Sustainable Fisheries

Mike Doherty | Program Naturalist

The ocean provides an incredible source of food. In fact, it is the primary source of protein for more than 3 billion people on Earth. As New Englanders, we are fortunate to have multiple options available to us when it comes to seafood. Lobster, fish and chips, and fried clams are a few staples here. As a consumer of seafood however, it is very important to be aware of where your dinner comes from, and how it got to your plate. Knowing where your seafood was harvested, the method used to harvest it, and whether it was taken directly from the wild or farmed are all important factors to consider because they play a role in the overall health of the ocean, as well as the health of our fishing communities.

One primary consideration when purchasing seafood is to abstain from consuming overfished species. Overfishing is a worldwide issue, and in simple terms, means more of a particular species is taken out of the ocean than is being replaced. To encourage sustainable fisheries, regulations are set after scientists and ecologists collect data on populations, research a species lifecycle, reproductive habits, and other factors, and determine what number of that particular species can be removed while being replaced after the next spawning cycle.

The average size of cod caught in the 1600s was 22 pounds and three feet long. Now the average size is six pounds and two feet long. The average size decreased as the catch size decreased.

A legendary example of a species that was overfished is the New England cod. In colonial times, cod was plentiful and the fishery was extremely lucrative. Cod fisheries helped to drive the development of many coastal New England settlements. However, due to excessive fishing, and the targeting of larger individuals, the New England cod fishery crashed. Not only has the cod population drastically dropped over the past 400 years, the average size of an individual has decreased as well.

While our beloved cod may no longer be a strong fishery, it offers a lesson in fishery management. Fishery managers, scientists, and fishermen are working to bring the cod population back to target levels by setting tighter catch limits and regulations.

The New England Fishery Management Council implemented the Northeast Multispecies Fisheries Management Plan in 1986 to reduce fishing mortality of heavily fished groundfish stocks and to promote rebuilding to sustainable biomass levels. Thirteen species, including cod, are managed through plan, and five additional stocks are managed under a separate small mesh multispecies program.

Today, there are many national and regional organizations working to advance sustainable seafood sources. You can learn about local projects on the University of New Hampshire’s Sea Grant program web page. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is a leader in providing consumer education and offers easy-to-use recommendation guidelines.

As a healthy-ocean seafood consumer, you can do your part by asking your grocer or restaurant server what kind of sustainable options are available. You can choose to support restaurants (and there are many great local hot-spots here in New Hampshire’s seacoast!) that feature local, sustainably sourced menu items. Healthy seafood choices are not only good for you, they are good for our ocean, good for fishermen, and good for the local economy.

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