Ocean Focused

Fini’s Landing is the only restaurant in Tucson partnering with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to serve sustainable seafood.

March 11, 2017

Issue 23: March/April 2017Table

Fini’s Landing, like Tucson, is landlocked. But perched on the northwest corner of Sunrise and Swan, the beach-themed restaurant has a front-row seat to the vibrant sunsets that so often sweep over the Catalina Mountains—sunsets that, like those that melt over the Pacific, are best watched with a beer in hand and a taco to come.

On a Tuesday evening in January—Taco Tuesday, when fish tacos sell for $2.80 a piece—every seat at the large U-shaped bar is occupied. There’s a pleasant buzz to the place, bustling not swarming. A surfboard hanging on the wall lists upcoming events in hand-written marker. A half-dozen flat-screen TVs flicker with a college basketball game.

Matt Dickson and Sam Hazboun sit at the bar, watching the game. Both men live nearby and have been coming to Fini’s Landing since it opened in 2012. “It’s a real neighborhood place,” says Dickson. “Everyone knows your name.” The two men didn’t know each other until a couple of years ago, when they met sitting at this very bar. “I’ve made some good friends at the bar,” says Dickson. “I’ve gone on vacation with some of the guys I’ve met here.” He points around at the people he knows because of Fini’s Landing—a dozen or so who gather to watch football on Sundays.

A lifelong lover of the ocean, Scott Mencke, the co-owner of Fini’s Landing, sailed a catamaran, dove for lobster, and worked on a fishing boat before opening his restaurant.

Dickson and Hazboun didn’t come to Fini’s Landing for sustainable seafood, but they say it keeps them coming back. “The fish tacos are so good anyway. When you find out why they’re so good, it only makes you want to come back for more,” says Dickson. “And it’s important that we maintain the fish supply,” says Hazboun.

Fini’s Landing is the only restaurant in Tucson that has partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to serve sustainable seafood. That partnership comes with a commitment to source not just sustainable seafood—vaguely defined as the term is—but seafood that is sustainable according to the Seafood Watch program, which develops science- and fishery-based criteria for seafood considered to be sustainable. Seafood is ranked in three categories: green “Best Choice,” yellow “Good Alternative,” and red “Avoid.” Fini’s Landing only buys seafood in green and yellow categories.

Sitting with a friend at a nearby table, Dawn Kirschenman says, “Is sustainable seafood something you look for when you eat out? Probably not. But when you go and you find out about it, it makes you feel better.”

I’ve always been a population explosion guy, worrying about the fate of our planet,” says Scott Mencke, who owns Fini’s Landing with Doug “Fini” Finical. “I couldn’t live with myself owning a restaurant that wasn’t paying attention and making the right decisions in at least purchasing from the right fishery.”

Mencke grew up in Tucson and studied journalism at the University of Arizona. After graduation, he got a job as a reporter at The Florida Keys Keynoter and ended up on the commercial fishing beat. “No one wanted it, but I thought it was fascinating,” he says. A trap reduction plan had just been implemented for the stone crab and lobster fisheries; turtle excluder devices, which allow sea turtles to escape from trawling nets, became required for all shrimp trawlers in 1987. “You had these environmentalists and bureaucrats coming in and trying to change the lifestyle of these old Southern redneck guys,” he says. “I’d go to meetings and there would be fistfights in the parking lot.”

Three servers at Fini’s Landing wear t-shirts that tout the restaurant’s commitment to sustainable seafood. (Left to right) Savannah Hubbard, Patricia Kowalski, and Rachelle Rheubottom.

In his free time, he sailed around on a small catamaran and dove for lobster. He left and returned to south Florida several times, twice to work on commercial fishing boats. One season, he worked for “a guy committed to conservation and the long-term health of the fishery,” he says. Another season, the captain was “more traditional—what do we need to do to get through the day?” he says. “It was interesting to have been writing about that and then see it in practice, how much it can differ.”

After returning to Tucson in 2005, Mencke reconnected with Finical, a longtime friend who he’d met lifeguarding during college, and the two took over The Hut on Fourth Avenue. “It didn’t really have an identity,” says Mencke. They built a following, hosted live music, and Finical spearheaded a campaign to raise $30,000 to move a 25-ton tiki head from the shuttered Magic Carpet Golf to the entrance of the bar at Fourth and Eighth. Identity: created.

