Talking Sustainability and Fish with Paul Greenberg


Photo: Avia Venefica/Flickr

In the run-up to the New England Sustainable Seafood Teach-In this Sunday at Harvard, PRK speaks below with Paul Greenberg.

Paul is the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, published in 2010. He won a James Beard Award in Writing last year for the book, which is now a NY Times bestseller, and he lectures widely on the topic of sustainable seafood. Paul’s keynote address will open the Teach-In this weekend.

To continue getting our head around the issues– particularly complex for New England — we asked Paul a few questions upfront.

Without stealing your thunder on Sunday, why IS sustaining our fish stocks and fishing industry so complicated in New England?

New England is one of the oldest fisheries in America. As such it pre-dates a whole suite of regulations that started coming online in the 1970s and which get more intense with each reissuing of the Magnusen Stevens Act. Newer fisheries like Alaska pollock (New England cod’s biggest competitor by the way) kind of co-evolved with regulation, and so it was somewhat easier to scale back and rationalize fishing effort in Alaska when the government began identifying overfishing and trying to mitigate its effect. In Alaska you’ve seen a huge amount of consolidation of the fishing industry and in a way that is a fishery that is easier to manage.

In New England you have a much more diverse fleet with much more history, and it is significantly more complicated to try to allocate catch—that is, to switch from the old regime of fishing to the newer “catch share” regime, where catch is pre-allocated before people even head out fishing.

The other major problem is there is so much more “white fish” product on the market nowadays that depresses the price of New England groundfish (cod, pollock, haddock). Today, there are billions of pounds of farmed tilapia and Vietnamese pangasius catfish on the market that effectively compete in the whitefish commodities market. (This is spelled out in my recent New York Time’s editorial “The Whitefish’s Burden.”

If New Englanders raise the price of cod to the value of what it should be relative to the rarity of the stock, vendors can just turn to hugely plentiful tilapia, pangasius or Alaska pollock to find the filling for their fish sandwiches.

To what extent are our region’s concerns about sustainability ongoing and endemic, and to what extent has public awareness risen as of late?

Public awareness has certainly risen, and the rise of “Community Supported Fisheries” or “CSFs” reflects that. CSFs like Community Supported Agriculture allow consumers to pre-buy local fish and hopefully supply fishermen with working capital to cover startup costs at the beginning of the season. It also spreads out the risk a bit. S,o in that respect, there is a way for consumers to respond to the crisis in local fish and support local fisherman.

Besides New England, where else in the US is history and industry so heavily associated with seafood, and what are the challenges their fishermen and consumers are facing in terms of sustainable seafood? How are they meeting those challenges?

The two other most important regions for seafood in the US are the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

The Gulf is suffering from, I think, an unfair negative association of their product with the BP oil spill. I do believe the data that says that fish and shellfish from the gulf are safe. They have also implemented some really interesting stuff for seafood tracking and catch shares for red snapper and grouper in the Gulf that has actually helped improve stocks even in the face of the spill.

Alaska is going gangbusters and has great fisheries, great fisheries management and strong markets. But there are two threats on the horizon: industrialization of the landscape in the form of mining and oil exploration, and a decoupling of the Alaskan economy from the lower 48. Today more than half of Alaska salmon goes abroad, as does much of its pollock, halibut and other high quality fish. I think that’s a shame, that the cleanest, healthiest fish in the world is sent abroad (mostly to Asia) and in return we import cheap farmed shrimp from Asia, only 2% of which gets tested for contaminants.

Where do you see the greatest room for opportunity for New England fishermen over the next five years? What do you see as the gravest threat?

Re-branding of product and moving away from the commodities market. People do want to eat more locally and they want to get to know their fishermen and their fish. The iconic cod needs to be re-branded not as a cheap fish but as a precious and delicate fish that requires careful cooking. Same deal with haddock and to some extent pollock. The aforementioned CSF scheme is a good one for New England and in my ideal future seascape there would be a CSF in every seaside community from Stonington, Connecticut to Stonington, Maine.

What, in your view, could be the most important take-away from this Teach-In for members of the public?

Eating and engaging local fish is important. It motivates us to become better stewards of our fish stocks and also better stewards of the marine environment. If our local oceans become more and more of a local food source, we will be much less likely to turn the oceans into waste disposal systems or, worse, offshore mining systems, offshore oil drilling systems and whatever other horrible idea we can throw at the sea.

Remember, the greatest reserves of metals and fossil fuels left in the world lie in the ocean at this point. As energy and minerals get tighter people will more and more try to move fisherman off of their traditional grounds and put non-food systems in their place.

To register for the Teach-In on Sunday, April 29, head to Let’s Talk About Food. Tickets are $10. The event begins at 1pm.

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