At closing time inside California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, a gentle announcement encourages visitors to make their way to the door. Children lag behind, wanting one last look at the sea otters. Soon the animals―and a select group of environmental advocates―have the entire place to themselves.
Inside a 28-foot-tall tank, kelp fronds shelter rockfish and leopard sharks, and vivid purple and pink sea stars dot coral-covered rocks. "This exhibit has a cathedral-like air to it," says Ken Peterson, the facility's senior public relations manager. "Natural light streams through the water like sun through a stained-glass window."
It's an appropriate setting, given the reverence for the sea shared by these guests. Ken organized tonight's dinner to celebrate the aquarium's successful Seafood Watch program. Since 1999, it has distributed more than 7.5 million pocket guides that educate the public about the importance of purchasing sustainable species.
"Wouldn't it be sad if people could only see these fish behind glass?" asks program manager Jennifer Dianto. "If we don't do something now, they'll go the way of the buffalo." Currently, nearly 70 percent of the world's fisheries are overharvested. Supporting well-managed fisheries gives endangered areas a chance to recuperate.
It's possible to protect the ocean's diversity without forgoing taste, Ken says. "The image in many people's minds of organic food is tofu loaf; that's not true anymore," he says. "When people come here and everything is sustainable and it's the most delicious thing they've ever tasted, it changes their perceptions." Tonight's guests―innovators in organic winemaking, Bon Appétit Management Company sustainable catering service, and Earthbound Farm―also strive to open minds. "These individuals are altering the way that food is brought to the table," says Ken.
This evening, chef Dory Ford has transformed fresh local ingredients into phyllo rolls, tomato tartlets, and sweet lemon cake. His pan-seared halibut with fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms incites praise all around.
Dory's luscious creations are available to anyone who wants to dine with sea creatures. The aquarium hosts more than 250 private parties a year. Says guest Michael Sutton, "It's the only place you can eat with a shark, and not be on the menu."