Caught in the Middle
Seafood startup hopes to forge a truce between Aquarium and local fishermen.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
In a nation where shrimp, salmon and tuna account for more than half the seafood eaten, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards encourage people to expand their palates to more sustainable choices. And in Monterey Bay, where imports dominate seafood markets despite several active harbors, the new Faces of California Fishing initiative works to connect consumers with local fishermen.
Yet the relationship between the two groups can be described as tense at best. Aquarium spokespeople have blamed the industry for crashing fish populations, while local fishermen say Seafood Watch and other conservation groups are driving them out of business.
Local Catch Monterey Bay, a community-supported fishery, hopes to find common waters. The startup, which debuted in January, allows people to buy shares of seafood in advance of the season, giving fishermen a better price for their catch while inspiring eco-friendly choices. “We’re trying to create a stronger relationship between the Aquarium’s activities and the local fishing community, because there’s a lot of tension there,” Local Catch co-founder Alan Lovewell says. “We really need to look at solutions that bring conservation and the industry together.”
Local Catch follows guidelines established by Seafood Watch, which sorts fish into green, yellow and red categories based on species abundance and harvesting practices. But Seafood Watch leaves out one factor that’s becoming central to the progressive food community: locality. And that’s turned into a long-standing grudge among some Monterey Bay fishermen.
Market squid and Pacific sardines, which make up the vast majority of local fish landings, score yellow and green, respectively, on the Seafood Watch list. But Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer says the list is unfair to local trawlers bringing in other species, like rockfish and petrale. “Fishery management has become so highly precautionary, the practices that caused legitimate concern about trawl-caught fish 15 years ago largely don’t exist now,” he says.
Kathy Fosmark, co-chair of the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fishing, says Seafood Watch doesn’t recognize the burden of regulations. “There’s a lot of questionable information that fishermen are opposed to,” she says. “People just see red light, green light. They don’t understand.”
She hopes the new online database at www.facesofcaliforniafishing.com, which lists local fishermen by species harvested, will inspire people to value red-listed domestic seafood over green-listed imports.
Tom Pickerell, senior science manager for Seafood Watch, says a life-cycle analysis that considers location would bog down the scoring process. But the Aquarium does consider fishery management; new criteria for 2012 could promote responsibly trawled fish into the yellow and green columns. “We need seafood to feed us,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is minimize adverse impacts.”
Local Catch is a hard sell for skeptics on both sides of the seafood divide. Fosmark says the startup sounds like a good idea, but she bristles at its exclusion of red-listed, trawl-caught rockfish. And while Aquarium staff have met with the Local Catch co-founders and applaud their efforts, they aren’t ready to collaborate.
Still, Lovewell hopes Local Catch can reconcile the livelihoods of local fishermen with the science of sustainable fisheries management. “We have to find reasons for both communities to sit at the table and find consensus,” he says. “If we can strategically strengthen our local fishing industry so that they’re doing the right thing, everyone should win.”