Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why Bycatch?

     I started running fish from the Texas coast almost 5 years ago.  Before that, the Gulf of Mexico was really just a place on the map, one that I had visited a few times in my life but without ever taking away any enduring memories.  I had no particular reason to get involved with fish- I have never had any family in the fishing trades, nor did I come from a hunting and fishing family, nor did I grow up near the coast.  To say that five years ago I knew very little about the seafood of the Gulf of Mexico would be over-generous.  Once, before I starting dealing fish, as I was turning over the idea in my head, I found myself in the retail store of a dock in Freeport.  In a brown tote, covered with wet oyster sacks, was a mass of live crabs.  I couldn't believe my luck!  Those crabs looked very similar to those used in Thailand for, among other things, phat pong gali bpu.  I had found curry crabs!  It was a couple of weeks before I read enough to realize that they were Callinectes sapidus- common blue crabs- one of the most traditional of Gulf seafoods, and one of the most valuable.  I realized I had much learning to do. 
     If I am being completely honest, I would have to confess that I decided to try my hand with fish not because of a far-sighted mission, but because, after 5 years out of the country, I was....lost, and beginning to suspect that Thomas Wolfe had been right all along (he was, of course).
      I moved to Austin in 1995 to attend UT in pursuance of a degree in Mandarin Chinese.  A couple of years later I switched to English and History, intending to become a high school teacher.  This was not to be.  I started cooking, ostensibly to pay school bills, but really because I had a hunch that I really didn't want to teach high school.  I finally quite university (though I did graduate several years later).  After a few years working in kitchens in Austin, I moved to France, where I got a position though a chef I had worked for in Austin.  I stayed in Aix en Provence for little more than a year, though I walked off the job after 9 months.  France and French food left me a bit cold.
     Then, after a couple of months back in Texas, I moved to Thailand.   My move was the result of a situation that does not bear mentioning here.  Suffice to say that I wound up in Chiang Mai.  After more than three years spent there, I had come to realize that what we ate back home was a mere sliver of the entire spectrum of edibility.  If it grows in Thailand and can be rendered safe to eat, someone is enjoying it.  While there wasn't much seafood (we lived in the North always, and I never once saw the famous beaches), the available freshwater fish more than compensated.  It was there that I first learned to love tilapia, which had been introduced into Thai rivers a half century before in order to provide a cheap, readily-available source of protein.   It was there also that I came to appreciate freshwater crustaceans as well- especially the freshwater prawns farmed in tiny ponds near Chiang Rai and the little wild ghost shrimp, typically eaten alive in the famous goong dtan.  River snails, rice field snails, land crabs, eels, carp, snakehead, several types of catfish, as well as more than a dozen other fish species-  these made up our 'seafood'. Of course, the bounty didn't stop at the water's edge. 
     I returned to the US after several years' absence and found that my whole approach to food had radically changed.  It wasn't that I had made a study of it- rather, to put it simply, I learned how to eat in Thailand.
     Orginally, I went after the 'bycatch' and exotic species because those were the only fish I could make something on without dealing in large volumes.  After all, it was only me, some Igloos, and the pickup (which had replaced the original Honda Odyssey).  300 lbs. of Almaco Jacks meant I would make at least a little money that day.  300 lbs. of Red Snapper meant that I would barely break even.  After a few years, bycatch had become my calling card.
     But why bycatch?  Why other species? Bycatch and alternative species simply for their own sake is missing the point. Why are we eating and promoting the eating of bycatch and alternative species?  Is it just for the sake of something new?  Is it just to test the boundaries?  For me, the answer is simple.  The fishery resources of the Gulf are finite, but fished and managed rationally, the Gulf can provide us and future generations with large and dependable supplies of highly nutritious protein. Rational management and rational fishing means elimination of waste from bycatch and high-grading.  It means well-regulated multi-species fisheries.  It means small allowable catches of some species, and larger quotas of those fish which are most resilient to fishing pressure.  It means responsible methods of harvest.  It also means rational use of the animals landed, a subject I briefly touched on in the last post.
