National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Trust Me, I’m a Local Fisherman

Maine fishermen haul in a catch of herring. (Photo by B. Anthony Stewart)

The race for the moral high ground in sustainable fishing is heating up here in the US. Things started getting hot back in April when supermarket chain Whole Foods announced it would stop selling seafood not certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council or red-listed by either the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program or the Blue Ocean Institute. The response has been pretty strong from many local food and fishing community advocates.  A recent article “Beyond Red Lists: the power of community supported fisheries,” in the online environment magazine Grist lays out the argument for ditching your sustainable seafood guide and buying your fish from a local fisherman. Wired Magazine’s Geekmom recently blogged about “The Ins and Outs of Community Supported Fisheries” (CSFs). CSFs build on the conventional wisdom underpinning the local food movement, that locally produced food is better for the environment, supports local jobs and offers a fairer price to local food producers. The hip CSF trend has been growing rapidly, with more than 20 CSFs established in the US since 2006.

But is locally caught fish inherently sustainable? NOAA says that CSFs can promote less intensive fishing practices by helping fishermen shift their operations away from the traditional business model of catching high volume to make ends meet. This could reduce pressure on fish stocks as fishermen focus on delivering smaller quantities of high quality seafood on a weekly basis over the course of the season. CSF subscribers pay up front for their fish, which can encourage some fishermen to limit their fishing effort because they can earn more by controlling their costs.

But what if the fishery is already overfished? What if there is poor management and too many fishermen out there putting too much pressure on the resource?  How is a well-intentioned “locavore” supposed to know? Should she just trust the local fisherman?

Ultimately, if you care about a healthy ocean then the seafood you consume has to come from a well-managed fishery regardless of how big the boat is or how the fish made its way to market.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of supporting local and sustainable fishermen but the problem is the vast majority of Americans don’t have a goat farm down the road producing artisan cheese (and if they did, maybe they couldn’t afford it), and not everyone can go down to the harbor for their weekly allotment of black cod, pacific halibut, or fresh oysters.  The less fortunate of us still go to the supermarket for our seafood, which means that seafood cards and certification, imperfect though they may be, still play an important role in helping the average consumer.

Miguel Jorge is the Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative and a member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) Board of Directors.

Comments

  1. [...] as you’ve undoubtedly read here, here, and last week in the New York Times, across the nation Community Supported Fisheries (or community [...]

  2. Mike DeCesare
    Seattle, Washington
    July 18, 2012, 12:44 pm

    Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries are well-managed and sustainable and independent studies confirm the MSC is the most rigorous, scientific, credible program in the world. The MSC standard is consistent with best practice and specifically excludes fisheries that are overfished. MSC certified fisheries are maintained at high levels of productivity and any assertion that many MSC stocks are overfished is false.

    The MSC’s mission is to use its certification and ecolabel program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis. We work collaboratively with the fishing industry, seafood business sector, governments, scientific community, environmental groups and others to give retailers, restaurants and consumers an opportunity to choose and reward sustainable fishing through their seafood purchasing choices.

    Learn more about the MSC and how you can help recognize and reward sustainable fishing at http://www.msc.org. Thank you.

  3. Paolo Bray
    Italy
    July 16, 2012, 5:38 am

    The problem is that the Marine Stewardship Council has certified seafood from fisheries which are overexploited, bottom trawled with high impact on seabed and bycatching endangered sharks and rays. This is true of the hake in South Africa, nephrops in the North Sea and hoki in New Zealand. Seafood Guides also are very vague in their assessments and often provide misleading information. We suggest buyers to go for Friend of the Sea certification, which is independent from the whitefish bottom trawl industry and is not generalistic, auditing each single fisheries or aquaculture producer. http://www.friendofthesea.org

  4. Twilight Greenaway
    Oakland, CA
    July 13, 2012, 2:13 pm

    For what’s worth, my article on Grist did not actually argue that folks should “ditch their sustainable seafood guide and buy your fish from a local fisherman.” As a matter of fact, both are important. Proponents of CSFs simply believe that “sustainable seafood” is meaningless if it doesn’t take into account the sustainability of f the local economy.

    The last 2 paragraphs of said story read:

    …if you are intimately familiar with the fish in your region — and know what’s plentiful and local, and how the fisherman catches it, you may not need to spend a lot of time consulting a list run by a big, national organization.

    “Not that if your local fisherman says ‘eat this, who cares about whether it’s red, yellow, or green,’ that’s the way to go,” says Tolley. “What we’re saying is: Learn about who your local fishermen are, when they go, where they catch it, what is seasonal. At the end of the day if you’re not hearing what you like, then don’t buy it. But that relationship helps paint a much larger picture of the sustainability pie than any national list would.”