Why Wild Fish Matter

Lionel Uddipa

Photo: Chef Lionel Uddipa

As a chef in Alaska, I’m fortunate to have ready access to some of the highest quality and most sustainable seafood in the world. In Juneau where I am the Executive Chef at Salt Restaurant, thousands of cruise ship tourists descend on our small town every day in the summertime seeking out a chance to taste fresh wild salmon, halibut, sablefish, rockfish, and crab caught just a stone’s throw from the dining table. The excitement of my customers when they see local wild seafood on my menu reminds me to not take our nation’s abundant wild fisheries for granted. Their appreciation reminds me why wild fish matter and why we must do everything we can to protect them for future generations.

From a chef’s perspective, wild fish is one of the most prized items in the kitchen. Not only because it is superior in flavor, texture, and color, but because it’s also free of additives, antibiotics, and other chemicals that other proteins – including farmed fish – are exposed to. As an added bonus, wild fish is good for your health and one of the most nutritious foods you can consume. That’s why the FDA has been urging Americans to increase their annual seafood consumption, which continues to hover around 15 pounds a year. At a time when America faces a national health crisis, our country cannot afford to lose our wild fisheries. Our lives depend on it.

Wild fish not only provides a nutritious source of sustainable protein, but it also provides a way of life for thousands of families that depend on commercial fishing for their income. The fishing industry is the largest private employer in Alaska, providing 63,000 direct jobs (Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute) and generating nearly $2 billion in renewable ex-vessel income (NOAA). Fishing revenue in Alaska is especially critical at a time when other resource industries in our state, such as oil, no longer generate the same level of return for our state’s budget. Fishing is the bedrock that helps stabilize our coastal communities and state economy and will continue to do so as long as our wild fisheries remain healthy.

Wild fish generate income for more than just commercial fishermen though. Wild fish support thousands of other businesses that are directly and indirectly connected to the commercial fishing industry (e.g., transportation and shipping, technology, fabrication and repair, distribution). In 2015-2016, Alaska’s seafood industry alone generated in $2.9 billion in labor income and $7.3 billion in economic output for domestic secondary industries (Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute). Restaurants and grocers are especially dependent on wild fish; it helps bring customers through our doors. This is especially true in coastal regions where customers expect and demand wild seafood to be on restaurant menus. Without wild fish, my restaurant – and many others – would not be profitable.

In Alaska, where fish farms are banned, we are fortunate to have abundant and thriving wild fisheries. This abundance isn’t just pure luck or coincidence. It’s the result of extensive scientific research and data, accountability amongst all user groups, intact coastal habitat, and coordination between state and federal agencies. It’s also the product of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act (MSA), first enacted in 1976 and later amended in 1996 and 2006 to help rebuild America’s fisheries and restore coastal fishing economies. Much like the Farm Bill is the key legislation responsible for guiding our nation’s agricultural system, the MSA is the “Fish Bill” for our country and greatly influences America’s access to local wild seafood.

If you remove or modify a key ingredient in a recipe, then your final dish will change – and most likely not taste or look how you wanted. That’s why it’s so important for Congress to uphold the foundation of the MSA in the current reauthorization, including accurate and timely fish stock assessments and harvest monitoring, unequivocal enforcement of annual catch limits, and shared accountability across all fishing sectors. These core components have not only proven instrumental in restoring fisheries throughout the country and benefiting seafood-dependent businesses like mine, but they are common sense measures and without them our nation’s fisheries and fishing communities will suffer.

The proposed “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act of 2017” (H.R. 200) – an alternative to the current MSA – threatens to remove these key ingredients from our country’s fishery management. Instead, H.R. 200 proposes to weaken fishing regulations and undermine the shared accountability that’s been established amongst all user groups. These changes to the MSA are a direct threat to the future of our wild fish and the businesses, communities, and American families that depend on it.

The reauthorization of the MSA is a chance for our country to not only uphold our legacy of strong and responsible fishery management, but to also remember why wild fish matters. I invite my fellow chefs and others in the food service industry to join me in standing up for our country’s wild fish and pledging their support for an MSA that puts wild fish and healthier people and communities first.

About Lionel Uddipa

Lionel Uddipa is Chef at Salt Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska and the 2017 Winner of the Great American Seafood Cook-off.

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