Author Archives: Tim Fitzgerald

West Coast Groundfish Get Certified Sustainable: A Local Fishery Success Story

 

Pacific rockfish (Photograph by NOAA FishWatch)

Pacific rockfish (Photograph by NOAA FishWatch)

[Re-posted with permission from National Geographic]


Last year I had the privilege of sharing some good news from the sustainable seafood world, that the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery had finally shed its perpetual red list status. Today I get to do something similar, by applauding the U.S. West Coast Groundfish IFQ Trawl Fishery for its landmark turnaround and the announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that they have certified 13 species to their standards for sustainable fishing.  

In their announcement, MSC noted that the West Coast Groundfish IFQ Trawl Fishery is “the most diverse, complex fishery ever to enter assessment against the MSC standard anywhere in the world.” The fishery includes west coast favorites like sablefish and petrale sole, along with first-of-their-kind species in the MSC program like lingcod, thornyheads, and several varieties of Pacific rockfish.

 

The MSC’s 400-page Final Report highlights several strengths of the West Coast Groundfish Trawl Fishery, which include:

  • The strong link between [stock] assessments and management actions
  • The management plan establishes individual accountability on the part of fishermen and delivers more complete data for fishery managers
  • Sensitive habitats are protected in areas of “essential fish habitat,” and additional areas deemed off-limits to bottom trawls
  • The management system is transparent and open to the public
  • The catch share program provides incentives for sustainable fishing

The fishery’s recent success can be traced back to a few factors. In 2011 the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) instituted a ‘catch share’ program, which was developed over several years by a broad range of stakeholders, including commercial fishermen, fishery managers, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). (Full disclosure: I work for EDF.) At the same time, this new management plan established a system of 100 percent catch monitoring, which ensured that every fish that came over the rail was accounted for.

Taken together, and recognized by the MSC certification, these measures have drastically reduced bycatch (also known as unwanted or untargeted catch), limited the take of sensitive depleted species, and sparked innovation throughout the fishery. Even better, the changes apply to the entire trawl fishery in California, Oregon, and Washington, accounting for approximately 40 million pounds in landings in 2013.

If you’re not familiar with catch shares, they succeed by giving fishermen a financial stake in their fishery’s future in exchange for greater accountability. By doing so, fishermen avoid and can actually reverse the “tragedy of the commons,” in which too many boats chase—and inevitably over-harvest—steadily dwindling fish stocks.

Brad Pettinger, a lifelong fisherman and director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, coordinated the fishing industry’s effort to gain MSC certification.  “West coast trawl fishermen are extremely proud to have met these stringent criteria for sustainability,” says Pettinger. “And with the unhurried fishing season that we have under catch shares, we’ve dramatically reduced bycatch.”

 

Bouncing Back From Disaster

Remembering a January 2000 federal disaster declaration in his fishery, Pettinger says, “Fifteen years ago they wrote the obituary for this fishery. Ten years ago we started working on a rationalized management plan, and three years ago we put it in place. That was the watershed moment, and now we’re demonstrating that we can be good stewards of an amazing public resource. We could not be happier or more proud.”

Shems Jud, who leads EDF Oceans’ Pacific team, has worked to rebuild Pacific groundfish stocks alongside fishermen like Pettinger for seven years. He believes that 100 percent monitoring is probably the single greatest change in the fishery, but one that does not come cheap.

Those federal observers cost hundreds of dollars a day and many west coast fishing businesses already operate on razor-thin margins. Still, what they gain with a federal observer is accountability, and in a seafood marketplace that increasingly rewards sustainable fishing practices, that can create market leverage.

 

Looking Forward

Dover sole (Photograph by NOAA FishWatch)

Dover sole (Photograph by NOAA FishWatch)

“MSC’s certification may assist in that respect,” continues Jud. “For the fishermen who have adapted to an entirely new management regime and increased operating costs, we are optimistic that this recognition will result in new and stronger market opportunities.”

To help keep operating costs in check, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is beginning a process that may one day replace human observers with electronic monitoring (EM) systems.

“That’s become a huge priority for us,” Jud added. “In order for this catch share program to endure and succeed, fishermen have to survive economically. EM may help reduce their costs and buy them just enough time so the benefits of the new program, such as MSC certification, catch up with their day-to-day business realities.”

So over the coming months we hope and expect that the seafood industry will embrace this fishery success story and amplify the hard work of west coast IFQ fishermen. And while it may take these fish a little time to make it into the inventories of markets and restaurants near you, I hope you’ll join me in seeking out these local, sustainable Pacific groundfish species when you buy seafood, because adding 40 million pounds of certified, sustainable product to the market is definitely a cause for celebration.

