Consolidation and climate change threaten U.S. fisheries, say FERN panelists

While overfishing no longer threatens U.S. fisheries, other pressing sustainability issues, such as finfish aquaculture and consolidation, top the list of concerns among fishers and fisheries experts, according to panelists who spoke at FERN Talks and Eats in New York City on Monday.

The panel, called “Surf ‘n’ Turf: can our seafood survive Big Ag and climate change?”, took note of a few bright spots in fisheries management, such as the successful effort in the U.S. to reduce overfishing. Yet major challenges loom as fishers attempt to meet global demand for seafood without causing irreparable environmental harms, panelists said.

A major concern for fisheries advocates in the U.S. is the catch share system that limits how much fish an individual or group can harvest. Yet the buying and selling of shares has resulted in the consolidation of control over some fisheries. “None of the fisherman we work with are against putting limits on how much fish you catch,” said Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the North Atlantic Marine Alliance. “It’s the fact that since those limits have been put into place, the limits have become profit-making tools. They have commodified the right to fish.”

Dorry, who also serves as executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, says that consolidation and industrialization are two of many parallels between the agriculture and fishing sectors. “There is a difference between people who fish and people who extract seafood,” she said.

Another “elephant in the room,” according to moderator Paul Greenberg, the author of Four Fish and American Catch, is finfish aquaculture, the controversial cultivation of fish in open-ocean pens. Particularly in east Asia, where ocean aquaculture has been adopted at a large scale, environmental advocates say the waste and disease from those operations pose a threat to marine life. The panelists insisted that expanding ocean aquaculture was not the path to sustainable fish production, as advocates claim.

But not all aquaculture carries such environmental risks. The cultivation of filter feeders like oysters and clams can clean the water and provide a low-impact protein source. Two of the panelists, Karen Rivara, a marine biologist and president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, Inc. on Long Island, and Corey Hendricks, who runs First Light Shellfish Farm, a project of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Cape Cod, explained the ecosystem benefits of shellfish aquaculture and the successes they’ve had in sustainably raising hundreds of thousands of oysters.

Yet even in this relatively stable and successful market, fishers still face obstacles. “On Cape Cod, it’s a big battle between wild fisherman, aquaculture guys, and people who are there three months out of the year and don’t want to see oyster bags” marring their views, said Hendricks.

The U.S. imports around 80 percent of its seafood, according to Greenberg, a FERN contributor who has written extensively about fish and fisheries. Some fisheries experts and fishers advocate for expanding our domestic production to reduce dependency on imports.

But the available pathways to scaling up production domestically may present sustainability challenges, said Dr. Olaf Jensen, an associate professor and fisheries scientist at Rutgers University.

“If we want all of the benefits that shellfish aquaculture provides to scale up and be relevant at the ecosystem level, then we want to promote growth,” he said. “On the other hand, that then creates all the problems … We want things that are incompatible.”

As producers and academics continue to debate these scale considerations, the changing climate presents its own unique challenge to the country’s fish economy.

Rivara said that climate change has brought and will continue to bring new predators and diseases to fish populations. “We will have to breed our animals to be more heat resistant,” she said.

And rising ocean temperatures are forcing some species to migrate, creating opportunity for fishers in some regions but forcing others to learn to catch new species or get out of the business. The fishers most able to adapt to the changing composition of fisheries are smaller-scale and versatile, Dorry said. “[The] possibility of adapting to these changes is much more possible [if you’re flexible] than if you’re hyper-specialized.”

With fisheries facing a complex stew of environmental concerns, how can consumers choose the most ethical fish to eat? The panelists agreed that buying regional species from local producers will address many sustainability concerns. And as climate change stresses some familiar species, fish lovers should step out of their comfort zones to try new types of fish.

“We’ve learned how to like kale,” Dorry said. “We need to apply the same sort of value to our seafood.”