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

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An article by Amy McCarthy for

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

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.

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