ROSA THE SEA otter twirls and dives, pressing her squat paws against the glass, then rockets straight up to break the surface like a bobbing cork.

Sunshine filters through the tank where Rosa swims at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, dappling the floor while the surf crashes in the distance.

It's 7:30 a.m., the earliest I've ever been to the aquarium, and I'm glad to have a close-up view of Rosa's antics before school children and adults with video cameras crowd the tank.

Depending on how one looks at it, the reason I'm here has nothing — and everything — to do with Rosa.

It's my first time attending Cooking for Solutions, a series of fine dining and cooking events focused on food and wine produced in ways that preserve the health of the ocean and land.

The event, in its sixth year, was held earlier this month and included food and wine adventures, celebrity cooking demonstrations, a sustainable seafood information fair and an evening gala at the aquarium featuring food and wine from 47 restaurants and 40 wineries.

But beyond being a showcase for delicious food and wine, the event aims to raise awareness about theimpact each meal we eat has on the health of the planet and inhabitants such as Rosa.

With a mission to inspire conservation of the oceans, the aquarium has always sought to raise public awareness about the plight of marine animals.

But in 1999 the aquarium found a more visceral way to reach the public — through its dinner plates.

The aquarium founded the Seafood Watch program as an outgrowth of a special 1997 exhibition called "Fishing for Solutions," which raised awareness about problems of overfishing, bycatch — catching dolphins will trolling for tuna, for instance — and ecosystem damage caused by unsustainable fishing and aquaculture practices.

Today researchers estimate that 90 percent of the ocean's top predators are gone. Why? Well, for the most part, we ate them. Top predators — which include tuna, swordfish and salmon — are the fish humans happen to find the most delicious. At the rate the oceans are being fished, experts estimate that the world's major fishing stocks will collapse by 2048.

"Things we use now, clams, lobsters, predatory fish (such as tuna) will disappear if something doesn't change," says Stephen Palumbi, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University who spoke at the event.

Since its inception, Seafood Watch has evaluated wild-caught and farm-raised seafood products for sustainability and produced pocket guides to help consumers make positive choices at the fish counter. To date, Seafood Watch has distributed more than 21 million pocket guides.

Cooking for Solutions grew out of the Seafood Watch program as an effort to further explore and explain the complex connections between land, sea and dinner plate.

In addition to the food and wine events open to the public, the aquarium set up a Sustainable Foods Institute — a full day of lectures and panels in which experts in agriculture, food politics, aquaculture, marine biology and culinary arts met, along with representatives from Walmart, Whole Foods, Bon Appetit Foodservice Management Company and the media, to discuss ideas and practices of sustainability.

"The human dimension of sustainability is food security ... (the) accessibility of good quality, local, fresh food in a community," says Rich Pirog, a food systems research program leader at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Scientific research is showing that the choices we make on land — from farming practices to food transportation and government policies — can drastically affect the sea.

So this is why I'm here, at an hour when I'd normally still be sleeping, sipping coffee and trying to get Rosa the sea otter's attention.

Otters like Rosa made a big impression on me when the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984. I was 5 years old and I vividly remember pressing my hands and face against the glass trying to catch a glimpse of Hailey or Goldie (both now deceased) twirling and diving just like Rosa does today. Back in 1984, sea otters were an endangered species. Now, 23 years later, they're still endangered, though populations are slowly recovering, thanks to conservation efforts.

It disturbs me that my choices at the dinner table may negatively affect populations of otters — or fish, or species of trees or the quality of groundwater or, ultimately, the lives of other human beings.

Our global food system touches on environmental, social, economic and political issues in so many ways, it's hard to wrap our brains around it.

So, in the interest of simplicity, it helps to start with one step: Let's start thinking about what we eat.

Should we buy green beans that have been shipped halfway around the world, or from local farms? Should we eat beef that's been grown in a large-scale production, or beef that has lived only on a pasture? Do we really know where our food comes from? Should we demand to know? Can we afford, as a family, or as a nation to eat organic produce? Can we afford not to?

I don't know the answers. Truth be told, five panels of experts at the aquarium's Sustainable Foods Institute didn't have all the answers either — but they're trying to find them.

The questions are so vast in number and scope, they're much more than most of us want to think about while we're at the supermarket. But that's changing. The popularity of natural foods supermarkets such as Whole Foods has grown exponentially in the past decade. Even mega-big box Walmart, whose philosophy is often considered the antithesis of the "green" lifestyle, has made a commitment to eventually procure all of its wild-caught seafood products from fisheries that are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

The Food & Wine section is going to explore some of these complex questions and concerns about our food system to help readers make informed choices about what you eat.

Whether conservation is a priority to you or something you barely think about, making healthy choices day-to-day is something most of us strive to do. And if those choices happen to help preserve the land and the ocean too, I'm sure Rosa won't mind.

-What are your biggest questions about our food system? E-mail them to food@angnewspapers.com.

-To learn more about Cooking for Solutions, visit http://www.cookingforsolutions.org. For more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium, visit http://www.montereybayaquarium.org. To download a free copy of the aquarium's Seafood Watch pocket guide visit http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp.