Groundfish make a comeback, but consumers need to get reacquainted
Groundfish used to be the linchpin of California commercial fishing—a year-round, reliable catch of tender white fish that consumers were eager to buy. But that all came to a halt almost two decades ago after populations plummeted from overfishing.
Now, in a remarkable development, California groundfish—which include about 60 types of rockfish as well as sand dabs, Petrale sole and other bottom-dwelling species—have rebounded dramatically, some species decades earlier than anticipated, thanks to long-term fishing restrictions and careful monitoring of fishermen’s catch.
It’s an environmental success story that shows the resiliency of nature and what can be achieved when people work together for a common goal.
As of Jan. 1, fishing restrictions for 10 previously impacted species have been loosened, which the Pacific Fishery Management Council says will bring back hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to California fishing communities. One roadblock: The processing and distribution industry that used to exist around local fishing is all but gone from the Monterey Bay.
Chefs, seafood distributors and a variety of organizations are now working hard to put that infrastructure back in place, to re-energize the fishing business and allow consumers to once more savor super-fresh seafood caught on the Central Coast.
Much re-education is in order to familiarize cooks with the different species of groundfish, which have been out of the supply loop for so long.
“It’s not some crazy new kind of fish,” says Monterey Bay Aquarium executive chef Matt Beaudin, who spends much of his free time talking to other chefs to persuade them to get groundfish back on their menus. “It’s really versatile and forgiving—quick cooking, mild and sweet, and can be poached, roasted, pan- or batter-fried with great results.”
“Fishermen are really the heroes of this recovery—they teamed up to save the industry,” says Beaudin. “They helped get it back. Now it’s up to us to get people excited about it.”
“It’s an all-around success story,” says Jana Hennig, executive director of Positively Groundfish, a nonprofit trade group that is trying to encourage demand among restaurant chefs and home cooks. “It really gives us hope that things can turn around and be sustainable going forward.”
Many millennials have never cooked or eaten Pacific rockfish, sand dabs or sole, simply because it wasn’t an option.
LOCAL AND SUSTAINABLE
Although the restrictions were needed to save certain badly overfished species, a number of unintended consequences took place, according to Sherry Flumerfelt, who heads the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. Not being able to harvest groundfish put some fishermen out of business; it also affected Monterey Bay seafood distributors, who, without a steady supply of fish available, had no alternative but to shut down local operations that processed and distributed groundfish.
Taking those fish out of the supply chain meant that consumers increasingly have turned to other sources, often overseas, when looking to put a fish dish on their tables. Many millennials have never cooked or eaten Pacific rockfish, sand dabs or sole, simply because it wasn’t an option.
Tilapia, for instance, has filled the demand for a mild white fish. A member of the cichlid family, it is farmed throughout the world and typically imported from Asia and Latin America.
Foreign-produced seafood is inexpensive and readily available, although it carries an unseen price tag in terms of environmental impact, points out MBFT marketing and supply chain manager Roger Burleigh, who notes that 90% of seafood sold in the United States is imported. Seafood from other countries, whether farmed or wild caught, is often not regulated in the same ways as it is in the U.S., not to mention that transporting it from the other side of the world leaves a large carbon footprint that contributes to global warming.
Pacific groundfish, going forward, is a sustainable choice because of the regulations now in place, as well as new fishing equipment that is easier on the environment and results in less bycatch. Most U.S.-caught species are now considered best or good alternative choices by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch consumer guide. And, Hennig says, that’s what consumers are looking for—wild-caught, local and sustainably produced seafood.
Hennig and her team are now attempting to re-educate foodies about the advantages of Pacific groundfish, from its environmental sustainability to its versatility in the kitchen, by distributing chef-prepared samples at major food shows across the country.
NEW GEAR, NEW MARKETS
Managing wild fisheries has been a joint effort by scientists, fishermen and government agencies over the past few decades, out of necessity. The populations of about 10 different groundfish were so severely depleted that the fishery was declared a federal disaster area in 2000, and sections of the Pacific Ocean were closed to fishing altogether.
