By Rick Moonen, chef and owner of rm seafood in Las Vegas
What do Mario Batali, Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless, Eric Ripert, Susan Feniger, Charlie Palmer and I all agree on? That a fishery management tool called catch shares helps chefs live up to their promise to serve American seafood that is both sustainable and the highest quality.
I asked more than two dozen conservation-minded chefs to sign a letter asking Congress to fund catch share programs and oppose efforts to block them. I traveled to Washington, D.C. to hand deliver that letter, and was joined by other chefs, as well as nearly 100 fishermen from around the U.S.
Even though life might be simpler if I just focused on cooking and running a restaurant, I just can’t in good conscience ignore the serious threats to our oceans and the fish in them. For fifteen years I have advocated for sustainability and I would never serve a type of fish that is headed towards extinction.
The beauty about catch shares is that they give fishermen incentives to be just as passionate about conservation as I am. Fishermen are allowed to catch a percentage of the total amount of fish that scientist’s figure out can be caught without threatening the species. When the overfishing ends, the amount that can be caught increases, as does the fishermen’s piece of the pie so they have a stake in what happens. By being strong stewards of the ocean they are investing in the future of their business.
Combatting “Fishing Frenzy”
With so much seafood being imported these days, supporting U.S. fishermen who are committed to sustainable fishing is more important than ever. But the way fisheries are traditionally managed can make it really hard for chefs to rely on getting the American fish we want year-round. That’s because fishermen are regularly told they can only catch fish during very short seasons. Another problem I see is that regulators sometimes let fishermen catch as much as they can and then immediately pull the plug on fishing when they realize too much has been caught.
All of this creates a fishing frenzy instead of a more sane and predictable system with catch shares. I need to know that I can put something on my menu without worrying whether I’ll have it the next week or not. Traditional management can provide a real disincentive for chefs to serve species caught under that system, which is a shame for our customers and the American fishermen who need to make a living. I support and serve many types of fish caught in catch share programs at my restaurant rm seafood in Las Vegas, such as black cod, halibut and crab from Alaska, red snapper and grouper from the Gulf, Striped Bass from Virginia, Ocean Quahogs (the secret to my chowder) and sea scallops from the Northeast.
Even if you can get the fish when you want it that is caught in traditional fisheries, the quality sometimes suffers when it’s caught in a derby style race on the water. That may work for a fish stick, but not for top notch food. Many chefs like me are very picky about what they serve. The same exact fish will be entirely different on your plate if the fishermen don’t have the time to handle it right by putting it on ice quickly, and being careful with the fish on deck. Take halibut in Alaska for example. It’s now a much better product under a catch share that is served fresh in world-class restaurants when it used to be mostly frozen.
Catch Shares That Work
Not too long ago I visited the Gulf of Mexico and learned a lot about the red snapper and grouper that is being caught in a catch share program there that local fishermen voted to start. In 1997, there were 96% less red snapper in the water than there had been. Fishermen kept going way over the fishing limits that were set (which often happens under traditional management) and at one point they were given just 52 days a year to catch the fish. Since the switch, the commercial overfishing has ended, there are a lot more red snapper in the ocean to catch and I can get it all year so it’s often on my menu.
The fishermen there even take it a step further: they have labeling program called Gulf Wild. Consumers know these fish are caught sustainably because they are in a catch share and they also voluntarily test for contaminants. People can even learn about where exactly the fish was caught and who the fishermen is, something many of my clients love to find out. How awesome is that?
On a very serious note, fishing is the deadliest job in America and I don’t like that short seasons compel fishermen to either go out in very bad weather. Of course fishing is going to be a lot more dangerous than cooking no matter what type of rules there are. But there’s no reason to make it any worse than it has to be…No fisherman=No Fish…pretty simple. For instance, the job the crabbers on the Deadliest Catch TV show used to be much more deadly before catch shares. The season length was once as short as three days and too many crabbers were dying. One crabber has perished at sea since the switch to catch shares and that is one too many but there could have been more if things didn’t change.
Another benefit of catch shares is that it stops the hideous requirement that fishermen dump overboard – often dead – the fish they didn’t intend to catch because that season was shut down. I personally want to see every fish caught wind up on a plate.
While we often hear about gloom and doom when it comes to the health of many of the world’s fish species, I’m glad there’s a workable solution that is catching on more and more in America.