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Fishing boats docked at the Ocracoke Island harbor. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

By Lily Spalding

You’ve heard of “farm to table,” but what about “sea to table?”

Many coastal restaurants and businesses source directly from local fishermen; however, are they sourcing the most environmentally friendly fish?

Sustainable seafood is a term used to describe methods of harvesting fish, crustaceans, and other marine life, in ways that support the marine ecosystem and help protect fish populations. The strategy of sourcing sustainably helps to mitigate overfishing and population imbalances. 

Prized fish, such as tuna and red snapper are what diners usually see on their plates. But what about so-called trash fish?

Consider the grunt. At about a foot long, and weighing an average of 9 pounds, they get caught in the nets (referred to as bycatch), and are usually thrown out. This species is typically referred to as “trash fish” due to their unpopularity — yet they are better for the environment and very tasty despite their reputation! In the past, lobster used to be considered trash, too, according to Kevin Davis, a chef at La Perla Restaurant.

As fishermen see more effects of the changing climate, it becomes increasingly important to source fish sustainably to avoid overfishing a certain species. Overfishing can result in a species becoming endangered or even extinct. That can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem. It is a domino effect; the species that is being overfished suffers, as well as the species that depend upon it for prey or to be preyed on. To remedy this issue, the government has instituted certain regulations to protect fish and marine life.

 Davis, and Fritz Rohde, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA) said  both the restaurant industry and the fishing industry face unique impacts regarding these rules and regulations.

shows a basket full of fish. These "grunts" are a more ecological alternative now that climate change is an issue.

When I spoke with Rohde, I asked him about his opinion on sustainable seafood, and was met with an exuberant reply. 

“Oh! I’m all in favor of it!” he exclaimed, calling the fish industry the “Wild, Wild West” before regulations were instituted. 

Davis asserted that rarer fish that can be fished sustainably are often quite delicious, yet people are hesitant to try them. 

“Getting people to eat weird fish has been one of the challenges. Well, not weird – different!” However, he found that customers at La Perla Restaurant found the fish he served to be delicious.

Regulations help nurture fish populations and make sure that only adult fish are caught in order to avoid a disruption in the life cycle. Rohde brought up vermillion snapper, describing how, “they were catching everything from baby [snappers] to 2-4 pound [snappers]. The size of them was getting smaller and smaller every year, and the fish were maturing faster, which is not a good thing. If they hadn’t stopped and put a size limit on [vermilion snapper], and quotas, it would’ve been in the toilet right now.”

“I remember growing up here [Eastern North Carolina] and [we] caught boatloads of flounder all summer long,” Davis said. “You can’t do that anymore – it’s rare if you get a flounder that’s actually in the legal size range. I mean, they [the regulations] suck, but they’re there for a reason.”

Rohde explained the difference between overfishing and being overfished, stating that overfishing is when one is reducing the population down, taking more than the maximum sustainable yield, whereas being overfished is when the population is unable to recover.

One way to determine whether overfishing is occurring is a stock assessment. According to the NOAA website, a stock assessment is “the process of collecting, analyzing, and reporting demographic information to determine changes in the abundance of fishery stocks in response to fishing and, to the extent possible, predict future trends of stock abundance.”

These assessments are used to ensure that a population of fish is at a stable balance and not at risk of being endangered or even extinct. They use data such as the ages of the fish, how many eggs the fish are producing and more.

Rohde mentioned the maximum sustainable yield, which is the amount of fish that can be either commercially or recreationally fished without causing harm to the fish species’ population. He said that more often than not, the species is being overfished. He also talked about how the countries that have depleted their local fish population, which is especially common with shrimp, have to go farther out to find them – or use bigger nets. However, there is positive news – the regulations do work!

A shining example of how sustainable seafood has helped fish populations is the black sea bass. 

“The black sea bass is one of the most common offshore species. It was considered to be overfished. We’ve put size limits and quotas on it, and it has recovered,” Rohde said. “Now, they’re reducing the number of regulations on it. We still have seasons, but it is a sustainable species.” 

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality outlines the black bass fishing limits. North of Cape Hatteras, the black sea bass season is over, whereas it is still active south of Hatteras (although still limited to seven per day) to avoid overfishing in locales.

Rohde’s face dropped as he talked about the downside of regulations, bringing up how some commercial fishermen have had to change fields. 

“They put a cap on the number of commercial licenses within the state. That has reduced effort and put some people out of business. Some couldn’t make it economically with the reduced catches,” he said. 

He bemoaned the way that seafood markets have diminished, because the land for the markets is now more valuable for housing and development. 

“When they started coming up with the size limits and quotas, the fishermen were really upset about it, but most of them have realized – I think – that it’s been good to have the [regulations] because otherwise, they would not be catching anything.”

Many restaurants mistakenly believe that it is more expensive to source sustainably, especially when sourcing locally. However, in Davis’ experience, the demand for fish such as shrimp or grouper drives the cost up, whereas he was able to find a better deal on rarer fish such as grunts or spots. Not only is the cost cheaper, but it can also be fun to try new fish species. 

Davis had me enthralled when he described the story behind the name “grunt” – they grind their teeth together to produce a grunt-like noise. These fish species have even earned the fond name “trash fish.” Davis remembered how triggerfish used to be trash fish, but now it’s risen to popularity, even to the point of being overfished.

If you would like to learn more about sustainable seafood, a great place to begin is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. They have a list of fish that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Go to your local seafood market and see what they have to offer!

Shows a smiling young woman who is standing outside on a dock.
Lily Spalding is a student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.