The CSC responds in the politically correct, "Good Fish, Bad Fish" debate
Once and again, U.S. consumers are being urged by well-meaning groups to initiate a product boycott. This time certain species of fish are the target. The premise of the boycott is to rebuild certain fisheries and promote healthy populations of popular species. The cause is admirable and shared. Yet politically correct fish lists that broad-brush entire species and donšt differentiate local fishermen who follow strict limits are irresponsible and, frankly, cavalier.
These "Do eat, don't eat" lists clearly trouble us and our local fishing industry, as they only punish our fishermen and seafood suppliers who are strictly regulated and monitored, and who abide by very strict limits on their catch.
For example, consider swordfish.
Calls to "give swordfish a break" threaten the existence of U.S. fishermen who cut their harvest by more than 50 percent beginning 10 years ago.
Dr. Rebecca Lent, Chief of the Office of Highly Migratory Species at the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the swordfish campaign "penalizes U.S. fishermen who are already abiding by the law, and it doesn't recognize that we have a rebuilding program in place (for North Atlantic swordfish)."
Locally, scientists consider Pacific swordfish stocks healthy. California's swordfish fleet is considered the most strictly regulated in the world. It is regulated by season, time and area closures as well as by the size, type and deployment of nets used. Local nets are considered small-scale in length, with large mesh as wide as an open car window, which allows small fish and other marine life to pass through. California nets are set a minimum of 36 feet below the surface, often as low as 75 feet, to minimize interaction with marine mammals and seabirds. The California fleet was instrumental in the testing and adoption of the requirement that all swordfish nets carry acoustical pingers. These alert marine mammals to the presence of the nets. The use of pingers, confirmed by official observers stationed on the boats, is helping to reduce marine mammal interactions to a rate approaching zero in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Our local swordfish fleet is small, with approximately 90 boats active in the fishery this year. These are small family-owned boats typical of California's fleet. How much longer can these fishermen continue providing fresh local swordfish to market in the wake of well-meaning but seriously harmful calls for a boycott of swordfish?
Another fish that we are misleadingly told to avoid is shark. In California, the thresher and mako shark season is strictly regulated, open only August 15 to December 15 within 25 miles of the coast. The fishery is closed in spring and early winter to protect breeding populations. Typically fishermen harvest a variety of fish in their wide-mesh nets. Shark is an incidental catch in swordfish nets that can be sold at market, fully utilizing the fishermen's catch. Isn't it better to use and market the entire catch?
Californiašs lobster resource is healthy
We've even heard a call for total avoidance of "American lobster." By the all-American label, the California spiny lobster would be mistakenly included in this list. Although lesser known than the heavily-marketed Maine variety, California spiny lobsters are taken solely by trap and the season is limited from the first Wednesday in October to mid-March, protecting lobsters during their reproductive cycle in the spring through early fall. A minimum legal size is set and all traps have escape ports, allowing undersized lobsters to get out. California's spiny lobster regulations have been very effective. This fishery has been recognized in fishery management circles for more than 20 years for sustaining a healthy resource.
Other targeted species are also mislabeled by the broad brush of these lists. Rockfish are now the activists' fish du jour. A call to "preserve" rockfish can be most confusing. There are 59 known species in California living in a variety of habitats from midwater levels to hard bottom to shallow rocky reefs. Their abundance is greatly affected by natural "regime shifts," fluctuating oceanic warm- and cold-water cycles that, consequently, influence the availability of their feed. The California rockfish catch is regulated by strict quotas on various species. New, even more stringent limits have recently been put into effect by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of the more than six state and federal agencies that regulate and oversee various aspects of California's commercial fishing industry. Advising consumers to avoid all species labeled rockfish only undermines efforts by fishery managers to protect distressed stocks.
Letšs talk about overfishing.
In part the confusion in well-meaning efforts to conserve fish stems from the word "overfishing." The logical assumption inherent in this term is that fishermen are catching too many fish. However, as defined by Congress, "overfishing" includes everything from too large a harvest to natural declines caused by changing oceanic cycles. Every possible cause of an estimated population decline --even a temporary decline -- is lumped into this one category. Furthermore, strict federal laws now require fishery scientists to "rebuild" stocks defined as overfished, even though the scientists have no control over Mother Nature.
A call for objective scientific research
The California Seafood Council advocates the underwriting of more objective scientific research to better understand our local oceanic cycles, marine resources and fisheries. Consumers would benefit significantly if the many millions of dollars now used to fund nationwide consumer boycotts and public relations campaigns were redirected to fund long-term comprehensive research to help us learn more about our local species and how to properly sustain their health for future generations. The more we know about the ocean, the better management decisions we will be able to make.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that those who fish responsibly and work closely with fishery managers to conserve and sustain local fish populations can be seriously affected by wholesale calls to not purchase certain seafoods. Many such boycotts are not based on sound science, nor do their sponsors take the time to be as specific as possible. From efforts to simplify the issues, gross distortions such as these seafood lists result.
Instead, concerned consumers can take confidence in the fact that our local fisheries are strictly regulated. We encourage people to continue eating seafood as a healthy food choice, and to ask for California seafood. Our message is clear:
"California seafood is good for you and good for California."