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Sustainable Seafood

The Difference Between Market-Driven and Sustainable Seafood

By RP Siegel

Because of the state of the fishing industry today, small fishermen find themselves squeezed between massive international fleets and heavily depleted stocks. In their fight for survival, many are finding themselves becoming both educators and advocates along the way. In grappling with these forces and trying to find a way to keep afloat, they may have just hit on a key principle that lies at the heart of the sustainability journey.

I spoke with two fishermen on the New England coast (on different days), who both wear multiple hats.

Chris Brown is both the owner of the Brown Family Seafood Co. in Rhode Island and also the president of the newly formed Seafood Harvesters of America (SHA), a group that, among other things, is focused on lobbying Capitol Hill, to ensure that the concerns of commercial fishermen are represented in the re-authorization of the Magnuson Stevenson Act (MSA).

Josh Wiersma is the Manager of Northeast Fisheries Groundfish Sectors XI and XII in New Hampshire. He is responsible for the implementation of the sector management system established in 2010. Josh is also the founder of New Hampshire Community Seafood, a community supported fishery (CSF).

Triple Pundit: Josh, can you give me some background on where the New England fisheries are today and how we got there?

Josh Wiersma: The Grand Banks were once so abundant with cod that they were key to the early development of our country, particularly in New England. By the 1960s, massive trawlers came in and depleted the stocks, much of which was shipped overseas. The government encouraged this trend because of the huge fortunes that were being made and the belief at that time that fish stocks were inexhaustible. By the 1970s, catches had plummeted, and the science began to catch up with reality. This led to the passage Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976.

The original law gave the U.S. territorial control over its waters. It was amended with the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, and then, 10 years later the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006. The amendments have attempted to reconcile the science with the economics.  The law established eight regional councils to manage the fisheries and a fish management plan for every fish that was deemed overfished. This established science-based catch limits that were enforced down to the level of individual boats. Scientific advisors would annually determine the acceptable biological catch (ABC).

3p: That seems like a good thing, was it?

JW: Well, the intentions were good, but the trip limits led to hugely wasteful regulatory discards because it was difficult to control how many fish a given haul would bring in.

3p: So if you caught too much, you had to throw the excess back, most of which was already dead. Is that what you mean by regulatory discards?

JW: Right. So that led to the implementation of the sector management system. Sector groups were developed, which were really harvest cooperatives, and the limits were then allocated by sector rather than by individual boats. My primary job as manager of the New Hampshire groundfish sectors, which includes 36 fishermen, is to oversee this. If you pool everyone’s quota together, we collectively have about half a million pounds of cod and a million pounds of Pollack we can legally catch. These rights can also be traded or sold between sectors. The price fluctuates and it reflects what is happening in the ecosystem. If the stock is becoming depleted, the “shadow value” is going to increase. So the system incentivizes sustainable fishing.

3p: Sounds like cap and trade.

JW:  Exactly. It is a cap and trade program for fish.

3p: So that must be an improvement.

JW: It is, at least in some ways. The problem is: It’s going to benefit those who are the biggest, the most efficient and the most mobile. They are going to be the ones who will obtain the most fishing rights. The small day boat fishermen are now at a disadvantage. Now the next amendment to MSA will attempt to address this question of fleet diversity to protect small boat fishing communities.

[Speaking of small boat fishing, this would be a good time to bring Chris into the conversation.]

3p: Chris, can you tell me how you’re approaching this in Rhode Island?

Chris Brown: We’re trying to create a stark contrast between American product that is harvested ethically, morally and legally and in conjunction with a conservation effort and that of imported fish. When you import a fish, you are also importing the ethics and practices that accompany that fish. Traceability is now available to the personal consumer.

3p: Can you walk me through how that works? Obviously the fish aren’t born with bar codes on their tails.

CB: We have a specific quota that we’re allowed for the year on certain species We’ll go out and catch those fish and land them, and weigh them at a federally permitted dealer. Then we load the data from the Federal Vessel Trip Report into the ThisFish website.

3p: I see. It shows the name of the fisherman who caught it, where it was caught, and perhaps most important, when. Very cool. Now you get a story along with your fish. So tell me how the game has changed for you. I see that you’ve developed new nets. Can you tell us a little about that?

CB: It used to be that we would try and catch everything at the same time, because economically, that can be more rewarding. Though it’s not as precise and quite often you have bycatch, so it’s not as efficient. Now the incentive is to try and catch things one at a time. So you have to be smarter.

The new nets we’ve developed take advantage of the behavior of particular fish. Some fish swim down when trying to escape, others tend to go up. Once you know that, you can design a net that appeals to the escape mechanism of the fish you don’t want to catch. So if you’re fishing for small mesh species like squid or whiting, you don’t want flounder mixed in with them. So you put an opening in the bottom, knowing that the flounder will swim down and escape through the opening, which reduces bycatch.

3p: Josh, can you talk about how the game has changed from your perspective?