 

 

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The quest for sustainable seafood has never been easier

Photo credit: Rick Moonen/RM Seafood

Photo credit: Rick Moonen/RM Seafood

If you love seafood, the six weeks between Mardi Gras and Easter is likely one of your favorite times of the year. It doesn’t hurt that restaurants, fish markets and grocery stores are awash with Lenten promotions, resulting in the most profitable period for seafood sales.

So why not use this time to get out of your comfort zone?  Put down the tuna and salmon and try something new; the seafood market has an abundance of options.   Additionally, consumers are seeking out local and sustainable seafood like never before, representing some of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry for the past several years.

But which fish are the best to buy? Tools like EDF’s mobile  Seafood Selector and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app are great ways to have sustainable seafood recommendations at your fingertips. Some fish pundits like Chef Alton Brown – host of Good Eats and other programs on the Food Network – go so far as to encourage consumers to ignore all the labels and just “Buy American.” In the absence of definitive information, this might be your best option. However, it’s usually a good bet that your fishmonger or server can tell you where their fish is from.

Did you know?

The average piece of fish can be handled by up to 10-15 people before it gets to your plate. This isn’t inherently bad, especially if it’s coming from remote waters, like Alaska’s Bering Sea. However, more and more seafood lovers want to know who caught their fish, and more importantly, how long it’s taken to get to market. In response, a number of companies, fishermen and nonprofits alike are committed to “shortening the supply chain” between the ocean and your plate. Here’s a sampling of some of our favorites:

  • Gulf Wild provides individually tagged, traceable and responsibly-caught red snapper and grouper from the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Ecofish is one of the first all-sustainable seafood companies. Their products can be found in health food and natural food stores all across the country.
  • I Love Blue Sea is a California-based company selling a variety of seafood online and direct to consumers. They recently added Gulf Coast and Chesapeake Bay products too.
  • Dock to Dish is a new startup on the East End of Long Island that delivers fresh, hand-caught Montauk seafood to New York City restaurants and consumers within 24 hours.
  • Sea 2 Table partners with local fishermen from small-scale wild fisheries around the country to get their catch direct to market as fast as possible.
  • Community Supported Fisheries have sprung up in the last few years in the mold of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Basically, you pay a local fisherman upfront for a share of his catch and receive a regular seafood delivery throughout the season.
  • Trash Fish or ‘underutilized’ or ‘underappreciated’ seafood species are all the rage right now, and our good friends at Chefs Collaborative are hosting a series of dinners around the country that hope to spread awareness about fish that are sustainably-caught yet undervalued.

It's never been easier to find sustainable, healthy seafood that directly benefits local, responsible fishermen. So put down that generic fish sandwich and help ensure that this trend continues.

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I’ll Have the Gulf Red Snapper, Please

Fresh Red Snapper

Gulf Red Snapper

[This was originally posted in National Geographic's Ocean Views Blog]

I’m thrilled to report that Gulf of Mexico red snapper got a little less “red” today. That’s because our partners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program – the most well-known sustainable seafood program in the United States – announced that they’ve removed the commercial fishery for Gulf of Mexico red snapper from their ‘Avoid’ list and awarded them a new ‘Good Alternative’ rating.

While there are still improvements to be made in this fishery, let’s take a minute to appreciate how much progress has been made in the last few years. Gulf of Mexico red snapper used to be a poster child for unsafe, wasteful fishing. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s the fishery was ruled by derby seasons where fishermen raced to catch as much fish as possible a few days every month. This had tremendous consequences for both fish and fishermen, as quality and profitability suffered and the red snapper population dwindled.

Fortunately, fishermen, managers and conservationists finally recognized the severity of the problem and decided to get the fishery back on track. In 2007, an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program, coupled with a scientifically set catch limit, was implemented that put Gulf red snapper on the road to recovery. Since then, rebuilding red snapper populations have supported a 70% increase in fishing quotas, waste of marketable fish has declined by about 50%, and fishermen earn 33% more per pound of fish landed. Commercial fishing seasons now last the full year, and the sector demonstrates strong compliance with its catch limit. These same fishermen even pioneered an innovative new traceability program after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that tracks every single fish back to the boat that caught it.

