Sustainable Seafood

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a concept and a goal of fisheries managers. Sustainability is the maintenance of a level of a stock of fish that allows perpetual harvest. The species maintains adequate numbers of adults to reproduce, and the young are able to grow into harvestable size and abundance. Thereby, the species maintains its ecological role. Before we get into that discussion, I should define who the regulatory players are..

The harvest of wild stocks of fish from the ocean or from tidewater is managed by either the individual states, an interstate compact of several states, or the federal government. The interstate compacts include the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, or the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

These commissions cooperatively manage the migratory fish shared by the states in their waters up to three miles offshore. The ASMFC is the only interstate compact with regulatory authority via the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. Once the states agree to a management plan, the Secretary of Commerce has the authority to close any state that violates the FMP.

Beyond three miles, the federal entity that oversees harvest of any fish species in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ, 3-200 miles) is the Regional Fisheries Management Councils under the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). They work in conjunction with the Commissions and the states to develop management plans and provide guidelines to harvest a particular species. There is federal authority to force a state that is not in compliance with an agreed upon plan into compliance. The governing body on the state level in Maryland is the Md Dept of Natural Resources. In Virginia, it is called the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).

In our discussion of sustainability, I will need to define a few terms:

  • Resource — each fish species is viewed as a single renewable resource.
  • Biomass — the total population of a species.
  • User groups — competing interests utilizing a fish species for different reasons.
  • Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) — maximum harvest that still allows a species to replenish itself.
  • Total allowable catch (TAC) — the annual recommended catch for a species.
  • Mortality — removal of fish from a population by fishing or natural causes.
  • Harvest gear — method by which the fish species are caught.
  • By-catch — the harvest of fish or shellfish other than the species for which the fishing gear was set.
  • Quota — the maximum amount of fish that can be legally harvested in a given time period.
  • Overfishing — removing more fish from a population than a population can sustain over time.
  • Overfished — not having enough spawning stock to reliably sustain a population.

 

These last 2 definition deserve further elaboration, as they are the most common concepts used in any discussion of sustainability. Overfishing is a rate, not a condition; whereas overfished is a condition, not a rate. Think of it like your bank account: overfishing is your withdrawals – remove too much too fast and your balance will disappear. Overfished is analogous to the balance in your account – if there are enough funds present and you remove annually less than the accumulated interest, you can withdraw from that account forever.

The basic model in modern day fisheries management is to have a target population for a particular species. Then, allow only enough harvest by all user groups (TAC), such that the population can replenish itself each year. Biologists assess the biomass (population) of a particular species, and determine how many pounds of fish/crabs can come out of the water. The poundage is divided between the various user groups (recreational & commercial). The commercial quota poundage is then divided again amongst the various harvest gear types (gill net, pound net, haul seine etc). For migratory species, the quota may be split between states. This is a simplistic model, but in general it holds true for most species. If a population of a particular species is below their target population, then the managers requires cuts in harvest (reduce mortality)(cut poundage quota, close season, raise minimum size) and allow the population to rebuild.

These last two definitions deserve further elaboration, as they are the most common concepts used in any discussion of sustainability.

Overfishing is a rate, not a condition; overfished is a condition, not a rate. Think of it like your bank account: overfishing is your withdrawals—remove too much too fast and your balance will disappear. Overfished is analogous to the balance in your account—if there are enough funds present and you remove annually less than the accumulated interest, you can withdraw from that account forever.

The basic model in modern day fisheries management is to have a target population for a particular species. Then, allow only enough harvest by all user groups (TAC), such that the population can replenish itself each year. Biologists assess the biomass (population) of a particular species, and determine how many pounds of fish/crabs can come out of the water. The poundage is divided between the various user groups (recreational & commercial). The commercial quota poundage is then divided again amongst the various harvest gear types (gill net, pound net, haul seine, etc).

For migratory species, the quota may be split between states. This is a simplistic model, but in general it holds true for most species. If a population of a particular species is below their target population, then the managers require cuts in harvest (reduce mortality, cut poundage quota, close season, raise minimum size) and allow the population to rebuild.

In my opinion, a truly sustainable species is one that is at or moving towards its target biomass. It is not currently being over fished, and it is well managed (has a governing body that oversees the fishery). There are many species that fit this definition. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Wild striped bass (rockfish) — Morone saxitilis
  • North Atlantic swordfish — Xiphias gladius
  • Summer flounder or fluke — Paralichtys dentatus
  • Domestic squid — Loligo pealeii
  • Alaskan pollock — Theragra chalcogramma
  • Genuine American Red Snapper — Lutjanus campechanus
  • Maine lobster — Homerus americanus
  • Alaskan halibut — Hippoglossus stenolepis
  • Atlantic Yellowfin tuna — Thunnus albacares
  • Altlantic sea scallop — Placopecten magellanicus
  • Pacific sardines — Sardinops sagax caerulea

 

Over the last decade, many chefs across the country have become involved in promoting the consumption of only “sustainable” species. We in the seafood industry welcome this support. We believe that responsible chefs can help shape public opinion and create demand for some species where there wasn’t any before. Selling under-utilized species can help transfer demand from over-utilized species.

The invasive Chesapeake Wild Blue Catfish is an excellent example of chefs creating a market for a fish where there wasn’t a market before. Chesapeake Bay aquacultured oysters rapidly gained in popularity from the support of the local chef community. Both examples create hundreds of jobs in remote communities around the Bay and are good for the environment.

These same chefs can also have a tremendous negative effect on the demand for certain species not deemed sustainable. Many of us remember the swordfish boycott of the late 90s. What many people don’t know today is that the North Atlantic swordfish is a real success story of fisheries management.

In 1998, the NMFS closed over a million square miles of ocean to commercial swordfishing (an area known as the Charleston Bump). This allowed the juvenile swordfish population to explode (big increase in recruitment). It took only eight years for the adult swordfish population to recover fully and it now stands at 110% of the target biomass. We need to promote the success stories as vigorously as the horror stories everyone reads about.

MontBayNOAA

Information on sustainable species can come from a variety of outlets. The most popular source for chefs is the Monterey Bay Aquarium List. This list is a good starting point but shouldn’t be viewed as the final word. Another excellent source of information on many fish species is the NOAA Fish Watch website. This site outlines the sustainability status, life cycle, and harvest of many domestic fish species. At Congressional Seafood, we can help you in your search for information about a particular species. Please contact your sales rep today.

All fish populations will fluctuate over time and nothing guarantees their sustainability. We can only hope that through responsible fishery management practices we can handle the lows and have healthy fish populations for generations to come.

Congressional Seafood Co. by Congressional Seafood Co.