     All management and stewardship means nothing, however, if no one wants to eat the fish. Most easily harvested fish can be eaten, and most of those edible species can withstand some fishing pressure (provided, of course that the management is in place and effective).  The trick is to get regulatory agencies on board, and the fishermen catching and the public buying at the same time.  Some progress has been made, but much work remains.  What follows is a few words about bycatch and why it is important.      
     Please do not misunderstand-  I love new foods, and I love to eat all kinds of fish, but that alone is not enough to go after new species.  After all, I am positive that dolphin would taste good, and I would hypothetically, completely divorced from all context, eat dolphin. But in the world we inhabit, I have never had it, and won't be eating it. We need to eat rationally and always aware that the fish on our plates actually came from somewhere after all.  
     Before discussing bycatch, one unique Gulf fishery deserves mention.  It is the largest single fishery by weight in the Gulf of Mexico: Menhaden (Brevoortia patronus). Not directly consumed by humans anymore, menhaden (AKA pogy, shad) are members of the herring family and are bony and oily (sometimes upwards of 22%) like all herrings.   Their oiliness means they are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids (a great many menhaden end up in those fancy omega-3 supplements).  They are harvested in mind-numbing quantities and processed into fishmeal and fish oil and fish-related products. The 2010 harvest amounted to 837,298,035 lbs......which was a decrease from previous years. Continual harvests of that size are a really bad thing- menhaden happen to fulfill a few pretty vital links in the whole Gulf ecosystem and food chains.  Two centuries ago, the Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) was considered an excellent eating fish, and Menhaden roe is traditionally preserved along the middle Eastern Seaboard.  Menhaden meat also shows promise as a surimi analog.  Seems like a far more rational approach would be much reduced harvests, at higher prices, with the catches going to nourishing humans directly. 
     On to bycatch:  When used in fisheries circles, the term 'bycatch' refers to one of two things.  The first is the most obvious- animals other than the targeted species, caught as a result of relatively indiscriminate fishing methods.  Most fisheries contend with these kind of bycatch issues to some extent, but any method using dragged nets is about the most indiscriminate, following by any gear that is very large (longlines stretching tens of miles or massive seine net operations).  The most high-profile bycatch of this sort in the Gulf of Mexico is Red Snapper juveniles caught in offshore shrimp nets.
     The second meaning of the term 'bycatch' has to do with discards of targeted species for reasons of size and market value.  It has not, for some reason, become as important to the general fish-buying public- though for hook and line fisheries, it is a far more important class of bycatch. Commercial Snapper fishermen are prohibited by law, for example, from keeping snapper under a certain size.  With modern gear, fish are brought to the surface of the water so quickly and efficiently that their swim bladders must be punctured before returning to the water, or else they will list to one side on the surface of the water, waiting to become someone's lunch. So using an approved tool, the fisherman punctures the swim bladder....but if the fishing is good (and it usually is), then there's a lot of fish to have to deal with, and it is entirely possible that the process will not get done right on each (or even most) animals.  Even if the fish are punctured correctly, they are still usually disoriented while going back down to the sea floor where they reside- in other words, they are just waiting to be someone's lunch.  Sometimes wounds from imperfect bladder puncturing become infected, and the fish eventually just lies around, waiting to, you guessed it, become someone's lunch. This is a bad thing because little fish haven't had a chance to reproduce, and fisheries management is predicated upon fish surviving to spawn at least once.  If the fish don't get to reproduce, then the whole management scheme stops working, and catches will quickly outpace the ability of stocks to rebuild themselves. 
     Still keeping with Snapper, while little fish are thrown back because they are illegal, large fish are also thrown back because they tend to bring a much lower market price.  This type of bycatch should more accurately be described as 'high-grading'. Captains fishing Red Snapper (as well as any grouper and any tilefish) in the Gulf of Mexico may only catch a fixed number of pounds in a year.  If, for example, a quota holder has been allotted 75,000 lbs. by the federal government, then he may catch only that much in a year. The fisherman must get as much as he can for each pound because he can't just keep going back out, loading the boat up, and making money on volume.  The quota system is partially designed to render the fish more valuable per pound and eliminate the volume gluts.  Captains would be happy to keep big fish, if they could sell them for the right price.  Because after all, a Red Snapper is a Red Snapper. Unfortunately, past fishing practices and subsequent public perceptions have made selling big Snappers a bit difficult.  For several decades, the average Red Snapper landed at American docks yielded more or less 'plate-sized portions' (meaning a 6-8 ounce fillet, which would be cut from a fish that weighed around two to three pounds).  This was not a result of high-grading, but because the stocks had been so overfished for so long that there were relatively few larger fish.  Consumers, whether chefs or the general public, were (and still are) mostly unaware of this because the market came to accommodate the catch. Over the course of more than a generation, fish buyers came to expect that small size as 'normal'.  The problem with all that was that Red Snappers live several decades (40 years or more), and will weigh as much as 14 pounds by age 8.  It has been suggested that these larger fish should be returned to the water at all costs, as they are the big breeding sows.  This is a tempting way to look at the problem, but it turns out that those sows have the same issues as little fish when returned to water.  A high mortality rate, especially in a commercial fishery, must be expected.
     With all of this in mind, we come to a far more nuanced and accurate picture of fisheries and bycatch, one where the bycatch question becomes suddenly more urgent.  What to do?
     The answer for bycatch of targeted species, i.e. Red Snapper, is relatively straightforward, at least on paper.  All fish should be retained, no matter how big or small.  In order to prevent over-harvesting of small or large fish, boats could be required to move a given number of miles from one fishing area if a rough percentage (say 5%) of the catch coming up is either under or over a certain size.  This sounds complicated, but it has been implemented in, for example, Iceland (in a multi-species fishery).  Closer vessel monitoring would have to be achieved, but this really seems a small price to pay for sustainable fisheries.  After all, you can't buy meat in this country unless it has been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility.
     For bycatch consisting of non-targeted species, the answers tend to be the same, at least in broad strokes.  Everything should be kept.  Everything should be landed.  Finding outlets for the species is more or less challenging, depending on the fishery and method of harvest.  For hook and line fisheries (almost all finfish), the bycatch species caught tend to be relatively easy to market.  Difficulties exist for those animals with odd skin or odd bone structure or odd meat color, but nothing substantial.  Close to 100% of this bycatch is directly edible.
    Trawl bycatch (specifically shrimp in the Gulf) is a different matter, and one requiring a suite of complicated solutions.  Given that more than 65 species make up white shrimp bycatch, and probably twice that number make up offshore shrimp bycatch, finding markets and outlets is quite a task.  Most white shrimp (inshore) bycatch is directly edible, and the majority of offshore bycatch is also. Oily fish, white fish, flatfish, crustaceans, shellfish, gastropods, cephalopods, jellyfish-  all of these are found in abundance in Gulf shrimp nets.  For those species for which no markets may be found, uses still exist.  Norwegian regulations, for example, require trawlers to retain the whole catch. Bycatch that is not directly edible by humans is bought by the government at guaranteed prices (low, but rational) for use in fish meal and fish oil production.  I am aware of arguments against such government involvement, but those arguments generally don't make sense to me.  Government exists for exactly this kind of situation- rational use of common resources.  The water, the coastline, the fish-  they belong to all of us after all.  
     It is a decade-long project to achieve anything like this, and management agencies do not generally like these kinds of ideas, as regulations and enforcement become increasingly complicated.  But it can all be accomplished.  There are too many people walking around on this earth for us all to eat boneless white fish our entire lives.  We either stop eating seafood, or we get ourselves used to eating seafood rationally.  Let’s learn to eat the total catch.