Sustainable Fisheries, Sustaining Ourselves
BY BARTON SEAVER / INFOGRAPHIC KRISTIN LENZ / DESIGN R.C. AZCUETA
If you are reading this, it’s likely that you believe sustainable food systems are necessary for the health of our environment, our communities and ourselves. Many of us have crafted a narrative understanding of our communities in which farmers are the protagonists, leading us to an Eden of our own making.
As much as farmers are seen to be the binding of our cultural fabric, fishermen have long been seen as something other; the civics associated with fisheries are not equal to those of farming.
It wasn’t the rocky terrain of New England that drew the masses seeking to build new lives and fortunes. Rather, in 1602, the great hook of land at the southern boundary of the Gulf of Maine was named Cape Cod as a reflection of the bounty of the sea. It was upon the backs of these cod that men and women would build this nation’s first industry. It was on the decks of this fleet that this nation sailed toward independence and prosperity. In effigy, a Sacred Cod hangs proudly above the Massachusetts statehouse, and we pay respect to the fish at a level normally reserved for deities.
Fisheries have long been in the crucible of America’s evolving identity and destiny. Our Atlantic coast was once the frontier of the New World and all its possibility. As our population grew, and our attentions turned westward, the economy of America as a maritime nation gave way to a more manifest destiny. As a result, the centuries-old traditions and cultures of fishing communities atrophied. Our coastlines are no longer the center of our economy; instead, they have been developed for recreation.
But we should not forget that it was fishing communities that were the first example of self-reliance and individualism, combined with the piety of community that defined the social structures and values of America. There is no denying that fishing has radically altered the health of our ocean ecosystems and it has been easy to blame fishermen as the sole party at fault. As a result, New England seafood was broadly labeled as unsustainable. But food systems are human systems and should be judged by the sustainability of their processes and not solely by their products. We have failed to do this with fisheries.
All too often in sustainable foods conversations, we forget to ask ourselves the most fundamental question, which is: “What are we trying to sustain?” With sustainable seafood, we’re not trying to save the oceans, we’re trying to save our place upon them, our fishing economies and the healthful foods they provide for our dinner table. In short, we are trying to sustain ourselves.
Now it can sometimes feel a little selfish to put it in such terms. But when the human element is removed from our calculus, our goals become inherently shortsighted. An example of good intentions narrowly focused is the campaign for recycling. We have succeeded so well in the ”three Rs” of reducing, reusing and recycling that we forgot the most important R: to refuse. As recycling increased gradually, the amount of recyclable goods flowing into our marketplace increased exponentially. This example does not show a flaw in the recycling system, but rather in our application of it. It has acted as a confirmation bias, allowing us to continue in the behaviors that are at the root of the problem we are trying to solve. By all means, please recycle! But better yet, use less. Such narrow focus has been placed on sustainable seafood, the product, and we have not paid much mind to sustainable fisheries, the system.
Every year we brave the Route 3 traffic to visit the Cape for our annual vacation. We stand on a dock gazing wistfully out at the wine-dark sea and we think of fisheries as a place beyond the gentle slope of the horizon. But to see a fishery from that dock, we must turn around. Because it’s among the houses and the schools and the roads, and in the opportunities for a daughter to follow in her family’s bootsteps, that we find a fishery. It is the sum of the aspirations of and effort put forth by brave men and women in America’s most dangerous profession. A fishery is an economy and our heritage, an example of what makes America great.
Fisheries extend all the way to our forks. Therefore, if we are to consider sustainable fisheries, we must consider our role in them as consumers. The history of New England cuisine has been condensed into cod and, later, haddock. But what about the cusk and pollock and hake and whiting and skate and dog and reds and scup and ling?
For centuries, cod and haddock have been profitable, but the other species listed have not been. Many of them under-fished and unprofitable, some thrown overboard dead, as it cost fishermen more to land them than it did to waste them. But each of these species is equally profitable to the human body for the purposes of dinner and nutrition. Each is delicious in its own respect. Our refusal to try them has imposed an irrational economy upon our oceans. We have only told fishermen what we are willing to eat, rather than asked them what they (and the oceans) can provide.
