck convincing Canadians not to purchase Asian tiger shrimp, which are farmed in a destructive manner, but sell for half the price of wild shrimp. "We're addicted to cheap," Bell acknowledges.
To help consumers make choices, non-profit organizations such as SeaChoice and the Vancouver Aquarium's OceanWise program issue retail-purchasing guides and accredit restaurants.
But not all chefs buy in. Even Deer + Almond's Mandel Hitzer, who prepared smoked mussels, grilled char and wild sockeye tartare for Bell's event, said he would rather practise sustainability than place a logo on his menu.
"I believe in sustainability. I don't believe in labels," he said. "I mean, look what happened to 'organic.'"