Unfortunately the recreational portion of the fishery (which shares the Gulf red snapper quota about evenly with commercial fishermen) remains saddled with outdated management that leads to blown catch limits year after year. That’s not because recreational fishermen aren’t responsible or don’t care about sustainability. It’s that the recreational management program is utterly failing. The system punishes everyone because it is based on antiquated rules and poor monitoring. To make sure recovery doesn’t backslide, new technologies for faster and better data collection, more accurate fish counting and incentives for conservation are badly needed.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the body charged with managing the fishery, has many different proposals in front of them to solve the problems facing the recreational fishery.  Some of them show promise and some of them could very well make things worse. In the coming months they will be making some important decisions that will impact everyone that depends on the red snapper fishery.  The bottom line is that recreational fishermen need a solution that can work for them on the water while providing the necessary incentives and accountability to ensure long-term sustainability for the fishery – so that being on the “red list” will remain a distant memory.

Join me in celebrating the fact that the sustainability stigma is no longer affixed to the Gulf commercial red snapper fishery. Not only does today’s news acknowledge the fishery’s transition to better management; it means that conservation-minded commercial Gulf red snapper fishermen now have access to better market opportunities through major buyers that have made commitments to sustainable seafood. So the next time you see this delicious fish in the market or on a menu, enjoy it with the knowledge that you’re making a good choice for both the ocean and the small family-owned fishing businesses that rely on it.

For more fish musings, please follow me on Twitter @hawaiifitz

Tim Fitzgerald is a marine scientist and senior policy specialist with Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program. Tim directs EDF’s sustainable seafood program, and specializes in the intersection of environmental sustainability and public health. He is also a senior member of EDF’s National Policy team, advocating for more sustainable federal fisheries management policies.

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How Sustainable is your Supermarket’s Seafood Case?

sustainability rankings of seafood retailers 2013

ImageCredit: Greenpeace, from "Carting Away the Oceans 2013" Report

Last week, Greenpeace USA released the seventh edition of their popular Carting Away the Oceans report, which ranks the sustainable seafood performance of the nation’s 20 largest supermarket chains. Industry leaders like Wegmans (a former EDF partner on salmon and shrimp sourcing), Whole Foods and Safeway once again scored in the top five, while Winn Dixie, Publix and Supervalu perennially find themselves at the bottom of the rankings.

This year’s report places extra emphasis on the ways that these companies approach pressing conservation policy issues, such as the approval of genetically-modified salmon, the advancement of industry-wide seafood traceability, and catch methods for canned tuna.

Perhaps the report’s biggest surprise was the improvement shown by prepared foods leader Trader Joe’s, which rocketed up 12 spots (from 15th in 2012 to 3rd this year). This comes just weeks after public scrutiny of the company’s follow-through on its 2012 sustainable seafood promise. However, Greenpeace gave Trader Joe’s a major pat on the back for removing several unsustainable species from their inventory and switching to better sources of canned tuna.

Although we don’t always agree with our Greenpeace colleagues about the composition of their ‘red list’, we were happy to see them recognize the improving sustainability of Gulf of Mexico red snapper and grouper – fisheries that EDF has worked in for more than a decade. They even gave a nod to EDF partner H-E-B for their strong support of the GulfWild traceability program.

So until next year’s edition, try to use your seafood dollars to support companies that are on the right track. If you are uncertain about the right species to purchase, you can refer to our recently revamped “Seafood Selector.” Let’s hope that the good continue to get better and the not-so-good get serious about seafood sustainability.

 

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Seafood Selector helps you have your hake (and eat it too)

Environmental Defense Fund recently released the latest version of its popular Seafood Selector, a tool to help make consumers aware of critical ocean conservation issues through the fish that they and their families eat. Today I want to take a moment to remember what life was like in 2001, when our first version came out as a small black-and-white paper cutout in the organization's quarterly member newsletter. (I know it’s hard to believe, but most people still received their environmental news by snail mail back in those days).

Back then, most people still didn’t have cell phones, and those that did just kept them in their gloveboxes for emergencies. I was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, studying shark ecology and physiology. Even as a young marine biologist, I was largely unaware of the impacts of our personal choices on the health of the oceans.

Raising consumer awareness of ocean conservation issues was no easy task 12 years ago – and is still a challenge today – given the complexity of how most fish makes it to our plates. For example, here are some interesting facts you might not know about the U.S. seafood market:

  • More than 90% of U.S. seafood is now imported.
  • Almost two-thirds of our imported fish comes from Asia.
  • Our seafood trade deficit is approximately $11 billion. That’s billion with a ‘B’.
  • Almost 60% of U.S. seafood consumption is from 3 items (shrimp, canned tuna, salmon). If you add ‘whitefish’, like pollock, cod and tilapia, the per capita total goes up to 80%.
  • More than 50% of U.S. seafood is now farm-raised.
  • Roughly 33% of U.S. seafood is mislabeled.
  • Americans eat 10% less seafood than they did in 2004 (15 lbs/person in 2011 versus 16.6 lbs/person in 2004).

