Commercial Fishing Remains the Gold Standard for Sustainability


Photo courtesy of Dock to Dish

In mid-August, Edible East End published an article on sustainable sports fishing. That article, we have come to realize—in great part after Sean Barrett and his organization, Dock to Dish came to us—was both inaccurate and biased. Despite our best efforts, we got the story wrong. In a field where human error is too often countered with the cry of fake news, we wish to set the record about that story straight. After a deep dive into national science, and an extended conversation with Mr. Barrett, we would like to offer a full correction here. Our original premise posited that commercial fishing currently results in overfishing; we have since found that to be false. Commercial fishing is highly regulated, especially here in New York, and, as a result, it’s a consumer’s best bet in sourcing sustainable seafood.

“Right now,” Mr. Barrett says, “we have, categorically, the most highly regulated seafood on planet earth. We have NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], which is the federal oversight, and we also have the DEC [Department of Conservation], which is state oversight. Between the two of those, you have more regulatory oversight than anywhere else in the world.” That oversight involves what Mr. Barrett refers to as a “target biomass,” which is essentially a base number of fish that must exist before commercial fishermen can remove a species from the environment. Likening it to a bank account, Mr. Barrett compared commercial fishing to living off of interest. A commercial fisherman can never touch the principal, which, in this case, is the baseline population of a given species. “Commercial fisheries are only allowed to harvest on what’s above that,” he says. 

In the case of Dock to Dish, where fished seafood comes from within a small radius of where it is served, consumers should consider sustainability. As climate change becomes a foregone conclusion, the conversation of sustainability is shifting, necessarily, to a conversation about the carbon footprint. According to Mr. Barrett, over 90 percent of the seafood on Long Island is imported. “The average food miles for seafood in the U.S. right now is over 5,000 miles per serving,” he says. “The vast majority of it is traveling through multiple airplanes. People should be sourcing the seafood that’s most local to them. If you’re choosing the most local seafood that’s available, you’re making the correct choice.” Of all of the issues germane to sustainable fish consumption, Mr. Barrett points to the carbon footprint as among the most pressing. “The front runner,” he says, “when people are trying to make decisions about what sustainable seafood is.” 

Dock to Dish has recently earned the distinction of becoming the first wild seafood grower in New York State to be designated, a designation previously only extended to land-based foods. They are now the first New York State-certified wild seafood supplier in the state’s history. “That was a response to a lot of the seafood fraud,” Mr. Barrett says. “The agriculture market stepped up.” The audit-based system certifies that everything is 100 percent grown in New York State and has never left the state for any purposes. “It’s basically a paradigm shift,” he says. Now, consumers can use the rigorous certification as one more mark of authenticity when sourcing their fish. Although Dock to Dish was the first, there are now 22 total seafood producers participating in the program. 

Mr. Barrett urges a basic level of awareness when shopping for fish. At restaurants, he recommends selecting choices that are overpopulated and caught wild. “If you go out and you’re ordering skate, monkfish, sea bream… you are making a good decision,” he says. “Any of those are also going to come with the most important criteria: The food miles. Double-digit food miles.” On Long Island, other high population fish to look for are black bass, scup, golden tilefish, and Jonah crab. Jonah crabs are actually able to regenerate their claws after losing them, meaning that they are constant within the population. Since they feed, in many instances, off of discarded fish waste, they present a zero-waste alternative to shellfish lovers looking to eat, say, shrimp, which is nearly never local in this part of the country. Also not local on the northeast, and anathema to the sustainable fish movement: salmon. “It wouldn’t include any salmon and any shrimp,” Mr. Barrett says, of an idealized diet based on local, sustainable commercial fishing. 

Local, commercially harvested fish is still the gold standard, and New York regulations ensure that this state will continue to uphold the highest fishing standards for decades to come. Seafood lovers and conservationists of Long Island, rejoice: You have friends in the commercial fishing industry, even if you didn’t know it until now.