Monday, January 10, 2011

Rant: Who Can You Trust? The Cod Edition

How much Atlantic cod remains in the waters?  Are cod in danger from being overfished?  What is the cod situation in the Georges Bank region?  Should you avoid eating Atlantic cod?  What is the effect of trawling on Atlantic cod?  Lots of questions, and few, if any, easy answers.

The upcoming Legal Sea Foods sustainability dinner has brought this issue back to the forefront, and the dinner hasn't even taken place.  Atlantic Cod will be served at the dinner, allegedly though it possesses an "Avoid" rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.  Some local fishermen have also stepped forward, joining the discussion, claiming that cod stocks are fine, alleging that they catch plenty of cod when they go fishing. These fishermen also allege significant issues and biases with the organizations which have conducted scientific assessments of cod stocks.  So who can you trust?

Back in November, I ranted about the trust issue in general, touching in part on the topic of sustainable seafood. It is very difficult to know who to trust, as the parties involved may have potential biases or potential motivations to conceal the truth.  As an example, consider the plight of the small fishermen, whose very livelihood, their existence, is on the line. If they cannot fish, then they have great difficulty, being unable to provide for their families. It is easy to feel sympathy for the plight of the small fishermen, but it is a double-edged sword.  The reason for the sympathy also creates a reason why they might lie, why they might exaggerate the plentifulness of cod.  Or at least a reason why they might ignore evidence to the contrary.

Small fishermen will certainly protest, proclaiming their honesty, though often trying to point out the lies of others, such as the large fishing corporations and the government.  Frankly, no one has a monopoly on dishonesty, and we must consider it in all regards if we hope to get to the truth.  As I said before:  "The key to discerning an accurate source is to question everything.  Question their motivations, their knowledge level, their biases. Don't accept anything at face value." Seafood sustainability is a complex issue, and we must address those complexities if we want to protect cod from extinction.

Because of the complexities involved, I have misgivings about the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch wallet cards which I feel oversimplify the situation.  If you consult the wallet cod for "Atlantic Cod," it says "Avoid" which overgeneralizes the situation, and is thus inaccurate.  It also does not tell the entire story which is on their Seafood Watch website.  Just go to the site and read their Seafood Report, where they indicate the situation is more complex.

First, Atlantic cod are separated into two regions, Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.  Only Georges Bank has a Critical Conservation concern, thus earning an Avoid label.  For the Gulf of Maine, there is a High Conservation concern as well as a High Concern over Trawling. To have an Avoid rating, both of those concerns must be present. So, cod caught in the Gulf of Maine by hook and line does not earn an Avoid rating.

So, the Monterey Bay Aquarium really does not state you should not eat any Atlantic cod, as it all depends on where and how it is caught.  Though I don't yet know the sourcing for Legal Sea Food's cod for the dinner, I suspect it might meet the acceptable criteria of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But I would not know that unless I questioned everything, if I had not looked below the surface of the rhetoric, beyond the simplicity of the wallet cards.            

An open and civil discussion on the issues of cod is needed, and those concerned about the issues need to keep asking questions.  Extremists on either side only muddy the issues, as they refuse to see any position but their own. I know that I will keep asking questions, keep delving for the truth, even if the questions sometimes irritate others. And I hope others join in as well.  This is a vital issue, and ultimately it could affect us all.


Podchef said...

The Fisherman's catch isn't really the issue. By-catch--those fish caught accidentally or incidentally to the intended species--is the real issue. Often times, because they aren't part of the allowed quota, by-catch fish must be thrown back. Quite often they are landed, but because there is no market for them or there aren't enough of any one species to make a sale, these valuable fish go by the way-side. We need to do more to reduce by-catch when targeting specific species OR get to the place in our Culinary Heads & Food Culture where we value these delicious, but marginal fish and begin to use them. If Legal Seafoods really wanted to draw the line on the sandbar, they would highlight the issues of sustainable fisheries by hosting a By-Catch Only dinner, profiling this mix of fish which is otherwise a waste problem.

Anonymous said...

This confusion is precisely the reason I stopped participating in the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF... too much debate about methods and by-catch. Now, when I eat fish, it's usually fish that I've caught myself, or was caught by a friend, with a hook and line.
I can say that I've been fishing on Stellwagen Bank many times and have always found the cod plentiful.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Podchef for your comments and you do raise an important issue which probably does not get enough attention.

Thanks Tania for your comments too.