Have you ever wondered where your fish came from, or whether it will always be available as a mealtime option? Most people probably haven’t, but it is time that we do. Seafood is the last wild-caught food commonly available at restaurants or in grocery stores. One of the healthiest food options available, seafood is packed with essential vitamins and minerals while also presenting a lean, low-fat option. And its versatility in the kitchen is unmatched by any other center-of-the-plate item.
Seafood’s versatility and deliciousness, however, have reduced some popular species down to alarmingly low levels, to the point where we may have to say goodbye to our favorite dinners.
Simply put, we’ve been taking too many fish out of the water and leaving too few behind to reproduce and sustain healthy populations. It’s up to all of us to protect these precious gifts from the ocean now and for future generations of fishermen, chefs and seafood lovers.
Restaurant owners, retailers and food service distributors are showing their commitment to sustainable fisheries through sound, informed decisions regarding the origin of the seafood they purchase and showcase.
“Awareness among chefs has grown dramatically, especially in the last five years,” says Executive Chef Jim Shirley of Great Southern Restaurant Group.
The fact is, sustainable means different things with regard to different kinds of seafood. Fishery managers and fishermen have done the necessary work to help popular fish like Gulf red snapper. Snapper is recovering from high levels of fishing pressure that had reduced the number of spawning-age fish to below 3 percent of the entire population. Others, like greater amberjack, are still a work in progress with regard to sustainability.
Getting there takes time. “Growth rates, age of sexual maturity and the number of young produced all affect how quickly a population can recover from fishing pressure,” explains Elizabeth Fetherston, deputy director of the Fish Conservation program at Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit that has been active in the Gulf of Mexico for over 20 years and has been working with fishermen, buyers and retailers since 2005 to support sustainable fishing. Many commercial fishermen are seeing the long-term gain of sustainable fisheries and are taking proactive steps to work through the short-term pain of rebuilding them; those who buy seafood are supporting them more and more.
“Experts are working on the science of fishery reproduction rates so managers can appropriately set the level of sustainability for various fish populations. If this isn’t done well, we’ll end up with nothing. The thing is, you can see from red snapper that sustainable management practices work,” says Shirley.
Ironically though, for the most part, buyers who support fully sustainable fisheries have left out those fishermen who are doing the hard work of improving fisheries in recovery. The good news is, some retailers and food-service distributors are beginning to include these fisheries and support those fishermen striving toward sustainability. This allows them greater options for purchasing, yet comes with a fluctuating volume of supply and a need for greater understanding of local fishery regulations to determine what is sustainably caught.
Sustainable fishing practices are rooted in science-based fishery management. Factors are built into models, much like hurricane prediction models, that managers use to determine when we can harvest fish, which fish are best to take and how many fish we can keep. It’s important to understand and accept the fishing seasons, size limits and bag limits that managers set, all defined by science with the goal of sustainability in mind.
By understanding the science involved in maintaining healthy fishing populations, buyers and consumers can be certain that their favorite seafood meal will always be available.
TJ Marshall is the Director of Constituent Outreach for the Ocean Conservancy.