It’s hard to say whether I knew it was just the last day of the season, or the end of shrimp fishing in Maine, when I climbed aboard a boat in Port Clyde one morning last March. The shrimp population in the Gulf of Maine had been in decline and the numbers hadn’t been good that season. With easterly winds forecast for the next two days, there would be too few shrimp to bother going out (as it was, on that day the catch would prove to cover the fuel and little more).
Then, a few months later in December 2013, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section, a subset of the multistate agency that oversees North Atlantic shrimp fisheries, closed the waters of the Gulf of Maine to commercial shrimp fishing for the first time in 35 years. This decision could not have been a surprise to the men and women who make their living fishing in the Gulf of Maine. In 2011 the same commission had reported the northern shrimp stock was overfished and that overfishing was occurring. Still, it was – is – a tragedy.
To learn more about that day on the water and the 2013 Maine shrimp fishing season please check out the article I wrote as a result.
From my conversations with scientists and fishermen commercial shrimp fishing is unlikely to return to Maine in two or three years if ever. What’s important to note is that we all play a part to some degree in the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine. When one fish stock disappears and another – let’s say invasive species – takes over there are a number of people and factors involved – yes fishermen, but also scientists, regulators (and their data), Mother Nature (climate change – the waters are warming), and even consumers.
In honor of Sunday having been World Oceans Day, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about sourcing sustainable fish for your dining room table. To do that I reached out to Monique Coombs of the blog Lobsters on the Fly. Monique helped write the Maine Sea Grant’s Seasonal Guide, which tells users when seafood harvested from the Gulf of Maine is in season, how and where it is fished, health benefits, and what to look for when buying it. She is also married to a fisherman and passionate about educating consumers about buying seafood. After all, supporting sustainable fishing is supporting sustaining fishing communities. Who better to turn to!?
Following are Monique’s tips for buying sustainable seafood:
1. Buy seafood sourced from the United States. This is your money and your choice so ask the person at the market counter or your waitress “Is your seafood imported?”
2. By all means ask if the fish is from Maine, but if you are told it is from Massachusetts, that is okay – especially if you are investing in Maine fishermen. Some fishermen driver to Gloucester to work and some boats out of Gloucester are actually from Maine.
3. Closer to home is always better. Freshness equals quality – this goes with points 1, 2, and 4.
4. Try to get an idea about how many people have handled your fish before it got to your plate. The fewer hands the better!
5. Where to buy your fish – the local waterfront. If you live in/near Portland go to any of the markets along the wharf.
6. Educate yourself in advance of dining out or shopping – if you know you are going to a seafood restaurant… Check out Fishwatch and the above-mentioned Maine guide.
What to buy: Diversify!
According to Monique, anything and everything! Try something new. Ask the fishmonger what’s fresh and give it a shot- hake, pollock, dogfish, redfish, monkfish, squid, and mackerel are all excellent choices she said. And, keep in mind that much like agriculture- fish have seasons (granted, these are less dependent on the actual seasons and more on regulations). Local scallops for instance are fresh December thru March.
Kyle Foley, Sustainable Seafood Brand Manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute also weighed in. She suggests several underutilized species: redfish, mackerel, dogfish, whiting, and pollock. These are abundant, and delicious. There is low consumer demand and low awareness of these fish, which is one reason why the price fishermen receive for these species is also low. They are well managed by the regulatory system, and fishermen are not catching even half of what they are allowed to catch.