US groundfish fishery returning to its former glory, stakeholders say

Last weekend’s Slow Food Nations Festival – a Denver, Colorado-based event showcasing sustainable and traceable food – was well represented by the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery, which is exhibiting an impressive turnaround after it was decimated in the 1990’s.

The fishery, which consists predominantly of species of rockfish and flatfish, was collapsing due to overfishing about two decades ago. Thanks to conservation efforts, the recovery has been massively successful, with only two stocks down from the 10 classified as overfished. The two currently overfished groundfish stocks in the region are on the road to being rebuilt in coming years.

Even though the recovery of the fishery has been a smashing success thus far, demand for the fish has been languishing behind the supply, stakeholders say.  

“The challenge at this point is that the economic performance is not coming up to where it’s being viewed as a profitable fishery by industry,” said Environmental Defense Fund Pacific Fisheries Policy Manager Melissa Mahoney. “That’s mainly because… when that fishery collapsed, [groundfish] lost their market share and at the same time, tilapia was coming in. So we’ve had the substitution of cheaper consistent whitefish in that market. As the fishery has recovered and the fishermen are able to catch more rockfish with more consistency, there’s this chicken-and-egg thing with getting the market back.” 

The EDF has been working on the West Coast groundfish fishery for over 10 years and is deeply involved in shaping policy. Mahoney is also on the board of Positively Groundfish, a non-profit formed by a group of industry stakeholders – including Oregon State University, Marine Stewardship Council, fishermen, fish processors, etc. – to help coordinate and unify the efforts around getting the West Coast groundfish market going again. 

Positively Groundfish is looking to make the fishery “not just an ecological success, but also an economic success,” according to Jana Hennig, the non-profit’s executive director. 

“It’s all come together behind the one objective of making groundfish more popular again, raising awareness and rebuilding the market demand for these species. We think it’s one of the best ecological comeback stories but so far no one has been out there to tell that story,” Hennig said. 

“We think it checks all the boxes of what we know consumers here in the United States say they want,” she added. “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. I like to lead with taste and culinary intrigue. I want people to like it first because it is a great fish and we see people absolutely loving it when they try it. And then I will tell them about the amazing sustainability success story. And the fact that this is wild and local and they can trust it. But first and foremost it’s a food. And so, I like to make sure people love the taste.” 

Positively Groundfish has been taking its message directly to consumers at events in Oregon and California, with samples to hammer home the point. Hennig realizes, however, that because the term “groundfish” sounds a bit odd and unappealing to those outside the industry, the non-profit has been marketing itself slightly differently to the general public – as a popup restaurant called “Rock + Sole.”

At the Denver festival, the “Rock + Sole” stand served Oregon Yellowtail Rockfish Tostadas and Petrale Sole Ceviche. Also at the festival, exhibiting alongside Positively Groundfish, was OneForNeptune, a start-up that makes West Coast rockfish jerky.

Hennig believes that given the circumstances, West Coast groundfish is primed to return to its glory days.

“We know this is an incredible fishery comeback story… we know this is a healthy, sustainable, domestically sourced product and we know that there is a segment of consumers out there that like those [qualities], who pay attention to where their seafood is coming from,” Hennig said.

“We’re banking on the fact that we have a great story to tell and we now have a mouthpiece in terms of this exciting new organization that is gaining membership and has a really great marketing research grant from NOAA. So, we’re going to start shouting from the mountaintops… that rockfish is back,” she concluded. 

Image courtesy of Positively Groundfish


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