In 2011, a commercial real estate broker approached Finical and Mencke about opening a casual restaurant/bar in the foothills. In February of 2012, Fini’s Landing opened with a beachy, fish-focused menu inspired by the “waterfront life experiences” of its owners.

Mencke wanted to source sustainable seafood from day one, but the demands of running a new restaurant consumed his time and attention. “We were tied into one of the major local purveyors who we thought were pretty well-committed to sustainable fish,” he says. They weren’t. “These vendors just couldn’t find a shrimp that we could trace to a sustainable source,” he says. Shrimp is particularly difficult to source sustainably. Across the world, shrimp trawling decimates fragile ocean ecosystems and bottoms out fish stocks. In the Gulf of California, for example, 85 percent of what is caught by trawlers scraping the sea floor for the bottom-dwelling crustaceans is considered bycatch, thrown back into the ocean dead or injured. That often includes juvenile fish—fish that haven’t yet reproduced—and endangered species like sea lions and sea turtles. After failing to find a source he was happy with, Mencke decided not to put shrimp on the menu. “It was not well-received with the customers,” he says.

Unlike locally raised beef or chicken, there is effectively no direct-to-consumer market for seafood. Businesses that want to buy sustainable seafood have to rely on the transparency of knowledgeable purveyors who work directly with the fisheries they buy from. “The sourcing information for seafood commodities is really hard to track down,” says Tim Stevens, who helped open Fini’s and worked as the general manager until 2016. “It’s not very transparent when you’re working with a big box purveyor.”

And the supply is constantly changing. “Unlike a high-end seafood restaurant that can have a different special depending on the availability of sustainable products, I need to come up with a consistent product for the same fish tacos every day, day in and day out,” Mencke says. Eventually, Mencke and Stevens came across the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch business partnership program, which offered clear metrics for evaluating suppliers. Even after they had committed to sourcing only green- and yellow-ranked seafood—a decision not taken lightly, says Mencke—they still had to figure out where they’d actually buy the seafood.

Enter Sue. Sue Watson is a sales representative for Santa Monica Seafood, a specialty seafood processor and distributor founded in 1939 in the port of San Pedro, in Southern California. “I think Sue just walked in the door one day,” says Stevens. Santa Monica Seafood evaluates its suppliers based on several third-party certifications. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is one; the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is another, as is Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP). “The third-party certification is kind of like the police in terms of fishing methods,” says Watson. “They make sure that boats have the proper gear on them. They make sure they’re pulling the proper quotas.” When a fishery can’t afford to pay for a certification, Santa Monica Seafood will conduct its own audit. “We go and actually visit that fishery to determine what they’re doing,” says Watson.

When Santa Monica Seafood offered a green-ranked source for farm-raised shrimp, Mencke put it on the menu. “The way I justified it in my head—they are serving shrimp in Vegas in incredible quantities,” he says. “We sell a good amount of shrimp, so we have a significant voice in the industry. If that voice isn’t heard because I choose to boycott, I don’t feel anything is gained. Someone is just going to fill that void in the marketplace.” Today, the shrimp on the menu at Fini’s Landing comes from integrated mangrove forest farms in Southeast Asia that practice a kind of aquaculture combining forestry and fishery management.

Located at the corner of Sunrise and Swan, the bar at Fini’s Landing has a seat with a front-row view of the sweeping Catalina Mountains.

Watson says there is plenty of sustainable seafood to go around. “Supply is not the issue,” she says. “It’s demand.” She says if every restaurant in Tucson decided to source sustainable seafood according to the Seafood Watch guidelines, they’d be able to provide it.

Today, Mencke lives part of the year in Baja California. He has two kids, 2 and 5 years old, who are in school there. On the weekends, they’re on the water—“my 5-year-old has been snorkeling with whale sharks, with sea lions,” he says—and learning about the region’s vibrant marine ecology.

Mencke doubts that many of his customers know their $4 tacos come from sustainable fisheries, but he doesn’t really care. “The seafood speaks for itself,” he says. “It has to.”

Despite the laid-back, surfs-up vibe of Fini’s Landing—the bar where everyone knows your name—Mencke brings to the business a deep commitment to the ocean. “I would happily give up this restaurant and everything it offers me and the financial security, if everyone would just quit eating fish for four years and let the oceans recover. If everyone stopped eating fish, the oceans would bounce back,” he says. “And then we could have our fish again.” ✜

Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

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