The Fisher King

A bold new restaurant in the Seaport District is the crowning achievement or Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz, who rules New England’s fishing industry and likes nothing better than getting into hot water.

The dinner, which wound up attracting about 60 attendees, set off a firestorm of controversy that pitted Berkowitz and the fishing industry upon which he relies against advocates of sustainable fishery management. The story was covered by the Globe, the Herald, Fast Company, Grub Street Boston, WBUR, and others. Berkowitz says he didn’t expect news of the dinner to go viral, but it did — possibly because of the controversial statements he made to the press. In interviews with Richard Gaines, the former editor of the Boston Phoenix and now a writer at the Gloucester Times, Berkowitz denounced the “eco-labelers” who were “brainwashing” consumers. And in an interview with the blog Slashfood, Berkowitz was quoted as saying, “I always found it curious that chefs and restaurateurs were the last to get information about sustainable seafood. Oftentimes it was from Monterey [Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program] that blacklisted everything, or a group like Chefs Collaborative — you get a group of people that work off a particular science, and I would argue that science isn’t necessarily balanced.”

Berkowitz’s offhand comment about the Chefs Collaborative came as a surprise to the advocacy group, which provides chefs with tips on developing a sustainable menu, but doesn’t give guidelines for specific species. “It caught our attention because we don’t have a list,” says Melissa Kogut, the collaborative’s executive director (and a former Legal Sea Foods server). “We were a little taken aback when he implied that we were following faulty science. I don’t think he understands what we’re doing.”

To Berkowitz, though, such objections are mere details obscuring the big vision: that sustainability is a fluid concept, and that there is new technology available with the potential to give the industry better data — technology he believes is being ignored.

The fishing industry lauded him as a champion after the dinner. “I thought it was awesome,” says Stephen Welch, a Hanover-based commercial fisherman who lands in Gloucester and New Bedford and remembers delivering lobsters to Legal’s Allston processing facility back in the 1980s. “We have the Monterey Bay Aquarium telling people not to eat cod because it’s not sustainable, but it is sustainable, and we’re following the rules. We don’t need someone from California to tell us how to go fishing, and Roger was there trying to explain that to people.”

“Everyone in Gloucester will say Roger is a hero,” says Gaines, the Gloucester Times writer, who is a longtime advocate for local fishermen and has known Berkowitz for 30 years.