A helping hand for dinner

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten schooled in the history and current status of New England groundfish and shellfish. There are definitely some bright spots, like scallops and today’s haddock catch in Georges Bank, but there are also some problems including the economic realities of fishing for a living. I love eating seafood, but I also want to feel good about the sustainability of my dining choices and the ecosystems that provide my food. At the same time, I really love the idea that fishing can be done by individuals and small groups using traditional methods. So the challenge, in my view, is to balance the needs of fishing communities with the needs of fishing stocks, the appetites of our seafood markets with the appetites of each link in marine food webs.

This is no small order. There are so many beings involved, at times with conflicting view points, and there are quite a few variables that we are still working to understand. One concern of some scientists is that we are using a ‘shifting baseline’ as we make our decisions (Hutchings & Reynolds 2004)- we start to think of fish stocks from the past few decades as representative of historical levels and forget that those stocks may be much lower than they were 100 or 200 years ago. If we follow that path, we’re constantly settling for fewer and fewer resources.

What can we do to address these problems? Depending on how involved you want to get and where you are located, there are a wide variety of ways that you can support sustainable fisheries and the people who catch our food.

  • In the grocery store and at restaurants: Choose fish whose stocks are felt to be harvested at a sustainable level and in a manner that doesn’t put other species at risk. If you’re not sure which choices are best, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a variety of seafood guides for areas of the US as well as sushi- I carry one in my wallet, but my parents, who are more technically advanced, use the link on their smartphone. And don’t be afraid to ask where the fish is coming from and how it was caught- sometimes people won’t be able to tell you, but hopefully your question gets them thinking about it. I’ve even been thanked for asking.
  • If you live near the coast: Try to find a community-supported fishery near you- it’s very similar to the box scheme for produce you can find in some areas- you buy a share of the season’s fish and you get a regular supply fresh from the fishermen- it helps them by cutting out the middleman and you know exactly where your fish is coming from. Along the East Coast, check out the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance for CSFs near you.
  • If you live away from the coast: And you want to do something that directly impacts fishing communities, consider making a donation to  fishing organizations that are working to keep stocks and fishermen healthy. As I mentioned previously, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association focuses on helping fishermen with small boats and traditional gear maintain their way of life, and there are other groups in different locations working toward similar goals.
  • If you want to get out on the water yourself: There are a number of volunteer opportunities with the NOAA– you can take pH and salinity readings, count fish, observe fishing boats, and contribute to research and education in other ways (the opportunities in Hawaii make me wish I lived there)- and other organizations, some of which deal with fresh water, have volunteer programs as well (check out Trout Unlimited or your state’s Fish & Wildlife Department).
  • In terms of your lifestyle: I know this may not be a popular suggestion, but I do think that we need to reassess our eating habits with regard to fish (and meat, in general)- the human population continues to expand, and that means ever-more pressure on our resources, including fisheries. I think at some point we have to ask ourselves how much of what we eat is truly a requirement and if there are other ways to sate our appetites. It was not enjoyable when I gave up eel in my sushi (because of concerns over wild populations, farming practices, and the use of horseshoe crabs as eel bait), but I felt it was the right thing to do, and there are other, similar choices I have made to limit what I eat in an attempt to support those stocks that are in trouble. (For a more detailed discussion of food choices in general, check out my suggestions in Books I love.)

Works Cited:

Hutchings, J.A. and J.D. Reynolds. 2004. Marine fish population collapses: consequences for recovery and extinction risk. BioScience 54(4): 297-309.