I ran restaurants on the principle of the Catch-of-the-Day. My ever-changing menus featured 20 or more fish and weren’t written until a few hours before service. We bought directly from fishermen and had a standing rule that, with few exceptions, if they caught it, we would serve it. I did this because I believed that the system managing the fisheries was a sustainable one, and that if we believe in a system we have a responsibility to support its products.
U.S. fisheries management may not be perfect, but it’s the best in the world. Selling my customers on this rationalization of sustainability was not hard. Selling them whatever fish happened to come through my door that day was even easier.
One afternoon, with several hundred reservations ahead of my team that night, one fisherman’s product had yet to arrive. He had gone out to fish the reefs and expected to catch tuna, mahi or barracuda. Late in the day, the fish finally came through the door just an hour before service, and when I opened the box, I found something wholly unfamiliar. When I reached the fisherman by phone he explained that it had been a bad day of fishing. Not wanting to leave me in the lurch, he had decided to send his leftover bait.
I had nearly 100 pounds of flying fish on my hands. Though I’d not used them before, their silver-sheen bodies, sleek shape and forked tail suggested that from a culinary perspective they’d be a lot like herring, and I knew just what to do with them. The entire kitchen staff joined in filleting these half-bird, half-fish. We rolled them up like rollmops, marinated them in olive oil, lemon zest and tarragon, and threaded them onto skewers made of rosemary stalks. They were wood-grilled over a smoldering fire of orchard woods spiked with the spice of oak. Two skewers were placed over a bed of summer squash and zucchini braised in a Vidalia onion and juniper broth.
I told my service staff exactly what had happened and watched as they giddily sold every table the story. Shortly after 7pm, flying fish were sold out.
More recently, I was working with a hospital in Boston to help its food service department—which serves patients, visitors and staff—better achieve its corporate sustainability goals. On the menu was cod, and the standards stipulated that it had to be Marine Stewardship Council–certified, which is only available from the North Sea. While this is a very good-quality and responsible product, the fish languished on the steam table and guests had no reason to look twice.
The most unsustainable fish is the one that gets thrown away, uneaten. We looked for the opportunities to bolster the fish’s presence on the menu and realized that a locally caught seafood with a story fit the bill. My friends at seafood wholesaler Red’s Best were eager to get business from this hospital and other institutional food service providers in the area. But the local, MSC-certified dogfish they were trying to sell—which was better quality and a fraction of the cost of North Sea cod—didn’t fit into the systems of the kitchen.
I realized the recipe was standing in the way. When the chefs opened their book and read “cod baked in spiced tomato sauce,” the recipe excluded any opportunity to ask their purveyor what other fish were available. So we changed the recipe to reflect the qualities—flaky white fish—rather than dictate the species. From that point on, any locally caught, flaky, white-fleshed fish went on the menu as “catch-of-the-day baked in spiced tomato sauce.”
The quality of product rose, costs fell, sales jumped, profits soared. The kitchen staff was engaged and excited, and as a team they spent a day off touring Gloucester to meet fishermen and see where their fish was coming from. They were no longer just offering sustainable seafood; they were sustaining local fishermen.
When we go to the farmers market, we expect tomatoes in August, rutabagas in February and we don’t demand either in the opposite season. And yet, when we cook fish, we rarely allow producers the same flexibility. When we understand our role in the fisheries economy, we can empower sustainable systems. And when we measure sustainability not simply by biological metrics of the catch, but by biographical measure of the producers, we begin to restore the pride, prudence, profit and permanence of our heritage.
What’s at stake isn’t just fish. As John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, says, “I believe that a strong fishing industry is important to the Cape economy and character. If we become just a T-shirt tourist stop, you will see a decline in character and a profound loss of identity.”
To paraphrase one of our most renowned New Englanders (who spent much of his life on Cape Cod and left his mark there), don’t tell your fishermen what they can do for you, ask what you can do for them. When we make a simple shift in our shopping behaviors, we set into motion an inherently more sustainable fishing economy founded on an inherently more sustainable relationship with our oceans. When we seek the goal of reviving the fisheries that have long sustained us, we draft a narrative of ourselves as sustainers and we measure our success by the endurance of thriving fishing communities.
Click image to download a purchasing guide to buying seafood sustainably.