By John Pappalardo
Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the Pacific edge of the continent, has a program called “Seafood Watch.” They call themselves “a global leader in the sustainable seafood movement” and issue reports and recommendations about what fish people should or shouldn’t buy. They say they analyze things like impact on habitat and health of the species.
Here are some words I’d use to describe them:
Inaccurate. Irresponsible. Unaccountable. Arrogant. Damaging.
If not for the last word, the rest wouldn’t matter much and I wouldn’t bother bringing this up. But now Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch has announced that consumers should “avoid” much of the fish our hardworking fleet brings to market, as in “boycott.” That includes everything from lobsters to monkfish, sea bass and conch caught in pots to bluefish caught in nets, you name it.
To anyone who knows anything about the way fishermen around here work, this is outrageous. It was published without any real input from people who know what happens on the water, ignoring repeated efforts by reputable public officials like the state Division of Marine Fisheries to set them straight. Yet because of their veneer of environmental stewardship and responsibility, many people believe them. Many seafood wholesalers, retailers, and distributors pay attention to their advice.
The big trigger is the dire condition of the North Atlantic Right Whale. That crisis, says Seafood Watch, for example means that no one should buy lobsters, because lines from pots to buoys might entangle whales.
Sounds reasonable, right? And by the way, just the kind of righteous position that the compassionate public might embrace, and send checks to support, right?\
What it doesn’t acknowledge are the following truths:
As soon as right whales show up in our waters on their annual journey, huge areas of the ocean immediately close to lobstering. Those big swaths remain closed for weeks and months until the migration resumes and they leave. Every single lobsterman in this region knows this, and follows the rules.
Meanwhile, everyone also is incorporating new innovations like “breakaway” line, strong enough to allow pots to get pulled to the surface but weak enough so that lines part and fall away under a fraction of the kind of pressure a large animal exerts passing through.
This change hasn’t been cheap or easy but it works, and it’s only part of the effort that has gone into reducing the chance of harm, including dramatic reductions in the total number of lines in the water.
Our fishermen should be celebrated for their efforts, sacrifices and successes. Instead, Monterey is trying to exert economic pressure, a boycott, to in essence drive them out of business.
It doesn’t stop there. Sea bass and conch are caught in pots on the Nantucket Sound side of the Cape. They too are listed as stocks to boycott. Has anyone ever seen a right whale in the waters where these pots fish? The answer is no. There is no conflict, there are no entanglements.
How about bluefish? Fishermen target bluefish in shallow waters where whales don’t go. The best tactic is called “strike net,” meaning a group of fish is spotted, a net is dropped like a swooping circle around them, retrieved within minutes, and the fish are onboard — no habitat impact, no bycatch, no way a large mammal could be harmed. But this should be boycotted too, if you believe Monterey.
I could go on and on, but I won’t.
What I will say is that for many years, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance has lived and worked at the nexus where responsible, historic fishing communities meet those who want to protect and rebuild stocks and habitat. We have always searched for common ground and common good because we believe that is the future, and we try to help all sides come to that place too.
When Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch dismisses all that, ignores the real but complicated truths of the fishery, throws fishermen overboard with self-righteous and simplistic advice, that probably helps fundraising. But they make it much more difficult to do what we keep trying to do; get fishermen, scientists, environmental and animal rights advocates, regulatory officials all in the same boat, pulling in the same direction.
We’ll keep trying, and instead of their indiscriminate boycott we’ll offer alternative advice we know is right:
Buy local seafood.
John Pappalardo is CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance