Sustainability, it seems, is worth a pretty penny these days. We pay premiums so that we can brag about solar cells powering our homes, we patronize businesses that showcase their green credentials in their vehicle fleets, and we try to buy products that prominently display recycled logos or “sustainably harvested” stamps on their packaging. Yet strangely, the commercial fishing industry seems to have missed the boat on the big green trend. Despite being one of the industries most closely tied to the health of the environment and one that fosters in its workers a natural ecological concern, the commercial fishing industry has struggled to clearly illustrate the connection between what fishermen do and the need for conservation of the resource upon which they rely.
Why is this? “Green” retailers regularly post bank-busting profits, anti-GMO protests erupt routinely in both real life and online, and the Godzilla of ocean acidification is gaining ground on the King Kong of climate change in the minds of the public.
So why can’t commercial fishermen get some recognition of the fact that buying their fish can be as much of a statement in support of sustainability as plunking down an extra two bucks to make those tortilla chips frankenfood free?
Wild caught, responsibly managed fish stocks boast the advantage of having been an integral part of the ocean’s web of life. Commercial fishermen, especially smaller operators and sport fishing captains, have a vested interest in seeing that ecology remain healthy. At a wallet-deep level, fishermen know that their fortunes and the need to make their harvesting practices sustainable are inextricably linked. Furthermore, commercial fishermen have had front row seats in observing the decline of seafood populations over the past decades.
Commercial fishermen have been trying to bring attention to the connection between what they do and the need for conservation for some time. The problem is that for most of the fish-consuming public, the idea that the lower price of that farmed salmon steak comes with a high cost to family fishermen, coastal communities, and marine ecology has yet to really sink in despite the best efforts of fishermen and those who work to safeguard our fisheries.
Both interests, fisheries advocates and fishermen themselves, have yet to make clear in the minds of consumers the link between buying wild-caught seafood from sustainable fisheries and supporting local fishermen. If we had succeeded, we’d see a stronger vote for sustainable fishing practices with consumers’ dollars.
At the Institute for Fisheries Resources, we regard it as a no-brainer that ecological conservation and the plight of family fishermen go hand-in-hand. Small commercial fishing operations work on the frontlines of the fight for the health of our imperiled oceans. The product they deliver—the fresh, nutritious, and better-tasting bounty of the oceans—is one of the key reasons that fight is so important. Nevertheless, we at IFR are often disappointed at how much the work of small fishermen is associated with the destruction of marine ecosystems.
It is, in part at least, a problem of perception. Small fishing operations make up a relatively small sector of the nation’s food industry, and most Americans are not directly familiar with the hardships that affect commercial fishermen through their families and coworkers. But the plight of family fishermen is a mirror image of the struggles with economic uncertainty and pride of purpose that touch the lives of just about every American.
At IFR, we hear every day from members of our fleet about falling profit margins, concerns about the next generation of fisheries workers, and the dangers posed by a threatened environment, both in the form of collapsing fish stocks and the threat the decline of those populations mean for coastal communities. We see it as our responsibility to emphasize both aspects of our mission: the defense of a way of life both ancient and deeply American and the sense of stewardship that ought to be front and center in every conversation we have about the responsible use of marine resources.
The advocacy for wild caught fish, sustainably harvested by local family fishermen, is a perfect example of the intersection of those two ideals. Not only is the commercial fishing industry built on the rich heritage of American fishing communities, but it is also one of the industries where environmental concerns are most strongly in line with the needs of business. It literally must be sustainable in order to survive.
We need to work harder to forge the link between buying sustainably harvested seafood and making a political statement about the value of the small boat fleet. It’s time we recognize that wild fish are both a better product and in most cases, a greener one as well. It’s better for the fish. It’s better for the fisherman. Ultimately, it’s also better for America.