Sunday, April 24, 2011

Variety and the seasonality of seafood

Seafood like most things we eat has seasons of abundance and scarcity. Most things in life in temperate climates grow in abundance over the course of the summer and use an abundance of stored energy to survive over the winter. Spring typically is not a great fishing season in New England. The fish are often "thin". Fish that migrate long distances such a Striped Bass often arrive with an elongated starving look. Also, many groundfish spawn in the spring. Those of you with whole fish shares have seen the glands and eggs in the flounders.

The weather in spring is also pretty miserable on the water, which means that many fishermen haul their boats for repairs and painting in the spring. And finally, fishing regulations discourage fishing in the typical "day boat" locations closer to shore. The fishing calender, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, begins on May 1. Under the new sector system, fishermen have to face the question of how and when to fish their quota. If they fish all of their quota, they are done for the year. So, many fishermen, knowing they will get a new allocation of quota in May have fished out their quota.

All of these factors mean that it can be hard to find fish in the spring as fewer boats go out and there are fewer fish to catch according to the seasons and the government. In a way, its a natural time in the eco-system for everyone to rest, recuperate, take care of business (spawning for fish, fixing vessels for fishermen) before the abundance of summer arrives.

Part of being part of a program like CAFC is to understand the fishermen and the seasonality of seafood. No one would expect a local farmer to have fresh corn in April. A few folks have asked CAFC when "non white fish" will be available. Mackeral and herring start to show up in our waters soon. Usually just behind the right whales. And the herring and the mackeral are the favorite prey of just about everything in the ocean humans like to eat.

One old salt told me once to look for the apple trees to bloom. "You wont catch a striper out there until the day the apple trees bloom." In my experience chasing fish around, I've found that to be some sage advice. As I write this, the forsythia are blooming, which means the fish are on their way, as are the new quota allocations and the warmer weather and greater diversity of seafood in our local corner of the planet's ocean.

Happy Earth Day!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Draggers are they sustainable?

Continuing from last week's series on the types of gear that local fishermen use to catch fish for CAFC, this week I will discuss draggers. Draggers are the predominate type of gear used to catch groundfish in New England. Draggers tow nets along the ocean floor (and sometimes in the mid-water column for fish such as herring). The nets are held open by metal 'doors' that help spread the mouth of the net open. A chain runs along the bottom often lined with 'scrubers' or 'rollers' which help the net to bounce over rocks and other impediments. The fish cannot outswim the net and are forced into it, ending up in the 'codend'.

By the criteria we discussed last week: selectivity and ocean impact, draggers score low on both counts. They are indiscriminate fishers, however many modern draggers use large mesh, and sophisticaed electronics to reduce by-catch. And, they have arguably the greatest impact on the ocean bottom.

Some dragger fishermen argue that in some cases dragging is much like tilling the soil and may actually result in increased fecundity. There is some evidence for this in species like scallops and flounders.

Many CAFC folks ask whether dragging (sometimes also called trawling, which is not the same as trolling) is sustainable, andthe answer like most things in the fish business is a little yes and a little no. Small scale draggers are incredibly efficient fishers. When the fish are in close to Gloucester, a dragger can go out and back in less than twenty-four hours with a full hold of fish.

Further, Captains like Joe Orlando argue that he has been fishing the same grounds for thirty years and that if draggers were wiping out the habitat, they would not be abl to continue to fish over and over in the same spots. As with most things in life, it is really a question of moderation vs. excess. Small scale day-boat draggers while not the ideal gear type are relatively benign. The problem is when you have large vessels with nets the size of football fields systematically towing patterns over the bottom that large scale habitat destruction occurs.

Another huge problem is when draggers target spawning aggregations. As we've come to learn many of our local groundfish are a lot more like salmon than we ever thought in that they return to the same breeding grounds over and over. When a dragger (or a gillnetter) wipes out a spawning mass, that sub-population could be wiped out for decades or even as they are seeing in Atlantic Canada and Downeast Maine, populations just cannot rebuild despite the absence of fishing.

I am loathe to incite gear conflict issues. There really is a place out there in the ocean for all the types of fishing. Some areas/fisheries are better suited for dragging, others work well as hook and line fisheries. The answer is a diverse fleet and a better understanding of ocean eco-systems to help protect sensitive areas and spawning biomass's.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sustainability and gear

In the last couple blogs I've been talking about sustainability. One of the questions we always get at events is about whether the fish CAFC gets is from boats that are fishing sustainably. And invariably within that discussion is a question of whether we get fish from draggers. There is a widespread perception that draggers harm the ocean bottom by destroying habitat. There no doubt that some types of gear have more of an impact than others. However within that discussion you have to consider the question of scale. But before we get to scale, lets take a look at the some other common gear types and the positives and negatives of each in the context of sustainability. In next weeks blog I'll tackle the dragger/sustainability question.

Hook and Line/Long line
Hook and line gear can range from using a fishing pole with one or more hooks to a tub-trawl (the traditional "long line" of the northeast which uses baited hooks and is laid on the ocean bottom) to a long-line which is typically a suspended line which can be several miles long and is most often used for pelagic species such a swordfish and tuna (pelagic fish are fish that do not live on the ocean bottom).

