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Saving the Ocean, One Fish Dish at a Time

What we need to do to have sustainable fisheries

| From BU Today | By Leslie Friday

Fish tacos made with Atlantic pollock from the Gulf of Maine, a sustainably fished species. Photo by Cydney Scott.

A visit to the seafood section of nearly any local supermarket these days is likely to induce feelings of guilt. You cast an eye on the Atlantic cod, halibut, salmon, and yellowtail flounder glistening on ice—only to discover that each is among the 13 species now overfished in New England, according to a 2011 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a real problem for consumers who enjoy eating fish for its many health benefits, but are also mindful of their ecological footprint.

Boston University Dining Services is conscious of this dichotomy and has introduced more sustainable fish options on menus at the George Sherman Union and in residential dining halls. Earlier this month, Rhett's served a special on Gulf of Maine Atlantic pollock, a lesser-known species that has been fished responsibly. Diners can also sample the dish during lunch and dinner at dining halls across campus on November 12 as part of Dining Services Make a Difference Monday, a campaign to showcase foods that are healthy and good for the environment.

“We promote sustainable seafood in order to help sustain local and global fisheries and ocean ecosystems for tomorrow,” says Sabrina Pashtan, Dining Services sustainability coordinator, who ensures BU makes informed purchasing decisions and has an innovative menu.

For the big picture, Bostonia recently spoke with Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a marine conservation fellow at Conservation International, about the importance of sustainable fishery, the power of individual consumers, and the future of the fishing industry.

Bostonia: What is a fishery and how does it become unsustainable?

Kaufman: A fishery is a commodity chain, which means there are a whole bunch of people doing different things, all of whom have to be there for the money to move. That begins with fishermen and includes regulators, the Coast Guard, and everyone who makes anything fishermen use and who services the needs of fishermen, like ice manufacturers, trucking companies, middlemen—the whole deal. That’s called the multiplier, when you take the value of the fish alone versus the total value that’s appreciated by the fish moving through the system. Normally, people calculate that value on an annualized basis without any regard to how many annuals there are going to be. And the way the system has been run historically, there are very few years available to us because we’re destroying the natural infrastructure that keeps making more fish.

There are two deep flaws that make fisheries unsustainable. We don’t look far enough into the future—not more than a year or two—so we don’t appreciate the fact that we’re depreciating the system very rapidly. And we don’t look at more than one species at a time—so one year, one species. It’s fatal.

Can you give examples of how the ocean infrastructure is being torn apart?

Every single fishery in the world is now at capacity or overexploited. The engine that ultimately produces fish in New England is the sun shining on the ocean-making plankton. Small creatures eat plankton, and they’re eaten by marketable species. So forage fish are critical to support the fisheries—like cod, haddock, and tuna. However, we also eat and catch forage fish. We grind them up for vitamin supplements, use herring as lobster bait, and rely on aggregation of forage to support tourism—including the whale watching industry, which only works if there’s a massive, Serengeti-style accumulation of whales within a short distance from shore.

When you catch fish by dragging a heavy net across the sea, that net destroys natural habitat for baby fish, food from worms, and clams that fishes eat. If we’re doing this intelligently, we learn as quickly as possible how long it takes the system to heal itself, and we don’t inflict so much damage over time that the capacity of the system is impaired.

Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a marine conservation fellow at Conservation International. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Why is sustainable fishery important?

Fish are food, they’re livelihoods, and they can be converted to money—a few billion dollars in New England alone each year. There’s sort of an aesthetic and cultural value associated with the option of having fish as part of our lives. It’s part of the joy of life and hard to put a dollar value on it. It’s nice not to have to eat rice every day and only rice. Or Chicken McNuggets and only Chicken McNuggets.

The fisheries may only comprise a very small sector of the economy overall, but the potential for something going wrong in fisheries that could do widespread manifest damage to the rest of our life support infrastructure is very impressive. One sector immediately affected is tourism, especially whale watching. Another factor is coastal real estate. It may sound romantic that whales are out there or that there are fish along the beach, but that’s why people pay an exorbitant amount of money to have an oceanfront house. Another connection is direct human health. Disregard for the condition of the marine environment quickly results in a rapid deterioration of environmental quality, including the multiplication of human pathogens in ocean waters.

What are some of the species currently in danger of being overfished in New England?

All of them. Some are being managed better than others. Species that are OK to eat vary as populations in the wild go up and down. It also depends on where they came from and how they were caught or produced. Wild Atlantic salmon is almost extinct. Halibut is almost exterminated. Several species in dire straights are Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, winter flounder—sometimes called gray sole—and bluefin tuna. Then there are fish caught wild in New England waters, and an argument could be made we should patronize them. One is haddock, which isn’t near historic levels of abundance, but is well-managed and has recovered. Other examples are pollock, bluefish, lobster, and any bivalves, like clams, oysters, or scallops.

Can individual consumers really have an impact on the market?

In order for this to work, consumers have to be willing to know a great deal more about the ocean than they do now so they can critically weigh the information they get from their suppliers. If not doing it means they’re going to die, then they’ll be inclined to do it. But being a lousy seafood buyer doesn’t mean you’re going to die. We have a bit of an incentive problem here. It has to be respected, admired, moral, and valuable to be an intelligent consumer. That’s what the sustainable seafood movement is about.

And it’s not just about sustaining fish, but about sustaining a social, cultural, or spiritual bond between people and the ocean. It means supporting fishermen. When you buy fish at the supermarket, you have a choice of buying from a giant factory boat that stays out for weeks and flash freezes all it catches, sucking up fish in enormous quantities like a vacuum cleaner, or a family vessel that uses a hook and line and does no damage to the ocean.

What advice can you give to consumers interested in buying sustainably caught fish?

Use a seafood buyer’s card (such as the one produced by Monterey Bay Aquarium and New England Aquarium) as a starting point. Then, as you learn more about the local situation, modify buying to reflect that local knowledge. Buying into a community-supported fishery (CSF) is an example of that. If you’re buying from a CSF, you are likely to get Atlantic cod. Most cards would say don’t eat cod, but if you are supporting a local fisherman who is doing his or her best to fish by the regulations, you shouldn’t refuse their fish. They were caught under a stringent conservation program.

What’s being done to ensure healthy fisheries for future generations?

A lot has been done, but it’s not happening fast enough. The revolution is not radical enough, and we’re trying to fix that. It began with the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act more than 20 years ago, which basically said don’t catch more fish than regulators have issued permits for. It set stringent guidelines for the quality of knowledge necessary to decide how many fish you need to catch. It also gives more decision-making authority to fishermen, but requires that they organize themselves.

The biggest improvement that we now need to make is to switch from single-species to ecosystem-based management. That’s a switch from science developed 100 years ago, which looks at species in isolation, to new science that looks at the system as a whole and focuses instead on interactions, nonlinear effects, and anticipating unintended consequences. One of the things we’re doing at BU is creating a sort of simulation game that incorporates everything we know about these interactions and dynamics to better understand change in fisheries policy.

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