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How St. Croix’s Restaurants and Fishers Are Embracing Sustainability

What happens when a region's most popular dishes harm its essential barrier reef?

Photo: Kevin Cox

There has been no hotter buzzword in the restaurant industry over the past couple of years than "sustainability." Restaurants and chefs across the country are quick to tout the environmentally friendly improvements made to their establishments, ranging from biodegradable paper straws to back-of-house compost piles. On the U.S. Virgin Islands, though, sustainability starts first and foremost with the sea.

Especially in St. Croix. For a tiny island just seven miles wide, St. Croix is home to an incredible amount of ecological diversity. The island is surrounded by a barrier reef that provides both breathtaking views for scuba divers and shelter for hundreds of species of marine life, the health of which is essential to protecting the coral reef. "By definition, all island people are bound to the sea. It gives us a place to celebrate on its shores; offers us ways to rejuvenate our sick or weary bodies —€” there are few ailments that aren't cured by a good 'sea soak,'" writes Tanisha Bailey-Roka, better known as the Crucian Contessa and an expert on the food of St. Croix. "Most importantly it nourishes us from its bountiful depths." But in recent years, overfishing and disease have taxed the coral reefs, resulting in a decline in populations of sea life commonly used to prepare traditional Crucian dishes.

At risk are populations of conch, parrotfish, and wahoo, which are crucial to Crucian food and the local economy.

Restaurants across the island boast seafood dishes that change with what the day's catch brings, including fresh yellowtail, lobsters, grouper, and wahoo. Most tourists who have visited the islands have likely enjoyed freshly-caught conch, a dish that is both the pride of the island and a culinary fixture. The conch, which naturally has a rubbery and tough texture, is pressure cooked before being bathed in a rich buttery sauce. On St. Croix, it can be found everywhere from beachside seafood shacks to upscale restaurants.

Unfortunately, the popularity of that dish has caused some real problems. In 2008, widespread overfishing of conch forced officials to ban conch fishing for more than six months because populations of the popular mollusk had dwindled so severely. And conch in butter sauce isn't the only dish affecting the oceans. "Pot fish," another staple dish in both restaurants and homes on the island, is named for the cooking pots traditionally used to catch fish on the island, a method dating back to the 1700s. In it, small fish are stewed with tomatoes, onion, and pepper and served alongside fungi (foon-ji), a dish of cornmeal and okra that vaguely resembles polenta in texture.

According to Kemit-Amon Lewis, coral conservation manager at the Nature Conservancy's Caribbean Project, though, many of these "pot fish" are parrot fish, which are essential to the survival of the network of coral reefs that surrounds St. Croix. Also at risk are populations of tuna, wahoo, and mahi mahi, which are crucial to both traditional Crucian food and the local economy. As such, Lewis's organization is working hard to encourage everyone on the island — especially chefs — to embrace sustainability. And as a result, up-and-comers and traditionalists alike are now focusing on integrating sustainable seafood and local ingredients on St. Croix.

Conch in butter sauce. Photo: Gary Felton Photography

Chef Digby Stridiron of Balter, a modern Crucian restaurant in the heart of Christiansted, acknowledges that even though conch in butter sauce is one of his most popular dishes, he has to pull it off the menu when it's not in season. According to local regulations, conch can only be fished from June 1 to October 31, which falls just after the peak tourist season —€” typically April to June —€” is over. "People are looking for those traditional West Indian dishes," he says. "We rotate based on the season, so when conch is out of season, we turn into more of a vegetarian and meat-based restaurant."

When he does put conch or yellowfin on the menu, Stridiron looks to local fishers that he considers to be family. In doing that, he can support both the local economy and fishers who procure their wares ethically. "They just have that philosophy. Their fathers were fishers, and their father's fathers were fishers," he says. "I don't just buy fish from anyone. I have an open-door concept and I want people to bring fish in, but it has to be done right."

Days before, Stridiron was forced to turn away a fisher who'd caught lobsters that were too small for service, which also indicates that they'd been caught too young. "I went to Haiti, and the conch there was baby conch, and people were eating it," he says. "It was a moment where I understood how well we're doing in St. Croix. We're trying to set the pace in terms of sustainability. I don't want to promote bad practices at all. We want to make sure that generations to come have great conch, we don't want to fish everything out of existence."

"We want to make sure that generations to come have great conch. We don’t want to fish everything out of existence."

To combat overfishing and consumption of endangered species, Lewis's organization, the Reef Restoration project, is also reaching out directly to fishers to ensure that populations of fish commonly used in traditional Crucian dishes remain healthy. A component of the Nature Conservancy's Caribbean Project, Reef Restoration is sharply focused on the health of the reef that makes St. Croix both beautiful and abundant with marine life.

