When it comes to seafood, it can be hard to make an informed decision for the conscious buyer. Many New Englanders want to enjoy the local seafood catch that the region has enjoyed for generations. There are many choices on the market, but one should consider the state of the fishery before making a purchase. While it may seem responsible to buy local, it is not always the case with seafood.
A brief history is needed in order to understand your choices. Fishing for groundfish such as cod and haddock has been going on in the North Atlantic Ocean for centuries. When the Colonies of the Americas were founded they knew that they had an excellent resource for fish in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and the Grand Banks. The fish were so abundant that they viewed the resource as unending. Using colonial techniques, this may have been true. As boat and fishing technology advanced, fishermen were able to land more fish in a trip, and make more frequent trips.
Many fishermen believe that as long as they are catching fish, then there must be a population that can reproduce. Fishermen can be insulted when a scientist tells them that the fish population has severely declined because that fishermen knows exactly where to go to find a school of these fish to fill his boat, and make money to feed his family. These fisherman have been able to influence regulators of the fisheries to keep fisheries open with the help of economic arguments. For instance, the cod fishery was completely closed when fisheries managers determined that the population was almost completely depleted to avoid a crash of the waterfront economy.
Fish population decimation has had trickle down effects on other marine life communities. A very recognizable effect of this has been seen in lobsters, no longer hindered by predators like cod. The catch of lobsters has risen steadily over the past few decades. This has created what many people call a sustainable fishery. It may be possible to harvests millions of pounds of lobsters every year, but it is based on an marine ecosystem that has been altered by centuries of fishing.
The key to sustainable fisheries is proactive management. Look into the species you are interested in and research the management. Wild caught fisheries are still abundant resource, we just must be wise about which species to eat. As always, fresh fish is the best tasting, so find a market that has a good source for what you are interested in.
Unfortunately there is no easy answer to choosing a responsibly harvested fish. Be sure to ask your fishmonger what the source of his products are. Don’t assume that a species was locally harvested just because you are at a local fish market. Talk to fishermen and see what they are catching “too much” of. Get creative with whats available to help bring the balance of species back into balance. I will finish with a short list of tasty ocean creatures which are currently good choices for wild caught species in New England:
1. Lobster – currently abundant and locally caught
2. Dogfish “Cape Shark” – freshness is key with this small shark
3. Soft-shell Clams “steamers” – limited to hand harvest
Richard May has worked as a freshwater fisheries technician, managed shellfish harvests in Downeast Maine, and is currently working in stormwater management.