Photo via NOAA
Understanding the implications of the phrase “sustainable seafood” can be complicated. It can imply that scientific studies indicate that there are enough fish and shellfish in the water to support fishermen today and in the future. It can mean independent evaluations have ranked fisheries on metrics including stock status, impact of the fishery on habitat, bycatch rates, and more. It can mean a third-party certification has given a “stamp of approval” for certain fisheries that pass its test. It can be used for marketing in an effort to fetch better prices for fishermen, dealers, or other links in the supply chain. It can mean a combination of all of the above. But at its core, “sustainable seafood” is all about making sure we harvest seafood at levels that allow nature to replenish them.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the term sustainable seafood became part of the vernacular. The first consumer guide that introduced the “stoplight system” – green means sustainable, yellow means generally good but some potential concerns, and red means unsustainable – was published in Audubon Magazine in 1998. Since then, Seafood Watch out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has become one of the more well-known producers of sustainable seafood pocket guides using the stoplight method. Over the last twenty years, Seafood Watch has ranked dozens of fisheries and distributed millions of guides. Sustainable fisheries have become a conservation priority for most aquariums across the country, who have either created their own sustainable seafood programs (such as New England Aquarium, South Carolina Aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific, and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas), or partnered with Monterey Bay to distribute Seafood Watch cards.
Sustainable seafood movements have also taken the form of boycotts. In 1993, the “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign became one of the first that engaged the chef community. Across the nation, chefs signed a pledge to remove swordfish from their menu until the stock improved (which it has). In 2002, “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” attempted a similar campaign method.
In the late 1990s, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) launched as a certification program that could be used as a way to independently assess a fishery and market it as sustainable. Since then, other certifications have emerged, such as Alaska’s Responsible Fisheries Management, Iceland’s Responsible Fisheries Management Certification, and the Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries Responsible Fisheries Management Certification.
These movements each have their own successes and challenges. Their primary goal is to promote sustainable fisheries and improve and assist fisheries that may have some barriers to sustainability, whether a fishery needs on-the-water improvements or barriers solely exist in the marketplace due to sourcing policies. These initiatives have made consumers more aware about the complexity and importance of sustainable seafood, provide the public with a relatively easy-to-follow guide, and have played an important role engaging the public in sustainable seafood. However, it has been the hard work of fishermen on the water and the success of the U.S. fishery federal management system that paved the way for U.S. fisheries to be some of the most sustainable in the world.
Sustainability through Strong Management and Fishermen Engagement
While pocket guides and certifications promote sustainability through encouraging consumers to purchase more sustainable options, one of the greatest assets we have in maintaining sustainable fisheries is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens). The addition of science-based annual catch limits through the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization has played an integral role in the recovery of dozens of fisheries across the country. Overfishing is at an all time low this year, as is the number of overfished stocks.
Despite narratives about commercial fishermen’s lack of concern for the environment, many commercial fishermen have a clear understanding of sustainability and support the conservation tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. They know that if they take too many fish this year, they could impact their ability to feed their families down the road. In order for their businesses to be successful long-term, they work to ensure the resources on which they rely are healthy today and will be healthy in the future.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, fishermen also have found innovative ways to improve their own fishing practices in order to better protect the fisheries on which they rely.
Look at red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Ineffective fishery management strategies and a lack of conservation measures led to a rapid stock decrease between 1950 and 1980. In 1988, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) declared it as overfished and undergoing overfishing. Fisheries managers tried various management tools in an attempt to reduce fishing effort and give the fish a chance to recover. On the commercial side, this led to “derby” fishing: periodic openings where they all raced to catch as many fish as they could, even in potentially dangerous weather conditions, before season was shut down. This created poor safety conditions along with a glut of fish on the market, and ultimately did not benefit the stock.
It wasn’t until commercial fishermen came together with NMFS to develop a red snapper individual fishig quota (IFQ), which was implemented in 2007, that the stock started to turn around. Since that time, commercial red snapper fishermen have fished within their science-based quotas, and the stock is the healthiest it has been in decades. Recreational, charter, and commercial fishermen can now catch more (and larger) red snapper throughout the Gulf thanks to commercial fishermen putting science and sustainability first. It was the innovation of commercial fishermen and their respect for science-based catch limits that has helped the red snapper fishery become more sustainable. And the fishery continues to rebound. Just this past August, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) approved a conservative increase in the red snapper quota that fishermen supported, and they anticipate more increases in the future.
As another example, commercial fishermen for the last several years have asked that red grouper quota be reduced because they saw on the water that the stock is in trouble. Landings data support this: thus far in 2018 commercial fishermen have only caught 25% of their quota while recreational fishermen have only caught 8%. Fishery landings that low are indicative of a bigger problem – the fish aren’t there to catch. Thanks to the collaborative work of NMFS scientists, the Gulf Council, and stakeholders, the 2019 red grouper quota could be reduced to a level more in line with the health of the stock. This conservative approach is the right direction to take while we await the results of a full stock assessment, which is scheduled to be published early next year.
It was the commercial fishermen that recognized that the fishery was facing challenges. It was their collaboration with scientists and fishery managers, along with the utilization of the process as laid out by Magnuson-Stevens, that allowed management measures to be initiated that could improve protections for red grouper and potentially lead to its recovery.
Fishermen are also constantly making tweaks out on the water to ensure they are not taking more than can be replenished. Some Florida red grouper fishermen took it upon themselves to modify the types of hooks they use when fishing for gag grouper when annual catch limits were being reduced. These smaller gauge hooks allow larger fish to escape, meaning that more fertile fish stay in the water to reproduce.
Fishermen working under the science-based mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act can be our strongest leaders on the path toward more sustainable fisheries. Commercial fishermen are dedicated to their livelihoods and are doing their part to ensure domestic, American fisheries are as healthy and productive as they can be. Consumers can do their part, too. If you like fresh, sustainably-harvested seafood, I encourage everyone to learn more about the seafood you eat and fisheries (and fishermen) that provide it, whether it’s at your local aquarium, pocket guides, or through fishermen organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance and Gulf Wild, and others like the Marine Fish Conservation Network, and many others.
The seafood industry is a complex world, reliant not only on the responsible fishermen that bring seafood to the dock, but also on the scientists studying the stocks, and on managers who have to make difficult decisions on what is best for the fish and the fishermen. Through the daily efforts of these men and women, we have some of the most sustainable fisheries in the world that all consumers should be proud to support and enjoy on their plates at home or in restaurants nation-wide.