"I haven't seen grouper or some of the threatened parrotfish species in forever on St. Croix," says Lewis. "We know that there are some species that are in low abundance, that are all locally or federally protected, and we'd like to see those come back." To do that, the Reef Restoration project uses a multi-tiered approach to encourage sustainability.

That approach begins with local restaurants, which can apply for certification from the organization after undergoing a one-day training on how to source sustainably-caught seafood. In turn, the restaurants receive free marketing and public relations support from the Nature Conservancy. "Whether it's newspaper articles or ads on social media or radio, we do everything we can to get more people to be supportive of a Reef Responsible-branded restaurant," Lewis says. "A lot of restaurants really like the program and like that they're doing something good for the environment, for our culture, and for their guests. They value that pretty highly."

Conch in the Bahamas. Photo: EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

Conch in the Bahamas. Photo: EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

The Project has already successfully encouraged a number of restaurants on the island to obtain certification, including Stridiron's Balter and La Reine Chicken Shack, a Christiansted eatery popular with both locals and tourists. Some of the island's hotels who serve thousands of tourists each year, like the Terrace at the Buccaneer Hotel and Shoreline at Chenay Bay Resort, have also opted to participate. Many of the smaller restaurants that have not yet completed training are open for lunch, which precludes them from sending staff to learn about sustainability. Now, Lewis and his team travel to restaurants to provide on-site training so that any restaurant interested in the project can participate. At present, nearly 15 restaurants have completed the certification process, a number that is steadily increasing.

The next step involves reaching out to the fishers, who are ultimately responsible for harvesting fish sustainably. The response from fishers has, perhaps surprisingly, been overwhelmingly positive. In collaboration with the Reef Responsible initiative, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service has implemented a series of educational seminars that fishers must attend when they renew their licenses to fish St. Croix's waters.

The response from fishers has, perhaps surprisingly, been overwhelmingly positive.

The benefits for fishers in attending these trainings are largely economic. In addition to ensuring that populations of wahoo, tuna, and mahi continue to stay strong for years to come, the Reef Responsible initiative also links local fishers directly to restaurants. "The fishers' hope is that we will encourage restaurants and the community to buy locally because there's been a lot of seafood being flown in to St. Croix from Florida and elsewhere," Lewis says. "There are some things we can't find here, like oysters and scallops, but the big deal for us is that people on the island support local fishers."

The Reef Responsible project is also working to educate local diners and chefs alike on the virtues of lionfish, an invasive species that threatens parrotfish populations and also happens to boast a mild flavor and flaky texture. It's a fish that has picked up some steam in fancy American restaurants, but people in St. Croix were particularly skeptical of the fish, which was long believed to be so poisonous that one would die quickly upon eating it.

As soon as there was some progress on that front, lionfish proponents in St. Croix were met with yet another challenge. Lionfish can carry ciguatera, a seafood poison that is known to cause a variety of horrible side effects, including nausea and hallucinations. "Initially, the belief was that lionfish in the U.S Virgin Islands were all poisonous, but what people didn't share was that any fish — snapper or wahoo or whatever — caught in ciguatera hotspots had the same contamination as lionfish," Lewis says. St. Croix does have known ciguatera hot spots in its waters, which means that the Project has conducted outreach to teach fishers how to avoid those areas for all fish, not just lionfish.

A close-up of conch in butter sauce. Photo: Gary Felton Photography

Changing the perception of consumers will take much longer in Lewis's view, but he has seen some developments that give him hope. "Lionfish just became available at Whole Foods in Puerto Rico," he says. "It's just not caught that readily now. If some lionfish are caught while the guys are out fishing for other things, they will bring those in and sell them or give them away, but it's not to the point where we want it to be. We're slowly getting there." In the meantime, the Project will partner with researchers from the University of Florida and Emory University this summer to forge a plan to create a viable market for lionfish in the Virgin Islands.

Despite the uphill battle of selling lionfish as a viable alternative to traditional pot fish, the sustainability movement is going strong in St. Croix. Here, a focus on sustainability also ensures the preservation of a rich culture that is deeply connected to the ocean in a number of ways.

"Thinking about where the fish come from has to be a big deal," says Stridiron. "This island has so much to offer, and for many years, people didn't look in their own front yards. Now, if you look to the fishers, the farms, even the general public, everyone is excited about local, farm-to-table food and sustainability. We want to celebrate St. Croix."

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