JW: What we’ve chosen to do here in New Hampshire, to help keep our small fishing community vibrant, was to start a CSF. What this does for us is allow us to get the same price for various species whether it’s cod or traditionally lower value species like king whiting or cape shark. That’s important because if we have to compete with the big boats for the fishing rights to catch cod, we’d go out of business. But we can carve out a niche, and make a living fishing underutilized species as a fresh fish product that consumers can buy within 24 hours of offload. This model has not been around for a long time, so we’re trying to educate the public about our story. We have 15 fishermen serving our CSF and they comprise 'the rest of the fishermen in NH.'

3p: So, we’re looking at two different philosophies here. One is very targeted, market-driven, which involves going after the species that bring the highest price at auction. That favors the big operators with their big boats and huge nets. The other is more eco-system based in that it follows the contours of what is available. The CSF model supports that approach since the subscribers commit to buying whatever fish the boats bring in.

CB: Years ago we harvested that way. I referred to it as harvesting a swath of biomass. You cut a sample of the ocean and harvested it all. Then you would sell what fish you could for good fish, and the rest went to fish meal for fertilizer. We removed so many fish from the ocean using that approach, it was amazing how resilient the ocean was. We know now that biodiversity is the key to systemic productivity. When everything is in balance, the ocean can crank out some amazing numbers.

3p: So when we talk about overfishing, it’s really not just about the numbers it’s also about the way the balance has been disturbed by targeting specific species.

CB: That’s right, it disrupts the food web. Single species management is the road we have traveled for 30 years now as a nation. Fisheries science has only been around that long, and we’re still learning. Now we understand that you can’t just worry about one thing. It’s systemic productivity that you have to focus on.

3p: So which approach is more sustainable?

JW: The fish being sold at auction can be considered as sustainable as fish selling through the CSF under current definitions. That is because New England boats are all subject to a very strict set of rules that govern their fishing activity.  Because we now all fish under a hard catch limit set by the best available science, we are considered sustainable if we manage to stay under these catch limits. But, sustaining the ecosystem as a diverse complex of healthy stocks is another type of sustainability called "ecosystem based management." Our current definition of sustainability in fisheries science and management does not address ecosystem based management.  It focuses on single stocks at a time and doesn't consider the interactions between stocks; predator prey relationships; or the bio-economic effects of fishing behavior (e.g. changing gear to target more underutilized stocks).

3p: So a key difference between selling fish through the CSF versus selling it through the global auction, is that one will be priced based on its perceived desirability, while the other is priced based on its abundance. In other words, one is responding to a market signal while the other is based on an ecosystem signal. Can you give me an example of how this comes into play?

JW: Yes, dogfish (also known as cape shark) is a fish we don’t eat a lot of here, but it is a staple for fish and chips in England. Last summer the EU decided to ban all imports of shark, because of the high concentrations of PCBs -- even though the shark caught here, unlike those caught in Europe, meet the requirements. That completely shut off our market.

The problem with this is that our fishermen need to be able to catch and land cape shark in order to be able to fish for ground fish. Because if they don’t, since this fish is an apex predator ... it will eat all of the ground fish and destroy their nests. But no one wants to go out and fill their nets with thousands of pounds of dogfish and not be able to sell it at the end of the day. Now we are trying to develop a local market for these fish. These are really good fish, though they need to be caught and preserved correctly.

CB: I can see the industry becoming driven by the science, which will really be focused on managing the ecosystem. We’ll need to become far more flexible to take advantage of these sine waves of abundance, as they roll across the screen, fishing the tops off of them, trying to keep things in balance.

3p: So the game changes from one where we’re focusing exclusively on a market signal, regardless of what the ecosystem is saying, to incorporating that ecosystem signal, and perhaps being more responsive to that.

CB: The ocean will tell you what is available. You have to be flexible. You have to be adaptive. What do you want to do? Do you want to try to manage and make a living in the ocean that does not exist—the one that you’re dreaming about? Or do you want to work with the one that’s before you? I’m thinking that you might as well work with the ocean that’s in front of you. If we try to encourage a healthier balance of stocks, it can heal itself.

3p: That’s a great point to close on. It seems that your job (and my job) is to educate people so that they understand that we don’t get our food, or anything we use for that matter, from some make-believe world that exists on some analyst’s spreadsheet, but from a real world that is alive like we are. That is the real message of sustainability.


I think it’s a little bit like the difference between “True North” and magnetic North. We like to use “True North,” or geographic North on all our maps because it aligns so well with our theoretical constructs. But in reality, the magnetic pole running through the center of the Earth deviates from this by several degrees and like many other natural systems on our planet, it is constantly moving and always in flux. That is why a sailor strictly following geographic North will eventually become lost.

That might be a perfect analog for our situation today; having forsaken ecologic North for economic North, we too have become lost. We need to go back to using the actual planet as our True North if we hope to sustain ourselves for generations to come.

Image credit: Flickr/marada

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


Read more stories by RP Siegel