From the Dock: What do consumers think fishermen do?

Published in Landings, March, 2014 with permission. 

Monique Coombs lives on Orrs Island. She writes about fishing, lobstering, and local food production on her blog at www.lobstersonthefly.org. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

Monique Coombs lives on Orrs Island. She writes about fishing, lobstering, and local food production on her blog at www.lobstersonthefly.org. Photo courtesy of Monique Coombs.

I recently overhead a conversation in which a woman said something about First World problems and having too many protein choices. I thought this was really interesting.

Here in the U.S. we have access to lots of different fish species, plus beef, poultry, pork, etc. But did you know the #1 consumed protein in the world is goat? We don’t eat lots of goat in the U.S. I can’t imagine that a lot of America’s intolerant, picky eaters would line up to try goat but in a lot of areas of the world, goat is easy to raise and cheap to eat.

Sometimes I wonder what some consumers think fishermen do. The consumers I’m talking about are the ones who love seafood but hate fishing. The ones who consider themselves green, drive a Prius, and proudly boast that they only eat sustainable seafood green-labeled on Seafood Watch (I know I threw a few stereotypes out there but… if the Prius fits). What do they think American fishermen are doing on the water that is so horrible? Why are they so unwilling to learn more about the fishing industry here in the U.S. but rather blindly follow a guide like Seafood Watch?

In America we have a variety of fish species, and yet we still import most of our seafood to eat and export most of the seafood we catch. The seafood we import is not as well regulated as our own, it has traveled a distance and is not as fresh, and is overall just not as good as Maine lobster or Gulf of Maine groundfish or P.E.I. mussels… yup, I’m including the Maritimes.

So, this is what I’ve decided: Consumers, everything is your fault. If you would quit buying seafood that has been imported and cease to blindly abide by Seafood Watch, the state of our oceans and the species that live there would be much better. Let me explain:

1. The fishing industry is complicated. I get confused by all the acronyms and regulating bodies and management councils and permits and licenses. Do I need my federal permit or should I get rid of it? Oh shit, I should have kept it if I want to go tuna fishing this year! I used to get kind of frustrated because most of these management bodies don’t describe fish as food. I mean, fishermen are out there harvesting live animals, animals that we want to make sure are around in the future so that we can admire them and catch them and eat them. Those buggers MOVE and migrate and swim, and can you believe they don’t sit still so we can count them? It’s a big ol’ guessing game… or science.

2.  I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a million more times: The United States has the most regulated fisheries in the world. Those confusing bodies I was just speaking of are sometimes kooks, sometimes redundant, maybe over the top, but the bottom line is they regulate the U.S. fisheries more than other nations regulate fisheries in other areas. We import seafood from those other areas to eat. So, consumers are voting for the other team with their dollars. They are voting AGAINST the guy who lives in Maine with his family and works hard throughout the year to abide by regulations, fill out all of the correct paperwork, and make a good, honest living.

3. Fishermen have been dehumanized. Fishermen are people, too. Farmers are not the only humans that harvest food. But because of generalized seafood guides, the fact that the industry is regulated as a fishery (rather than a food harvesting business), and because people have a general misunderstanding of how fishing boats and gear operate and change there is a general disconnect between fisherman, the ocean, and the species/food harvested. I also think that humans share a deep interest in the ocean and that we are more likely to feel a more empathetic connection to “save the ocean” than we are to “save the fishermen.” The group that feels most strongly about saving the fishermen are the fishermen and their communities because we have a deep empathetic connection in each other.

4. Where do we even start to create change without blowing up the whole thing? I’ve been thinking about this one a lot because I tend to work in a grassroots manner. I also believe small changes can bring big changes and that good organizating directed at forward-thinking, organized goals can lead to a change in how we view something. Ya know. Sort of a let’s-stop-seeing-things-as-half-empty-and-alter-our vision-so-that-we-can-see-things-as-half-full-approach.

  • We need to begin in our own communities. I read once that if you want to feed the world you should start by feeding your own community.
  • Consumers should really be encouraged to spend their dollars on local seafood and think outside the seafood guides.
  • TV networks should embrace the food and human aspect of the fishing industry. I’m really bummed that not one of the fishing shows that is on TV has told the story of any type of fishing heritage or history or revealed anything else about fish or fishing other than the (sometimes) competitive nature of fishermen.
  • We have lots of fish! One of the reasons that the cod stocks are low is because regardless of what regulations and restrictions are put on the stocks people are still demanding familiar species and so fishermen are fishing for them. There are redfish and pollock and hake but for some reason those species just won’t catch on as well. Up until 10-years or so ago, no one was eating pork belly. But now I see that on a menu and I don’t even have to keep reading because that is what I’m ordering.
  • Admit that there is a difference between seafood and fishing and especially farming, and that these are complicated industries and no one group or person should manage and direct all of it. We are so convinced that we have to make fishing similar to farming in order to achieve efficiency. But we’re not farming. We are not farmers. So. Stop it.