Trash Fish; The answer or the last resort?


434662467_b3fec00605_bIf you’re finding this article, you likely know what a ‘trash fish’ is.  Trash fish can be defined in a few different ways, but the trash fish I’d like to refer to here are fish that were traditionally considered unpalatable, unfit for human consumption, or otherwise having no market value.  There is a trend in commercial fishing today to move away from overfished species, and to start targeting fish that have previously had no market.  This trend isn’t necessarily born out of a desire to move towards sustainable fisheries, but instead it’s born out of the fact that there aren’t enough traditional market fish left in the ocean to make a living on.

“History is repeating itself, and what’s needed is an overall reduction in fishing pressure, not just a move to fishing for different species.”

Fishermen, restaurants, seafood distributors, and some environmental groups are working to develop new markets for fish, and they’re trying to convince consumers that these new fish are both good to eat and environmentally friendly.  These ‘trash species’ include fish like the Spiny Dogfish, Sea Robin, Monkfish, and skates.  The shift towards these species will reduce fishing pressure on threatened species like the Atlantic Cod, but in turn, it will turn the bulk of commercial fishing effort onto these species which have traditionally not been targeted.  With many scientists doubtful of how quickly the Atlantic Cod population can recover, or if it will ever fully recover, these trash fish species may be heavily targeted for many years to come.  If our commercial fishing fleet is able to nearly eliminate one species from the ecosystem, there’s no question that it could do the same to another species.

Trawler w/ catch of Spiny Dogfish

The example I’ll focus on is the relationship between the Atlantic Cod and the Spiny Dogfish.  On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Codfish is iconic.  It gave the Cape its name and its reputation, fed millions, and seemed to be an inexhaustible resource.  In the 1990’s however, the species crashed, hard.  A 95% decline in biomass (based on historical records) was a sobering blow to the industry.  The crash was largely the result of overfishing, especially from ruthless efficiency of new fishing technologies implemented in the 1960’s.  Fisheries management was thrown into a whirlwind, and proposed cuts to quotas were met with fierce opposition from fishermen and those representing fishermen.  What followed was years of back and forth between fisheries management, fisheries scientists, politicians, fishermen, and environmental groups.  It took over 20 years, from the Cod crash in 1992 for officials to implement meaningful quota cuts.  In late 2013, federal fisheries officials signed in 77% cuts in the Gulf of Maine cod fishery, and over 50% cuts in the quota for Georges Bank (off New England).  With their traditional money maker off the table, commercial fishermen on Cape Cod have been working to rebrand trash fish species.  The Spiny Dogfish is on the list.  Prices for the fish are still low, but as high end restaurants and seafood distributors begin to market the fish, prices are bound to rise.  If you Google “trash fish dinners” you’ll find all kinds of publicized events at restaurants touting the sustainability of these new fish.  These dinners have become quite fashionable on the east coast.  They’re marketed at times as a panacea for the negatives of overfishing and give the impression to the attendees that by being a part of expanding the market for these fish, they’re doing their part to save the ocean.

Atlantic Cod

Atlantic Cod

The truth about trash fish is that we’ve been employing this ‘fishing down the ecosystem’ strategy for centuries.  Luxury seafoods like lobster and oysters were once fed to prisoners and slaves, only until their populations began dwindling did they become more expensive and gain their spot on the menus of high priced restaurants.  Trash fish have been turned to over and over as populations of preferred fish have been depleted.  The promoters of these trash fish are missing this very important point.  History is repeating itself, and what’s needed is an overall reduction in fishing pressure, not just a move to fishing for different species.

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5 thoughts on “Trash Fish; The answer or the last resort?

  1. I like the tack of this article. I think a varied seafood diet which includes those species that might be considered “trash” (rather than one that relies on a few key species) would be beneficial both ecologically and economically. Incidentally Spiny dogfish are not only abundant in New Zealand, they are a quota species… and as such as actively managed to a management target of at or above BMSY (or the point where the population produces its maximum sustainable yield).

  2. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that up until the late 90s, there was a very large commercial spiny dogfish fishery in the western North Atlantic. As such, it’s not a “species which [has] traditionally not been targeted,” but I understand your overall point. Do you think fisheries managers have a better handle on the species now, so that the exponentially increasing quotas on dogfish will preserve the spawning stock biomass?

    • Thanks for the comment. I was referring specifically to the Cape Cod dogfish fishery, which has recently been growing in size as cuts to Atlantic Cod go into effect. The push to market dogfish locally has been gaining ground on the cape, and thus more fish are being sold in the state, as opposed to being shipped overseas. I should have specified that! The population crash in the late 90’s should serve as a warning call to the capacity of the fishing fleet to overfish the species.

      I would say that fisheries managers have a better handle on the dogfish population than they did in the 90’s, and a better handle than they had on the cod population while it was being overfished. That’s not to say they have a complete picture of the dogfish population, something that is difficult to attain when dealing with animals that are highly mobile and live in a constantly changing environment. Ask any fishermen if they can tell you what fish stocks are going to be doing next year.. they might give you a guess, but they’ll likely emphasize that they can’t say for sure. Charting a population of fish is a much different game than tracking say a population of Northern White-tailed Deer. The management of what is essentially the last large scale wild caught food source is a tricky mission at best. Little is certain, with so many factors influencing fish populations; climate change, acidification, food chain alterations, removal of spawning habitat, fishing pressure, etc. Take that into account, along with the human tendency towards exploitation, I’d argue that if we value these wild species for their intrinsic value, it’s not a good idea to increase fishing pressure on the ocean in general. Given all the issues surrounding farmed fish, there are ways to sustainably farm certain fish species that have little environmental impact, and still provide a high quality product. I think that is where the effort of seafood producers and fishermen would be best spent.

      The limiting of large scale, highly efficient commercial fisheries operations is the best way to allow fish populations to recover. I think there is room for small scale fisheries, but many fish populations need a break from fishing pressure to get to the point where they can sustain a fishery.

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