Hook and line gear arguably has the least impact on the ocean floor, but as anyone who has fished in our local waters can tell you, a baited hook is indiscriminate. When I used to fish tub trawls we'd often pull up our trawl full of short cod. Some of these fish were very small. In my case, we took care to remove the fish from the hooks alive and return them to the ocean. We also used a hook called a "circle hook" which is more likely to catch a fish in the corner of it's mouth than in its gut.

However, hook and line gear besides being indiscriminate is also the source of many of the issues related to turtle and dolphin by-catch problems. And, unlike the trawls we used to set and retrieve in the same day, many long-lines are left to soak in the ocean long enough that much of the by-catch is dead by the time the line is hauled.

So, small scale hook and line is arguably the "cleanest" most sustainable way to catch fish. "Hook and line" caught though, while evoking a Hemingwayesque Old Man and the Sea vibe, more often than not refers to some sort of long-line, which is not necessarily the most discriminate means of fishing.

In the New England groundfish fishery there are very few hook and line fishermen left. Regulations have passively discouraged this type of fishing in the past where "days at sea" were the regulatory currency. Essentially fishermen were given 24 hours to catch a certain amount of fish. Dragging is the most reliable way to catch more fish quickly, so most fishermen converted to dragging or gillnets.

Currently, as far as I am aware, there are less than six fishermen actively fishing hook and line gear out of Gloucester. There may even be less than that. It should also be noted that some species of our local fish cannot be caught commercially solely by hook and line.

Gill Nets
Gill nets are large nets hung vertically in the water column, weighted on the bottom with buoys on the top. They are very common in our local fleet. They have very little impact on the ocean bottom. They are somewhat indiscriminate fishers, essentially sorting fish by size and catching fish that are not large enough to pass through the mesh. In terms of sustainability, as long as by-catch is limited, Gill nets are a decent choice. However by-catch can also be a big issue for gill nets.

The other knock on gill nets is that the fish quality of net caught fish is the least desirable. If fish are left too long in the net, say more than 24 hours, they start to get eaten by small ocean creatures and they lose their scales. They are known as "scalers" and typically fetch a low price at market. One local fish processor told me that he hates getting net caught flounders because the quality of the meat is poor.

Many of the fishermen who are hook and line fishing also fish gillnets as they can both be fished fairly easily from a small boat. In particular you'll find that many fishermen who lobster and fish will fish nets as the conversion is fairly easy. And typically, fishermen who fish multiple gear types from small boats are some of the most sustainable fishermen around as they will suit the gear to the species they are after in the seasons in which those fish are plentiful.
Coming next week, the great trawler debate...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Seafood sustainability is such a difficult topic because ultimately it boils down to the idea that we humans have the ability to determine the exact right level of seafood we can take from a complex and not always well understood ocean that will allow seafood populations to not only maintain, but to function more or less as if we were not harvesting seafood.

Wait, does that make sense at all? Is there really some magical line in the ocean that allows us to have our cake and eat it too? What about complex highly interdependent ecosystems? What do we use as a baseline? Do we use historical abundance or recent abundance? How does the harvesting of one species like herring impact the health and abundance of other species that depend on it?

The "truth" if there is one is that sustainability is a "best guess" when it comes to seafood. If you Google "Sustainable Seafood" you'll find a number of species specific seafood buying guides. There is some value to these guides. Most folks that want to do the right thing don't necessarily want to spend their time reading some random blog about seafood sustainability and these guides can be a decent starting point for folks that want to do the right thing.

We think a better way to approach seafood is to have a set of principles.

But, to understand how seafood cards can get things wrong, we have to gain an understanding of how fisheries are determined to be sustainable. Usually this has to do with many sceintific assesments, but the two biggies are TAC (Total Allowable Catch) and MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield).

TAC is a hard number that defines how much fish fishermen can catch. It is based on fish population assessments and is supposed to be scientifically vetted. MSY is a bit harder to understand, but it is essentially the amount of fish that can consitstently be taken from a population of a single species that will allow the population to maintain over the long term. In simple terms, it is usually around 30% of a "healthy" population of fish.

In some ways they define the same thing, however MSY is more like the speed limit, while the TAC is the actual speed that can get you a ticket. In other words, the numbers are not always the same and are subject to the discretion of the managers.

So, let's get back to sustainable. In effect the TAC defines what fisheries managers think is sustainable. Fishermen have little to no impact on this number. It is defined, determined and vetted by the Science and Statistical Comittee (SSC) of the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) and accepted or rejected by the NEFMC. So in effect, how much fishermen will catch - whether or not that fishing is sustainable - is determined by managers not fishermen.

So, how can sustainable seafood cards put things like Atlantic Cod on a list of sea foods to avoid when managers, vetted by the best available science, are saying that Cod are no longer overfished? This article is a great exploration of the complexities in particular concerning our local codfish.

So, in sum, managers/regulators are defining sustainable ideally based on science that determines a level of seafood that can be caught indefinitely. As a principle, its a good place to begin to approach sustainability. But if you are like me, you have a healthy skepticism of the ability of scientists and managers to know the ocean well enough to consistently and impartially determine the magical number of fish we can eat without any impact. It just sounds silly to me and reminds me of one of my old friends' skepticism of another magical animal.