New England Fisheries to Reopen, and the Missing Identity of Most Seafood

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

The New England Fishery Management Council opened 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of New England Thursday to new applications from commercial fishermen. These areas were closed in the 1990s to preserve habitat on the seafloor and give cod, haddock, and other species a safe place to spawn.

Fishermen have cheered the move, saying the 2010 adoption of a quota-based protection system made the geographic conservation areas an unnecessary restriction. Worried that 2013 will bring drastic cuts to the quotas for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, industry groups will have to wait until January for the Council to review further fish stock data.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned in particular because the protected areas provide a haven for older female fish that help increase stocks – but hope that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which has to approve the vote and is expected to act by May, will be more cautious.

Fish are also noteworthy this week with the news – or reminder – that seafood fraud is widespread. That means seafood is often labeled as something it is not, usually a cheaper look-alike. A new report by Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, finds that 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores in New York City was not what appeared on the label, and that 100% of the 16 sushi restaurants investigated sold mislabeled fish. Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found a problem of similar scope.

The problem goes beyond economic duping. Consumers and diners are buying fish whose incorrect labeling might mean it was caught illegally or contains unlisted and illegal chemical additives. Enforcement, however, has focused on health claims, and individual restaurants know that they are at little or no risk of being caught.

Personally, I was glad to read the tuna steak I bought last week had been injected with carbon monoxide to keep its bright red hue. Many of us in Seattle enjoy our inexpensive Japanese cuisine, but the New York wholesaler quoted in the Times is right: “People want cheap sushi, and this is what happens.”

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