The Environmental Defense Fund is praising the remarkable recovery of the groundfish fishery on the U.S. West Coast.
The fishery, which consists predominantly of species of rockfish and flatfish, was near collapse due to overfishing two decades ago. Thanks to conservation efforts, a recovery effort has been massively successful, with only two stocks classified as overfished, down from 10 when the efforts began. In addition, the two currently overfished stocks are on the road to being rebuilt in coming years, according to EDF.
At the beginning of this year, a deal was struck that resulted in regulators to reopen large swathes of the Pacific Ocean off the shores of Oregon and California to groundfish bottom-trawling, while at the same time moving into permanent protection thousands of miles worth of reefs and coral beds.
EDF Oceans Regional Director Shems Jud told SeafoodSource his organization believes that a good portion of the dramatic turnaround, which has come decades earlier than expected, comes down to getting the science right.
“For a long time, we misunderstood how vulnerable many rockfish species were to overfishing,” he says. “As a result, TACs were set inappropriately high and the most vulnerable stocks were severely depleted.”
Jud said although the story is an encouraging environmental success, it’s perhaps not as widely known as it ought to be.
“It’s a nuanced story that unfolded over a long period of time,” he said. “The disaster declaration was in 2000. Then there was a buyback to reduce overcapacity in the fishery in 2003. Then rockfish conservation areas and essential fish habitat. Eventually, [there was a move to] the catch-share program and 100 percent monitoring in 2011. And even then, it still took a few years until we saw most of the stocks fully rebuild. I think there is also a prevailing narrative that environmental problems, especially in the marine and fisheries space, can’t be remedied. This story though is proof that with trust, collaboration, and smart management, even severely depleted fisheries can rebound and that’s why it’s so important to share it.”
Now that West Coast groundfish has been off of menus and grocery store shelves for such a long time, the biggest challenge is reintroducing consumers to species such as yellowtail rockfish and petrale sole. A nonprofit called Positively Groundfish, formed by a group of industry stakeholders and including representation from Oregon State University, the Marine Stewardship Council, has been working to coordinate and unify the efforts around getting the industry up and running again.
Positively Groundfish is looking to make the fishery “not just an ecological success but also an economic success,” Positively Groundfish Executive Director Jana Hennig said. “We think it checks all the boxes of what we know consumers here in the United States say they want. We know from research that American consumers prefer to eat local U.S.-caught seafood. It’s wild, sustainable, and a mild-tasting, easy-to-work-with, easy-to-cook fish.”
Jud is in agreement about the appeal of the fishery that he and the EDF have worked to resuscitate.
“My hope is that we can reignite interest in rockfish, sole, and other delicious West Coast groundfish species. Across the dozens and dozens of species, there are a wide variety of flavor profiles, as well as different seasonality and geographic availability,” Jud said. “The fishery is in the backyard of the biggest cities of the West Coast, and it has a remarkable story. The seafood landscape has changed considerably, but given the growing interest in local, healthy, sustainable food, and food with a story, I’m confident demand for rockfish and sole will continue to grow among chefs and consumers.”
Another lesson Jud hopes observers can take away from the situation is the mentality of collaboration.
“[There is a great deal] of common ground between fishermen, managers, and NGOs, even though it doesn’t always seem like it," he said.
Photo courtesy of Reimar/Shutterstock