In New England, seafood-buying guides questioned


Steven Hedlund

Published on
October 5, 2010

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund is in Boston covering the Chefs Collaborative National Summit.

The future of New England fisheries — and whether they should be deemed sustainable — was the basis of a seminar held on Monday during the Chefs Collaborative National Summit at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

One topic a panel of three fishermen and one chef touched on during “Is Local Sustainable: A Look at New England Fisheries” is the effectiveness of the seafood-buying guides produced by organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. While they agreed that such guides raise awareness of sustainable fishing, the panelists said classifying seafood species as “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid” may be too simplistic.

The guides, for example, may help the average consumer in the Midwest make a seafood-purchasing decision but may not necessarily help a seafood-savvy consumer in the New England and especially a professional chef make one.

“I’ve been a victim of this card for a long time,” said Eric Hasse, a West Barnstable, Mass., hook-and-line fisherman and a founding member of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. “[The cards don’t say], ‘This particular fishery is trying to do the right thing. We get lumped in with all gear types. There are stories to be told in New England that aren’t captured in the cards. It’s up to chefs to do their homework.”

New England is made up of mostly small-scale fisheries, and only a few, including Atlantic herring, Jonah crab and American lobster, are listed as either a best choice or good alternative in Seafood Watch’s seafood-buying guide for the Northeast region. Atlantic cod, for example, is listed as avoid.

“I want to support local fishermen,” said Michael Leviton, chef-owner of Newton, Mass., seafood restaurant Lumière, who buys fish mainly from Nova Scotia to Maryland. “It’s about balancing competing concerns — ecology, economics, social diversity. We’re dealing in a lot of shades of gray. There are no exactly right answers. That’s the problem with these lists. They’re black and white. There’s no gray.”

Glen Libby, a Port Cylde, Maine, fisherman, and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, agreed with both Hesse and Leviton that chefs should seek out fishermen, particularly community-supported fisheries, [CFSs] for advice.

“CFSs are bringing fishermen together, and they’re a great resource for chefs. They’re built on trying to find ways to fish more sustainably,” said Libby, who’s also a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. “Your questions will only drive change. Market forces will help rebuild fisheries.”

Another reoccurring theme during Monday’s seminar was the importance of education in the chef-fisherman relationship. Chefs should to reach out to fishermen, and vice versa, so that each side understands the other’s needs and challenges. And chefs should reach out to consumers to educate them that some species aren’t available year-round if they want to eat local, sustainable fish.

“Fishing is seasonal,” said Libby. “When we have it, we have it — it’s like corn, or snowballs. We always try to have something available, but it might not be what the buyer wants.”

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