A Cheerful Story About Environmental Conservation (Really and Truly)

A deckhand holding a sablefish, aka black cod. Photo: Corey Arnold | Courtesy of the California Groundfish Collective

October is National Seafood Month, and I have a surprise for you. It’s a cheerful story about environmental conservation. I’m serious. Don’t roll your eyes in disbelief and click away to Facebook right now; stay with me. I know the headlines about the environment have been dire recently, particularly when it comes to seafood. But when I learned the story of West Coast groundfish, a true story about people with diverse perspectives banding together and taking action — and the action worked! — I was floored. And moved, because this could become a model of success for fisheries across the globe.

There’s a catch: It requires just a teeny bit of help from you to become a real-life fairy tale.

First, a deep dive

Like every good story of triumph, it’s complicated.

It all started in the year 2000, when the West Coast groundfish fishery was declared an economic disaster by the federal government. “What the heck are ‘groundfish’?” you ask. That’s the term for a wide variety of fish that live at or near the bottom of the sea. Some of the most well-known types of groundfish are rockfish, halibut, sole, sablefish, and cod. The West Coast fishery, which is in the federally managed waters off the shores of California, Oregon, and Washington, includes more than 90 species of groundfish.

In late 1999, West Coast groundfish fishermen were seeing landings plummet drastically, from a 20-year average of about 74,000 tons annually to an estimated 27,000 tons for the year 2000. At the time, the cause of the crash was deemed “undetermined, but probably natural, causes,” but stock assessments between 1999 and 2002 determined that overfishing (fish being caught faster than they could breed) played a part in the crash. The Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) declared 10 species of West Coast groundfish overfished. The environment had suffered as well, with seafloor habitats damaged by certain types of fishing gear.

Groundfish get grounded

When a stock is deemed overfished, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires regulators to develop a plan to rebuild the stock in as short a time as possible, while balancing and incorporating the needs of the fishing community.

Historically, fisherfolk and government regulators have had contentious relationships. Complex regulations can make the hard day-to-day work of fishing even harder. And then there are the environmentalists, who frequently have contentious relationships with both parties. But in the face of the West Coast groundfish disaster, something unprecedented occurred: fishermen, regulators, and conservationists sat down and worked together to save West Coast groundfish.

It wasn’t easy, especially for the fishermen. A management plan was put into place that included individual fishing quotas (IFQs) or “catch shares,” which meant that they had to accept drastic cutbacks on the number of fish they could catch, even species that weren’t overfished because of the possibility of bycatch, or catching a non-targeted species while catching a targeted species. The management plan also included area restrictions, seasonal closures, gear restrictions, and a mandate that a federal observer be on every fishing trip to monitor bycatch.

It may have taken 14 years, but a fishery in crisis has not only recovered, but has turned into a model of sustainable management.

A period of austerity and uncertainty ensued. But, as early as 2005, hope began to float to the surface of West Coast waters. Stock assessments showed that the population of lingcod had been rebuilt. In 2012, the population of widow rockfish was rebuilt, and the successful recovery of other species continued.

In 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which makes science-based environmental recommendations for seafood sustainability, announced a huge improvement in the rankings for many species of West Coast groundfish, upgrading 21 species in the fishery from its “Avoid” list to a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” ranking. In tandem, the Marine Stewardship Council certified 13 trawl-caught groundfish species as coming from a sustainable and well-managed fishery. And this summer the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced that two species, bocaccio and darkblotched rockfish (who names these things?), have recovered ahead of schedule.

It may have taken 14 years, but a fishery in crisis has not only recovered, but has turned into a model of sustainable management.

Meet — and eat — the Rip Van Winkle fish

However, there’s one problem: After not seeing rockfish, lingcod, and other types of groundfish on menus or in seafood cases for nearly a decade, consumers haven’t been interested. Fishermen finally have catches of sustainably managed rockfish, petrale sole, and more, but no one wants to buy it because the fish seem unfamiliar. Who wants to eat a weird-sounding fish like longspine thornyhead when they can eat salmon?

Well, here’s where we all get to take this conservation success story to the finish line. (I know, you thought you were going to get away with being a passive observer. Sorry, Charlie.)

As consumers, we have to break out of our culinary comfort zones. Sure, tuna, salmon, and shrimp are delicious, but have you tried sablefish? With its silky texture and delicate flavor, it’s delectable with a sweet/savory miso glaze. Chilipepper rockfish makes a killer fish taco. Petrale sole can be the star of the French classic sole meuniére (lemon and butter make everything delicious!). Sand dabs have long been the favorite of West Coast chefs for their sweet flavor, and they’re easy to cook: They just need a quick pass through a hot sauté pan. And that longspine thornyhead, aka “idiot fish” (now there’s a kid-friendly food name), is tasty dredged in seasoned flour and quickly fried.

So for National Seafood Month, instead of giving you a list of fish to avoid, I’m asking you to join me in eating more of something yummy. What’s better news than that?! Go for West Coast groundfish. It’s good for you, good for the fish, good for the fishermen — and good for the ocean.