Flumerfelt says that a program was put in place to buy back commercial fishing permits, and in 2011, a new quota system called Catch Shares was put into place. Fishermen have also been required to have observers on their boats who carefully weigh the catches and note what species have been caught, so that there is 100% accountability.
At the same time, new fishing gear has been developed that has reduced the amount of bycatch—other species inadvertently swept up.
Groundfish were often fished by trawlers, which got a bad reputation for damaging fragile ocean floors and gathering up unwanted fish in weighted nets. But new modified equipment has made that much less likely, according to founder/CEO Alan Lovewell of Real Good Fish, a community- supported fishery and seafood distributor based in Moss Landing.
Groundfish is caught in a variety of other ways in addition to trawling, including long lines, trolling lines and jigs—and people who do want to avoid trawl-caught fish can refer to Seafood Watch, which lists types of groundfish and the methods by which they’re harvested.
Real Good Fish received a federal grant that is allowing it to research new equipment, assisted by Monterey Bay fishermen, with an exempted permit to harvest chilipepper rockfish using a trolled hook and line assisted by cost-effective electronic monitoring gear. The hope is that such a setup would reduce the need for a human observer, which costs fishing vessels $500 to $600 a day. RGF’s fishermen will also report back on the abundancy of chilipepper rockfish in certain areas during the two-year project.
Monterey Bay Aquarium also received a grant and is working on a different innovation with scientist Andre Boustany, who says his gear will give fishers the ability to keep rockfish alive after capture so they can be sold into the live fish trade. Of Lovewell’s research, he says, “Our two teams are trying to work together on the two projects to find ways to optimize both goals.”
With the news of the rebounding fish stocks, hopes for the local fishing economy have also rallied. It is projected to add as many as 900 new jobs in West Coast communities and $60 million in income just this year, according to an economic analysis by the PFMC. In addition to commercial fishing, some 219,000 recreational fishing trips are projected.
Connecting the consumer with local groundfish is the next piece of the puzzle. For commercial fishing to go forward, the infrastructure must be there to get fish to the consumer. Part of the hoped-for solution centers on Monterey’s Wharf 2, where at press time, the Monterey City Council was mulling over awarding leases to companies there that will process and distribute groundfish.
Right now, Flumerfelt says, the only way to buy locally caught rockfish, sole or sablefish is to get it from one of the few fishermen who sell directly from their boats or to buy it from one of the CSFs, such as Real Good Fish in Moss Landing or H&H and Ocean2Table in Santa Cruz. Some area fish markets and independent grocery stores may also have it on hand, if they buy from local fishermen.
Burleigh hopes to organize a weekly fishermen’s market in Monterey, similar to a farmers’ market, where people could come and shop for fresh-off-the-boat seafood. But that’s sometime off in the future. In the meantime, he is helping coordinate promotions at area restaurants that highlight groundfish, such as the recent Get Hooked restaurant week, where local chefs created rockfish and sablefish specials.
Get Hooked also connected chefs and fishermen, with profiles and photos of the fishermen who caught that seafood on display in the restaurants, so that guests could see who was catching their dinner.
“Monterey Bay provides an abundance of sustainable seafood options,” says Burleigh. “We want to draw attention back to our local seafood bounty and the incredible fishermen who catch it.”
WHAT ARE GROUNDFISH?
Don’t be surprised if you aren’t familiar with the term “groundfish.” It’s a designation applied to particular species in the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s groundfish fishery management plan.
Because there are more than 90 species in this group, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of exactly what they are. But in general, they are fish that live on or near the bottom of the ocean, and do not migrate.
- Rockfish are the predominant group among groundfish. The PFMC’s plan covers 64 different species of rockfish, including yellowtail, canary, shortbelly and vermilion rockfish, as well as bocaccio, chilipepper, cowcod, yelloweye, thornyheads and Pacific Ocean perch.
- Flatfish include 12 species, such as Petrale sole, starry flounder, turbot and sand dab.
- Roundfish encompass lingcod, cabezon, kelp greenling, Pacific cod, Pacific whiting (hake) and sablefish.
- Other species include ratfish, finescale codling and Pacific rattail or grenadier.