The Working Waterfront

Seafood: great for health, environment, economy

A broader menu could help fishing industry and ocean

Laurie Schreiber
Posted 2021-03-08
Last Modified 2021-03-08

Seafood has a lot going for it when it comes to health, the environment, and the economy.

“We’d like to see more seafood on people’s plates and also see working waterfronts and coastal communities thriving and not just surviving,” said Kyle Foley, senior program manager of the sustainable seafood program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

Foley recently gave a virtual talk, hosted by the Augusta-based Maine Conservation Voters, on the role fisheries play in making food production more sustainable for the health of the planet.

Per year, average individuals consume 92 pounds of chicken. Seafood? Only 16 pounds.

Her message? Eat more seafood. It’s a healthy protein that helps sustain local economies through responsible harvesting and management, she said.

“Fisheries are an important part of our food system and they have great potential to continue to be an important part of the food system if we prioritize them,” she said.

Many consider seafood a healthy part of the diet. But only one in ten U.S. residents consume the two servings per week recommended by federal dietary guidelines, she said.

Per year, average individuals consume 92 pounds of chicken. Seafood? Only 16 pounds.

From the environmental standpoint, management of fisheries as a public resource holds the industry to high conservation standards, she said. Regulators incorporate precautionary principles based on science that answers basic questions such as: how many fish are there and how many can be harvested while leaving enough in the water so species can replenish themselves?

Additionally, the fisheries are subject to a public policy-making process that includes stakeholders of all stripes—fishermen, scientists, conservationists, businesses, and others.

“It’s not a Wild West situation it might have been decades go,” she said.

Consequently, depleted fish stocks have improved over the past three decades, she added.

“We saw a lot of fishery collapses in late 1980s and ‘90s,” she said. “A lot of those stocks have been rebuilt.”

From the economic standpoint, New England’s lobster and scallops are by far the  most important seafood sectors. In 2018, Maine’s lobster fishery was worth $492 million; New Bedford, Mass.’s scallop fishery totaled $431 million.

But there’s plenty more opportunity. In 2018, all groundfish species combined earned only $80 million throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic region.

“That’s pretty different from what it used to be when this region landed a lot more cod and haddock in particular,” Foley said.

The value dropped because, although stocks are rebuilt, the global marketplace today supplies 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. Because massive fisheries operate elsewhere in the world, it can be cheaper for U.S. eateries to import than buy from local fleets.

“That’s not to put blame on the restaurants,” she added. “It’s a financial decision that makes sense.”

Another challenge is that the U.S. mainly consumes just shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, and tilapia. But other species abound in U.S. waters.

“They’re species that are well-managed, but fishermen receive low value because there’s less awareness and less demand for them,” she said.

In 2018, fishermen harvested less than half and sometimes under a quarter of their allowable catch for mackerel, pollock, redfish, whiting, and dogfish, she said. Across the region, fishermen brought in $24 million worth of the five species. If they’d received at least $1 per pound and caught 100 percent of their quotas, they would have earned over $300 million, she said.

GMRI is working to optimize fishery value through several programs, including:

  • partnerships with companies in the supply chain
  • development of an “eco-label” to indicate responsible harvesting and traceability
  • and culinary partnerships with restaurants that have committed to using at least 20 percent of seafood from the Gulf of Maine, including lesser-known fish.

The pandemic shutdown of restaurants and food service had tremendous and ongoing impact on the seafood industry, she noted. That was mitigated somewhat by rising retail sales due to more home-cooking.

“But it’s still been a tough year,” she said.

Ultimately, she noted, it’s about food.

“No. 1—eat more seafood,” she said. “And eat a variety of seafood. That helps diversify fishermen’s livelihoods.”