Monday, March 28, 2011

CAFC Meet and Greet and Sustainability

It was great to see folks come out for the CAFC Meet and Greet at the MIT last Thursday. The folks I was able to talk to had some very interesting questions and observations of the program. It seemed pretty consistent that everyone loved the seafood.

There were several god questions raised about sustainability, and I've had a few emails about that as well. Seafood sustainability, in my view, is not a black and white issue for the very simple reason that we do not and cannot control all the variables that determine if our harvest of a given species will result in the long term decline or health of that species.

For wild seafood in particular, we are dealing with some many unknowns that scientific population plotting has been spotty at best. That is not to say that the science of fishing is not improving and that it is not a valuable part of the sustainability debate. Rather, ocean currents, global warming, eco-system imbalances, ocean acidification and hosts of other complex issues intertwine making it hard to predict seafood abundance. It is a bit like predicting the weather.

A good recent example of this is that National Marine Fisheries scientists said that pollack abundance was low last year. Well it turns out they were wrong. 600% wrong.

So, before we talk about sustainability, I hope we can agree that we are talking about a moving target. In many ways I find it more useful to ask if we are moving towards sustainability or away from it. In the coming weeks, I'll talk about how and why we feel that CAFC (and other CSFs) is moving the catching of seafood toward greater sustainability.

Feel free to chime in in the comments and air out your thoughts/concerns about sustainability. Next week I'll tackle the issue of sustainability in terms of the seafood cards that treat seafood like a traffic light.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Is "Rationalizing" rational?...and Blackback Flounder talk...

Imagine for a minute that on St Patty’s Day a Leprechaun came up to you and offered you this choice: You can have a job which pays you a decent if unspectacular wage, but that job is among the most dangerous in the country, will require constant hard work and is among the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Or you can make 75% of the wage of the previous job but you don’t have to do anything, you are free to take up other jobs and there is little to no risk you will ever lose the job.

Most sane folks would choose the second job. The first job is of course being a commercial fisherman. The second job is also being a commercial fisherman – except you don’t fish. It may seem absurd but that is quite literally the choice regulators have crafted – intentionally or unintentionally – under the sector management system.

Under sectors, permit holders are allocated quota – whether they fish or not – which they can then lease to other fishermen. So in effect fishermen are being given life annuities when they are allocated quota.

The surprising thing is that most of the fishermen who have been given this choice have chosen to continue fishing. It is not surprising since most of them have been through the lean years and have stuck with it despite years of increasing regulations, onerous enforcement, not to mention lean fishing.

The fact remains however that in every single fishery that has been "rationalized" there ha been considerable consolidation. (I have no idea how the word "rationalized" applies here, but it is the common lingo for a fishery that is converted to an individual quota system with a fixed catch - e.g. you catch the fish you are allocated then you are shut down for the year. Rational?) Consolidation in other fisheries has followed the same path with an accumulation of permits and leased allocations among a few large players who can reap profits from economies of scale.

Economically, it all seems to make sense - until you see the loss of jobs, loss of communities, impact to the environment that goes along with "rationalization". As fisherman Mike Love of Portland, ME testified last week at the groundfish subcommittee hearing of the NEFMC, "Once the fleet is consolidated, there wont be any more fishermen at these meetings, you'll have lobbyists."


I'd also like to share some food talk/seafood love in this space. Last week I received Blackback Flounder, also known as Winter Flounder in my share. The fish was so fresh it was still in rigor mortise, which usually means it is less than 24 hours dead, usually quite a bit less than that. The fish smelled very clean with the scent of the ocean and no "fishiness" whatsoever.

I mentioned this to Steve T at CAFC and he told me that one of the flounder from that batch started flopping around when they went to bag it at Turner's so they threw it into the lobster tank. I guess that didn't last too long or well for the flounder, but it attests to the freshness of the fish we get.

My first standby recipe for thin fillets is usually just to saute the fillets in browned butter, a la Sole Meunier. I find this works great on our local Sole (aka Witch Flounder) as well as Yellowtail Flounder (which are my favorite CAFC seafood.) I served the flounder over a bed of Kale sauteed with garlic, onions and olive oil with some flavored salt
someone brought back from France for me, which says something like "Vianses Poissons" which according to my high school French means "Meat Fish". Its an amazing salt blend that makes any seafood sparkle.

