Krill and Crab Rolls at the New York Aquarium

After it was hit with extensive damage during Super Storm Sandy in 2012, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium is undergoing a transformation and rebuilding. This summer a new exhibit, Ocean Wonders: Sharks! will open and renovations from the storm damage are underway.  In addition to the conservation and environmental lessons which represent the mission of the aquarium, visitors will find a conservation lesson not only among the aquarium’s penguins and corals but also, deliciously, on the plate at its new Oceanside Grill on the Boardwalk and at the rooftop Oceanview Bites. Oh, and there will be sharks—lots and lots of sharks—as I found out during a tour of the nearly completed exhibit with my colleagues, aquarium Director Jon Forrest Dohlin and Noah Chesnin, Policy Program Manager for WCS’s New York Seascape program.

Ocean Wonders was planned long in advance of Super Storm Sandy, but like the rest of the aquarium has been redesigned to better withstand powerful storms and climate-related sea level rise. It features sharks and other marine species, the afore-mentioned sharks in exhibits that highlighting the conservation importance of the local waters of the New York Bight. This is the stretch of Atlantic Ocean from Cape May to Montauk, and the exhibits are designed to remind hyper-urban New Yorkers that they do, in fact, live alongside an ocean wilderness. Visitors to Ocean Wonders will begin by following a path to learn about the ecological importance and cool biology of sharks, and then will turn a corner to find themselves face to face with the sharks of New York.  Literally face to face, as the sharks will swim (safely) around and above visitors in huge curved tanks through which the visitor path tunnels. Among the habitats featured in the exhibit will be the undersea Hudson Canyon, a deepwater hotspot for biodiversity including cold water corals, whales, turtles, fish, birds, and, of course, sharks, found 100 miles east of the mouth of the Hudson River in the waters off New York and New Jersey for which WCS has advocated protection.

Sadly, sharks face heavy environmental pressures, including overfishing, bycatch and plastics and other pollution, and the aquarium reminds visitor that they can make conservation-friendly choices in their own lives to help sharks and other marine animals. The Conservation Choices gallery puts Ocean Wonders into the context of day- to-day life, showing visitors that, as individual consumers, daily actions such as the choices they make at a bodega or when choosing transportation have major impacts on the environment.

The star of the Conservation Choices gallery is the Real Cost café, an interactive exhibit developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here, visitors sit on stools as if they were at a diner, interact via video with a virtual chef, choose virtual items on a lunch menu, and learn about the consequences of different food choices.

The Real Cost café is not the only element borrowed from Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has led an influential movement to promote sustainable seafood with its Seafood Watch program. Worldwide, overfishing has driven many fisheries nearly to extinction, severely taxing the biology of marine ecosystems and threatening the survival of many fish stocks. But consumer demand had the power to change fishing practices, so Monterey Bay developed Seafood Watch, an app and pocket-sized guide to help consumers choose fish that are harvested sustainability in ways that do not jeopardize the affected ecosystems, harm other species that are inadvertently caught (called bycatch) or deplete the fisheries themselves. The program provides consumers with options for Best Choices (green) and Good Alternatives (yellow) to those fisheries considered Avoid (red). In keeping with its commitment to promote sustainable seafood as an important conservation choice, at its new restaurants, WCS has decided to serve only seafood options that constitute a Best Choice.

As Dohlin explained, “At the New York Aquarium, we are asking, what does it mean to be local and to protect local waters? What does it mean to protect human activities and economic health in a thriving marine ecosystem? With the fishing industry, we have started talking with Dock to Dish, and Luke’s Lobster — fellow travelers on the other side of that conversation – about how we protect a viable fishing industry and also think about fish as conservation stocks. We believe we can meet at the overlap of our interests, and both can have positive outcomes if we talk about local economic activities that embrace responsible harvest, species use, and fishing methods.”

A crab roll. Photo credit: Megan Maher.
Recycled bowls to be used in the restaurants. Photo credit: Megan Maher.

While the Real Cost café uses virtual food to introduce conservation issues, NYA’s Oceanside Grill and Oceanview Bites will serve actual, conservation-friendly – and delicious – food. Designed in silver corrugated metal cladding to look like a traditional boardwalk concession stand brought into the modern era, Oceanside Grill will serve visitors to the Coney Island Boardwalk adjacent to the aquarium and feature signature dishes made only with seafood that meets the standards of the Seafood Watch Best Choice option.

Menu planning has been a collaborative effort among aquarium staff, Restaurant Services Director Joe Dominici, and WCS’s Executive Chef Rich Spana. Spana came to the organization after serving as Executive Chef at Red Rabbit, a Harlem-based business that provides sustainable foods for educational institutions, and before that as Chef de Cuisine at Iron Horse in Pleasantville, New York. There, he came to love a signature peektyoe crab dish created by his head chef.  For Oceanside Grill, he is designing an homage to that dish that is perfect for the Boardwalk—a crab roll with avocado, tomato, and fresh tarragon on a brioche roll. Other scrumptious offerings will feature sustainably harvested cod, chosen because it’s a juicy, flaky fish that holds up well in cooking. It will be featured in dishes like tempura-battered fish and chips, battered and fried to order, or fish tacos wrapped in a flour tortilla with picked vegetables and chipotle cream.

Another great eating spot, visitors will relax at Oceanview Bites on the roof of Ocean Wonders.   Featuring a 30-foot-long bar with 18 seats facing a giant aquarium-themed mural, this relaxed establishment will offer snacks and shareable plates, including salads as well as the crab roll and fish tacos. But, aside from the million-dollar view of the boardwalk, shore, and city skyline seen from the rooftop, the highlight will be a full bar menu including signature cocktails featuring local brewers and distillers. Among the names Brooklynites will recognize are Coney Island Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn Gin, and Brooklyn Roasters (for coffee cocktails).  As Dominici pointed out, “We are a conservation organization but we are also a local business, part of the Alliance for Coney Island [an organization dedicated to the rejuvenation of the iconic neighborhood]. We will source most of our wait staff within a five mile radius of our operations, and we will be training our servers to talk with customers not only about the food and drink options but about the conservation importance of the menu.”

As a conservation organization, WCS is taking a close look at the operations side of the house, including not only food sourcing but also construction materials and waste issues. For example, Oceanside Grill will sit on a section of the Coney Island Boardwalk that was destroyed in the storm. It has been rebuilt with sustainably harvested Lonchocarpus castilloi, a species of tropical timber sourced from WCS’s conservation partners in the Maya Biosphere in Guatemala, where the organization supports forests certified as sustainably managed by local communities. To reduce waste, especially plastics that pollute the ocean, both Oceanside Grill and Oceanview Bites will use compostable wood rather than plastic cutlery and will offer neither lids nor straws for drinks. Food containers will be recycled paper rather than plastic, and any plastic that is used will be thermoplastic made from renewable plant sources like sugar cane or corn starch. Plastic water bottles will not be sold in the aquarium or its restaurants.

Conscious of food miles and eager to support local fisher communities in New York and New Jersey, aquarium and restaurant staff are committed to trying to serve locally harvested seafood, including from some of the local fishermen with whom the aquarium recently worked to reach consensus on fisheries regulations in the mid-Atlantic. These new rules attempt to preserve this economically vital industry while conserving the deep sea corals and other biodiversity of the Hudson Canyon. Currently, Chesnin is exploring options with Out of the Blue, a highly regarded purveyor of “honest, local, sustainable seafood.” As he explains, “WCS is trying to figure out its own best practice, not just by using Monterey Bay Seafood Watch green or yellow ratings, but also by using our dollars to buy fish directly from the fishermen we work with and telling that side of the story.”

Oceanside Grill is right on the boardwalk, so the messaging of sustainable seafood and plastic reduction that the restaurant has incorporated into its menu boards and condiment stations will reach not just Aquarium visitors but, potentially, the more than 9 million who visit the Coney Island Boardwalk and beach each summer. Chesnin continues, “Anyone visiting Coney Island can partake, and we hope to reach an audience that is large and diverse and distinguish ourselves by focusing on mission as a way to set ourselves apart.” A menu that includes fried calamari from the local squid fishery and clam chowder from the clam beds off Montauk would pair perfectly with the mesmerizing ocean life to be found inside.

Header image courtesy Keith A Ellenbogen.