Since its inception, New England has become synonymous with world renowned seafood and fishing communities as many coastal towns were built around the industries that sprouted from the seemingly infinite resources living in the Gulf of Maine. The Atlantic ocean with its stormy seas, beautiful beaches, and unique cocktail of currents creates incredible biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine that has been shaping the New England coastline and people for centuries. However, New England fisheries have reached a critical tipping point as climate change and the effects of overfishing threaten to wipe out the fishery in a matter of decades. In a recent PBS special titled, “Saving New England’s Fisheries” filmmakers take an in depth view of the intricate issues fisheries are facing: from tensions between scientists and fisherman, to depleted cod and haddock stocks, to the politics around catch limits, and even innovative ways to decrease bycatch and revitalize the meaning of local fisheries. The message of the film is clear, in order for New England fisheries to have a sustainable future, they must evolve with the changing environmental and political landscapes. By making simple changes to the fisheries, on both the policy and fishing side, there is a glimmer of hope for New England fisherman and fish to rebound and prosper.
Who’s to Blame for the Cod Crash?
Is it fair to blame Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire fisherman for the crash in cod populations and changing ecology of the North Atlantic? No, the local fisherman are not to blame for creating the crash. The main culprit is overfishing by large foreign fleets and huge commercial ships that began heavily trawling the area in the 1960’s. Fleets from the USSR, East Germany, Japan, Spain and many others seized the opportunity to harvest millions of cod and haddock off George’s Bank as the U.S., at the time, had little in place to control the activity in those waters. In the 1970’s, once the U.S. enacted regulations to restrict foreign fleets, there was a dramatic shift in technology and regulations that gave way to even greater exploitation of local fish stocks. The quota system was done away with and replaced by minimum size and net length regulations that proved to be ineffective. As technology advanced to create mile long nets, steel hulled ships that reflected those of the foreign fleets, and hydraulics that could wipe out an isolated population in an instant, set the stage for the tragic fall of the fish which had driven the economy and molded the culture of New England for so long.
In the 1990’s the cod and haddock stocks steeply declined and served as a wake up call to fisherman and policymakers alike that something must be done to keep New England fisheries viable. There have been times when it looked like the stocks were recovering but more often than not dependable, productive stocks suddenly run dry and essentially become extinct. Beginning in the 1960’s the fishery has been constantly evolving as our understanding of the ecosystem and fish populations grow and policies change to reflect this new data. Sadly, the small-scale local fisheries always get the short straw when new policies are drafted. Today there is a complicated quota system that favors the destructive, large commercial fishing operations over the more sustainable ones. Small, local fishing operations are quite healthy for the environment as they have more limited equipment and do not have the capabilities to dramatically alter the ocean landscape. Unfortunately, current policy inadvertently punishes small scale fishing and provides more incentives to fish for large commercial fishing operations.
Are “Trash Fish” the Answer?
The film focusses specifically on the ground fishing industry, which is the harvesting of fish who swim close to the ocean floor, this type of fishing has its roots in colonial America as the first true industry to emerge. The most highly prized groundfish in the eyes of fisherman and dinner guests alike are Atlantic Cod and haddock. Seafood consumers highly value these two fish species and they have become so engrained in our culture and the seafood industry that most consumers scoff at the menu when they see any other fish as a replacement in their Fish and Chips. Does it makes sense to reject lesser known fish simply because they aren’t named cod or haddock? Logically, it does not. There are hundreds of fish that are labeled “junk fish” or “trash fish” as they are like the indie rockers of the ocean cast out of the mainstream world, simply because they are not what consumers are used to seeing on menus.
