Nostalgia for a Better Future

GCF-Fu Newsletters, Publications

By Sean Sullivan, NAMA’s Development, Marketing and Outreach Associate

For NAMA Newsletter, June 15, 2010

It could have been that magic moment when a sea worm on a hook lowered into the sea results in a shiny wondrous living fish flopping around on the dock. Or it could have been a deep affection for the proud nosed workboats that cluttered the harbor in my youth, each telling a story by their wear and tear and the condition of their paint. It could have been one of those moments or a collection of a thousand fleeting glances at the ocean, a seemingly involuntary need to see it each day and register its temper.

I still don’t know how or why the ocean gets into one’s blood, but I do know when it gets there it stays there. During my college years, living in Portland, OR, a true deepwater port but 100 miles from the ocean proper, a constant longing for the intimate shores of the New England coast dwelled within me. It pained my mother to hear that I missed the ocean more than her cooking.

Like many who live and work with or near the ocean, I tend to think of the ocean as a living thing, which sounds obvious to say, but I mean it, as the young are wont to say, as my BFF, or Best Friend Forever.

Image courtesy of NOAA

Growing up fishing the shores of Salem Sound I saw the end of the Russian factory ships that hovered outside Gloucester Harbor scooping up anything and everything from the ocean. I saw Cod disappear and now take pleasure in their return to numbers. I never even knew what a wonderful fish the Striped Bass was as a child, and now they are back in their place in the ecosystem.

I have also watched as year after year the number of fishing boats in my homeport of Marblehead dwindled. Like their prey under the waters their numbers have ebbed as fish became scarce and regulations became plentiful. Along with the dwindling fleet comes a more subtle yet pernicious loss to the culture of the town, the loss of a connection to our surroundings that not only is part of our history, but should be part of our present and future. And, for me, most troubling is that the local market, not 200 yards from the fish pier, sells cod and haddock from Iceland.

NAMA likes to ask the question, “If we truly care about the health of our oceans does it matter how, where and when we fish; and, who catches the fish that end up on our dinner plates?” Of course we believe the answer is a resounding yes. It is one of those questions that are just beyond rhetorical, as most people will answer, “yes”. It is really the consequences of answering “yes” that is the purpose of the question.

Once you admit you care, don’t you have to do something about it? If you answer the question “Yes” do you still buy the cod and haddock from Iceland that is at least a week old – and even worse, its not any cheaper than you could get locally caught much more fresh fish? If you answer, “Yes” don’t you have to value a fresh local product more than a lower quality imported one?

Despite the problems, there is a sea change happening. People who care about their food are starting to include seafood in the discussion. Cod stocks are rebounding in many of the inshore areas that our local day-boat fishermen can find them. In fact, fishermen are more concerned now about catching their quota too quickly than about any lack of fish. Also, in what seems like an obvious step, regulators are now no longer requiring fishermen to throw their “by-catch” overboard. Fishermen are happy about this. They never wanted to kill anything from the ocean they could not land.

CSF’s are showing that people care about seafood. CSF members literally gush about how good fresh locally caught fish is, and revel in their experiences eating fish that are almost impossible to find at the local markets (even the best fishmongers are not carrying Redfish, a local stock well rebuilt, great for grilling, excellent tasty white flesh).

All of these things are positive steps but there is still a lot of work to be done. Concerned locavores (those who prefer their foods to be locally grown) are asking the hard questions about sustainability and gear types, things most consumers would not think of asking even a few years ago. The answers are not black and white (or the only slightly less oversimplified red, yellow and green). The answers are far more subtle and nuanced. Finding ways to get this message out will take time and co-operation from fishermen, shore-side workers and consumers.

For example, yes, some Atlantic Cod stocks are still in deep trouble, however our local Western Gulf of Maine stocks are expected to be listed as fully rebuilt in the coming years. Yes trawl gear can harm the ocean floor, but does that necessarily make trawl fishing a bad gear type? Again the answer requires developing an understanding of how fishermen have modified their gear to not only limit by-catch and reduce damage to the ocean bottom, but to effectively catch a targeted species quickly resulting in higher quality.

The latest bogeyman for fishermen are new rules that aim to reduce the fleet even further, and are likely to end up consolidating the fleet. If that doesn’t sound too bad, think what has happened to our family farms. Do you really want multi-national corporations being the stewards of our local seafood?

As people learn more, hopefully they will see that just outside our doors is one of the most precious resources in the world: a source of healthy, wild food. (You know how many people in the world would kill to be able to say that?) And maybe, because they care about their food, and they care about their communities they will start demanding that the local store buy fish from local dealers, that the town’s maintain the infrastructure that allows a day boat fishermen to land his catch in Marblehead. And maybe again someday the harbors will be filled with freshly painted colorful fishing boats, their noses pointing into the wind proudly and defiantly announcing that we are a people that are part of our environment.