Thursday, June 25, 2015


Recently, a couple of local, fish-related news items caught my eye.

That sounded good, but the first question I had was just what “Sustainable Seafood Week,” and more generally, “sustainable seafood” actually means.

“Every [sustainable seafood] week invites locals to discover traceable, renewable and trustworthy seafood.  The opening gala is an opportunity to meet culinary celebrities and dine on delicious, responsibly sourced fish.  Future of Fish [an affiliate group of the Sustainable Seafood Week folks] will lead exclusive gatherings called Industry Lab that convene leading scientists, advocates, food service pros, entrepreneurs, distributors and chefs to explore central issues in the seafood industry.”
Again, it sounds good, but it’s a little thin on details.
Couple it with the other recent item, and it provides some real food for thought.

“create a state-appointed commercial fishing industry advocate position to lobby on behalf of the state’s commercial fishermen and promote economic expansion of the industry…
“Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a vocal advocate for the commercial fishing industry, said that the move by the state is a long overdue step that could help the industry seek out markets for its underutilized fish stocks.”
The problem is that we need to talk about “sustainable fisheries” because far too many fish stocks were recently either overfished, subject to overfishing, or both.  So the notion of chefs and markets promoting “sustainable seafood” caught from healthy stocks can only be a good idea.

But is it realistic?

When you look at some of the news coming out of Sustainable Seafood Week, you realize that a lot of the emphasis is being put on what Ms. Brady called “underutilized fish stocks,” and if history teaches us anything, it’s that underutilized stocks don’t stay “underutilized” for very long.

Here in New York, the best example may be the oyster toadfish, a muddy-colored denizen of estuaries and bay bottoms that resembles nothing so much as a big, slimy tadpole equipped with a bulldog’s jaws.  

For as long as anyone can remember, they went their way unmolested, crushing shellfish and small crabs—and occasionally anglers’ fingers—between their strong, stubby teeth.  Both ugly and slimy, they were no one’s idea of a food fish, and were always abundant even when stocks of prettier fish declined.  No one—neither angler nor the most desperate commercial fishermen—paid much attention to toadfish.  They were a truly an “underutilized” stock.

Then, from out of nowhere, a demand for toadfish emerged.  

They were being sold, live, in urban ethnic markets that would buy as many toadfish as fishermen could supply. 

It was a boom time for baymen across Long Island, who were suddenly gifted with the perfect fishery, which featured high prices, plenty of fish and no regulations at all.  

All went well for a couple of years, until a crashing toadfish population, notably devoid of the largest and most valuable individuals, forced the Department of Environmental Conservation to clamp down on landings before the last toadfish was gone.

The toadfish fishery went from boom to bust in no more than five years.

Now, some of the chefs and “underutilized species” folks are looking at another of the bay’s ugly ducklings, the sea robin.  But with no information available on its abundance, reproduction or optimum yield, it’s not at all unlikely that an exploited sea robin stock would go the way of the toadfish.

So when we hear about “sustainable seafood” and “underutilized stocks,” it’s time for a reality check.  We must develop good data before exploitation begins.

Still, some stocks really are underutilized, meaning that harvest falls well below what we think is optimum yield.  

On Long Island, the best example of that would be scup, a/k/a “porgies,” which marketers are now beginning to call “Montauk sea bream” in order to give it some upscale cachet. Not long ago, the scup population soared to twice the target level, and though it has started coming back to Earth since then, the population is still big enough that neither the recreational nor commercial sectors have landed their entire quota in years.

But we shouldn’t forget that scup were overfished not too long ago, and realize that if “Montauk sea bream” ever does really catch on, they could become overfished once again.

Some of the other species being promoted as “sustainable” present other problems.  

Many, such as butterfish, Atlantic herring and squid, are forage fish—small fish that larger fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, must feed on in order to survive.  When we begin “fishing down the food chain,” and targeting the more abundant forage species rather than the bigger predators, we are giving the big fish a break in one way—we’re not killing them directly—but we are helping to impoverish marine ecosystems and making it harder for an abundance of big fish to survive.

Consider Atlantic herring.  

They aren’t a popular food fish in the United States, but fishing vessels still landed an average of about 86,000 metric tons each year between 2009 and 2013 for export and for use as bait in domestic fisheries.  The stock is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Even so, fishing pressure is heavy enough to remove many of the older and larger herring from the population; as a result, biologists are finding that the stock is not providing bluefin tuna with sufficient nutrition, as there are too few larger and older herring in the population to allow the bluefin to attain optimum physical condition.

Thus, even though the herring harvest could be increased substantially and still be “sustainable”—that is, the stock would not be overfished—the consequences of such supposedly sustainable harvest on predators throughout the food web would not be good.

Underlying it all is a reality that the “sustainable seafood” folks rarely mention; no matter how “traceable, renewable and trustworthy” the product might be, there just isn’t enough fish in local seas to provide food for the entire nation on a regular basis.  And there aren’t enough “underutilized” fish stocks out there to change that too much.

The United States’ population is about 320 million people, and it’s not likely to start getting smaller any time soon.  At the same time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation imports up to 90 percent of its seafood, and about half of that is farmed.  No one can credibly argue that such imports can be replaced, in any significant way, with wild-caught fish from America’s oceans, or that such wild-caught fish will become a frequent part of Americans’ diets.

In fact, NOAA notes that

“World capture fisheries production reached a plateau in the mid 1980s, and even with improved fisheries management, it is not likely to significantly increase.”
Thus, efforts such as New York’s, to “promote economic expansion” of the state’s commercial fisheries, are not likely to succeed, as they will be inevitably limited by the amount of fresh product available.  Instead, in New York and elsewhere, most wild-caught fish will, as time goes on, transform into the sort of quasi-luxury food that is enjoyed in restaurants or, on special occasions, at home, while everyday seafood meals for most people will feature farmed fish, such as tilapia, salmon or catfish, or aquacultured shrimp, mussels and oysters.

That is not a bad thing; it is merely an inevitable progression, following, by a century or so, the same progression that occurred on land, as wild game and waterfowl were replaced on most tables by farm-raised beef, chicken and pork. 

We can still have wild-caught “sustainable seafood.”  But we can’t have it every day.

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