As popular Atlantic Cod and haddock populations continue to decline, species that were previously cast aside are starting to be seen as a solution to fill the void created by overfishing of target species. A more accurate moniker for these “trash fish” would be under-utilized fish as monk fish, hake, and dogfish are all sustainable alternatives to traditional fish with little variation in taste and texture. Thousands of dogfish are caught each year and either thrown back or sold for almost nothing on the dock, simply because people do see it as a valuable species in the seafood industry. Similarly, hake, a particularly ugly fish, are plentiful in the Northern Atlantic, but again are tossed aside assuming they would not
be popular with consumers. As the cod crisis continues it is becoming increasingly wasteful to throw out these fish instead of selling and serving them in restaurants. Hake’s healthy population is ideal to periodically fish as a replacement for cod, as their flakey white meat is so similar to cod that you can barely taste the difference! A Portsmouth, NH chef describes the state of the ground fishing industry as a, “dire situation [that] is not just affecting our ecology but our economy”. Naturally, Atlantic Cod populations should ebb and flow like the ocean itself, but crashes which are becoming more frequent are the results of overfishing. If more restaurants and consumers embraced serving and eating under-utilized fish it would take pressure of cod and haddock species in the Gulf of Maine, allowing for prestigious species to rebound.
What Does Sustainable Fishing and Seafood Look Like?
The critically acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program is perhaps the best example of how sustainable fishing and seafood correlate to each other. Seafood Watch emphasizes that it does not just matter how many fish are caught, where they are caught, or how they are caught but it is a culmination of these factors and more that form the guidelines of sustainable fishing. Through this program, scientists evaluate government reports, scientific reports, landings histories, field estimates, input from fisherman and other groups in an effort to piece together an accurate picture of the state of fisheries that sell seafood on the North American market. A three tiered system is used to determine how sustainable a certain fishery is as well as the fish species itself. The Seafood Watch program monitors between 70-80% of the seafood not just produced in North American but also sold here; therefore, it provides a very robust and reliable guide for consumers to base their consumption choices on. The protocol used to guide scientists when investigating each item is incredibly long and detailed, however the most important aspects of a fishery to consider can be narrowed down to: fishing method used, health of target stocks, level of bycatch, greenhouse gas emissions, does not alter the ecosystem or the roles of the species in the ecosystem, and lastly is managed in an effort to promote sustainability. Through this process, each seafood item is ranked using a red, yellow, green stoplight system. Green represents a “Best Choice”, yellow is a “Good Alternative” if a green option is unavailable, and red means “Avoid” at all costs. This easy system is made even more accessible to the public through regionalized consumer guides and the easy to use Seafood Watch app. A great aspect of the Seafood Watch program is that they not only help consumers support sustainable seafood, but help restaurants move towards serving sustainable seafood through their certification process.
Success Story: Bob’s Clam Hut
A local gem that has received national admiration in its 60 year history, Bob’s Clam Hut, nestled on scenic US Route 1 in Kittery, Maine has taken huge leaps from its fast food beginnings as it makes a commitment to sustainability. Living just south of the Maine border in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, I first discovered Bob’s move towards sustainable seafood during an impromptu dinner there earlier this summer. Bob’s Clam Hut is about as quintessential New England as it gets, from the nautical themed dining room, to the aroma of fresh seafood, to the friendly staff and locals. As a business that has been around for so long, I was simultaneously surprised and overjoyed to hear the server ask, “we use hake in our Fish and Chips, is that okay?” as hake is “trash fish” or as Bob’s likes to call them “under-loved fish” that serves as a sustainable replacement to cod. The Fish and Chips were delicious and no one would have guessed that the white fish they were eating was not cod! The Northeast Seafood Watch consumer guide ranks hake as a Good Alternative, because their stock is plentiful but there are some concerns with the methods used to catch them (bottom trawling). Seafood Watch ranks the clams, oysters, and many other seafood they use as Best Choice, making their menu composted of almost entirely sustainable seafood choices.
If such an iconic restaurant can make a commitment to sustainable seafood and continue to profit and be a destination locals and travelers alike flock to, than any other “fast food” or popular chain restaurant can too. Besides just using local, sustainable seafood they also educate guests on the benefits of sustainable seafood to the local economy and ecosystem through tabletop displays and little informational flags served with each meal. Additionally, Bob’s Clam Hut sources 100% of their energy from renewable sources and has implemented a composting/recycling/trash system that further minimizes their damage to the environment. This local success story proves cooperation between fisherman, scientists, and business owners can lead to a viable sustainable seafood industry that keeps the culture and history of New England alive, while preserving its future.