CHEF’S DILEMMA: SERVING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD UNDER THREAT OF REALLOCATION

“I love to serve fresh, wild-caught Gulf fish. There can be a tipping point, though, at which it’s not possible. If market price exceeds what a customer is willing to pay, it won’t work,” explains Chef Evan Gastman, Executive Chef of three restaurants on Siesta Key, a famed Florida Gulf Coast barrier island attracting tourists and locals for its sugar-sand beaches and of course, fresh seafood.

It’s a quandary. Chefs like Gastman care about serving sustainably caught, locally-sourced seafood. They care about supporting Gulf fishing communities, they want to serve the best product and they want to know they’re supporting fisheries that are responsibly managed. Many chefs do this so their kids and grandkids will get to experience the coastal life they enjoy. But when fisheries managers propose to limit commercial fishermen’s access to fish, it can drive prices past the point of marketability for the restaurants and groceries stores that buy from them.

Sometimes, limits are necessary because the fish are in trouble. But often, proposals to take fish from the commercial sector are not about sustainability at all—instead, they would transfer the right to catch those fish to the recreational fishing sector. When commercial fishermen have to make do with less, prices for chefs like Gastman, and the seafood-lovers he serves, inevitably rise.

This might seem like purely an economic issue, with no bearing on the conservation of the species. It’s not. In fact, in the Gulf, several of the popular food fish species (including red snapper) are managed very differently depending on who is catching the fish. Commercial fishermen in these fisheries are held to strict, tightly monitored limits and report every pound of fish they catch, and they’ve have adhered to those limits for over a decade.

The for-hire sector (captains who are paid to take people out on recreational trips) is beginning to follow suit. In the private recreational sector, though, basic data collection is sparse and the way in which fishery managers estimate how many fish are being caught by recreational fishermen is inexact. Enforcement of regulations is extremely difficult; the overwhelming number of recreational fishermen and landing sites makes it virtually impossible to monitor catches precisely. In effect, when fishery managers decide to transfer the right to catch fish from a highly accountable commercial fishery to a loosely controlled recreational sector, it muddies the waters about how many fish are really being taken. Reducing our understanding of how many fish are being caught directly undermines our goal of making sure we aren’t catching too many—and that threatens conservation.

Nevertheless, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is considering shifting red snapper, a popular food fish, from the seafood supply chain to the recreational sector right now. In fisheries management speak, the fight over “allocation” has been fought before. In fact, it mobilized members of the seafood supply chain to form Share the Gulf, to make sure the voices of people like Chef Gastman are heard by fishery managers making difficult choices.

With the ever-expanding number of recreational fishermen on the water, using more sophisticated technology to catch fish, it is understandable that fishery managers want to be able to accommodate recreational fishermen in pursuing their pastime. But it can’t come at the expense of the coastal communities and all of their parts—from commercial fishermen to seafood-loving customers—and it can’t come without the proven ability of fishery managers to hold recreational fishermen accountable to staying within scientifically based limits on the fish they catch. Otherwise, Chef Gastman’s customers lose, our coastal communities lose and if we undermine conservation, no one gains.

Most of us only get to taste a little bit of what the Gulf has to offer on our dinner plates, and a long line of people have worked hard to make that possible. Those people depend on the availability of Gulf-caught seafood, especially in places like Siesta Key. They depend on fishery managers to make decisions that are fair, responsible and aimed at truly fixing problems. Stay tuned for a deeper dive on some of those complex problems, and what’s happening at the Council to address them (or not).