Consumers care about sustainability now more than ever. That means they want to know where their food comes from, and more importantly, what impact its production had on the environment. This is especially true in restaurants, where a recent survey of chefs by the National Restaurant Association found that local and sustainable seafood accounted for three of the Top 10 culinary trends for 2013.

EDF's latest version of the Seafood Selector makes it easier than ever for seafood lovers to make fish choices that are healthy for them AND the oceans, with profiles of more than 200 types of commonly eaten seafood. The new Seafood Selector is also optimized for just about every type of mobile device out there. (I, for one, can’t wait to see what the 2023 Seafood Selector looks like!) So whether you want to know the difference between farmed and wild salmon, the mercury content of different types of tuna, or learn more about EDF’s fisheries work around the country – Seafood Selector is the tool for you.

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Support American Fishermen: Fish for a different dish

monkfish

Photo Credit: Nate Gray/flickr
Monkfish, aka American goosefish, eats way better than it looks.

When it comes to seafood, we  are creatures of narrow habit. The average American eats about 15 pounds of seafood each year  (well below the global average for coastal nations), almost 60% of which is either shrimp, canned tuna or salmon. That number jumps to more than 80% if you include "whitefish" like pollock, tilapia and cod.

So when one of these few items becomes overfished, too expensive or less available, the market usually just tries to pass off some other species in its place.

For example, 20 years ago, no one knew what a slimehead or American goosefish was. But when Atlantic cod fisheries crashed, low-value orange roughy and monkfish slowly gained in popularity and are now staples on restaurant menus – even though most people have no idea what the actual fish look like. What started out as worthless bycatch (also known as trash fish) that usually got dumped overboard will now routinely run you $10/lb or more in the market.

Unfortunately, Atlantic cod populations off New England are actually faring even worse today. We recently learned thatfishing quotas for 2013 will be slashed by almost 80% in certain areas compared to last year. There are several factors at play, among them decades of intense fishing pressure, ecosystem shifts and climate change. Nevertheless, we should still support New England fishermen by purchasing what little local cod makes it to market in 2013.

But how can we ensure that this iconic fishery – and others like it on the Pacific coast – don’t disappear quietly in the night? Our experience with orange roughy and monkfish provides one important answer: Previously unfamiliar fish can win the hearts of seafood lovers and help strengthen local fisheries.

It turns out that cod fishermen can also target several other related species, but traditionally haven’t done so because they don’t yet command a good price. Trash fish (or as I like to call them, under-appreciated species) like Atlantic hakepollock and Acadian redfish may be the key to this fishery’s survival. Read More »

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EDF and Stony Brook University Publish Most Comprehensive Database of Mercury Levels in U.S. Seafood to Date

Environmental Health Perspectives just published a new study I co-authored that provides the most current estimates of mercury levels in U.S. seafood. This new database is based on hundreds of government monitoring programs and peer-reviewed scientific studies, and is now publicly available to public health professionals to incorporate into seafood consumption advice.

The study is titled ‘A Quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood and Implications for Exposure in the U.S.’ and was co-authored by colleagues from Stony Brook University.

Overall, almost half of the seafood items we surveyed had higher mercury levels than those reported by the Food and Drug Administration’s Monitoring Program. Some notable examples include marlin, cobia (wild), bluefin, bigeye and blackfin tuna, orange roughy and Chilean seabass. These species have mercury levels similar to those seafood items already listed in the federal methylmercury advisory. Read More »

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Consumers Deserve to Know about Seafood Contaminants

Tim Fitzgerald, Sr. Policy Specialist, Oceans

Tim Fitzgerald, Scientist and Senior Oceans Policy Specialist

If you can choose whether to have tartar sauce with your fish, why not high levels of mercury?

The Washington Post ran a story last week that said fish consumption advisories for pollutants like mercury do more harm than good by discouraging people from eating fish. Tuesday, the newspaper published a letter in response from me and Dr. Lynn Goldman, Dean of The George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services and member of EDF’s Board of Trustees.

Eating seafood is an important part of a healthy diet. However, that does not justify ignoring the fact that some types of fish contain high concentrations of environmental contaminants. Just last week, a new study came out that documented significant losses of IQ points from the American population as a result of elevated blood mercury levels (and other environmental contaminants). Read More »

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