I've never been a huge fan of Blackbacks for two reasons. One is that they sometimes taste dirty or muddy, especially in the spring. The other is that they can sometimes have a mushy texture. In the case of the browned butter the fillets were tasty, but the texture was not great.

So for my second attempt I made Baked Flounder with Tomato Caper Sauce. Its not unlike the recipe that was sent out in the reminder email. It came out great and is super easy to do. I skipped the anise/fennel because you either like fennel or you hate it. I hate it. I also laid the fillets flat so they would cook more quickly.

They cool thing about this recipe is that the texture problem was solved. The flounder blended so well with the tomato and the bread crumbs gave it just a touch of crunch. Sorry forgot to take pics as I was starving.

What have you been doing with your fish? Take some pics and we'll post your recipe/story/adventure.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 14, 2011

The more things change...

There is a decent chance that some things will change in the coming year for fisheries management. At the very least we know that there will be some turnover in the NEFMC (New England Fisheries Mnagement Council) as several positions on the council including Chairman John Popallardo's hit their term limits. We also know that the lawsuit filed by the citites of Gloucester and New Bedford and joined by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts against the federal government and the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association will be heard this week.

Both of these things could shake up the current state of management...or they could just be more of the same.

Commercial fishing is one of the most heavily regulated industries in America. And, in my opinion one of the best examples of bad management leading to bad outcomes. One can make the case that the overfishing that is the crux of the problem for fishers and regulators is the direct result of management decisions to encourage fishing after the introduction of the EEZ. Low cost loans were given to fishermen to encourage them to replace the international factory boat fleet that was decimating our local waters. So they bought bigger better boats and caught all the fish.

Are we bound for a repeat? Current regulations have created an essentially unregulated commodities market for fish quota. In effect, an investor could come in and buy up all of the rights to fish. In fact this may be happening already. Since there is no regulation, it is impossible to know. Its a bit ironic given that fishermen face a web of regulations on a day to day basis in order to go fishing. Here is one firsthand account of what fishermen face. (There is some spicy language in that blog, so fair warning.)

There is an alternative, and there is a growing chorus from fishermen up and down the coast that the fundamental composition of the fleet is at stake. I've heard from fishermen from Maine to New York who were given such low allocations of fish that they cannot make a living. Leasing quota is possible, but also means that you make very little to no money.

For example, the current price for Cod quota is around $1.50 per pound. The ex-vessel prices for cod (the price fishermen get at the dock for their catch) varies between $2-$3. So fishermen who lease quota receive roughly half of what they do if they fish un-leased quota.

Meanwhile, the lessor of quota gets $1.50 a pound to do nothing, and benefits from a quota constrained market that has kept fish and quota prices high. The only vessels that can actually make money on leased quota are the larger vessels as their leasing costs are a smaller portion of their overall costs. In effect, yet another perverse regulatory incentive that favors the large vessels and the well capitalized at the expense of the smaller vessels.

There is a place for large vessels, but there should also be a place for the smaller vessels as well. Are we seeing the last of the dayboat fleet? Could be...unless something changes...

Monday, March 7, 2011

A new season dawns...

Welcome to yet another season of Cape Ann Fresh Catch. Part of our mission at Cape Ann Fresh Catch is to make sure that you are not only getting the freshest possible sustainable seafood, but also that we try to help explain some of the complex issues that make seafood, sustainability etc., such difficult topics.

This year has been a challenging one for fishermen in many ways. An entirely new system of rules was put in place last May called "catch shares". The system has, as expected, resulted in consolidation among the fleet. The unfortunate part of consolidation is that it is tending to favor the larger boats at the expense of the smaller day boats and the community based fishermen. In other words, the big boats are buying up all the quota and the little guys are still struggling. All this despite news that most of the stocks of groundfish are rebuilt.

Once again this May quota's will be given out, and fishermen will begin a new "fishing year." As if fishing were not hard enough, many fishermen are nearly out of quota, while it seems that others are holding on to quota to get a better price at the end of the fishing year. This has led to variability in landings, which some days very nearly no fish is landed in Gloucester.

So, it will be an interesting year as fishermen anticipate new higher quotas. Meanwhile, we'll be doing our best to continue to bring you the freshest seafood anywhere!

If you've been following this blog and are interested in more about some new thinking in fish science, there is a great interview with Ted Ames of the Penobscot East Resource Center about the connection between alewife runs in Maine rivers and the lack of ground fish in coastal Maine.