What is Sustainable Seafood and How Does Mullet Fit the bill?
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By Joy Hazell, Florida Sea Grant Agent, UF/IFAS Lee County Extension
Over the past several years there has been a large movement towards sustainable and locally grown food. U.S. based seafood has been largely absent from this conversation as we continue to increase our imported seafood to today’s rate where 91% of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported from other countries.
In keeping with the mission of WGCU's Sustainable Seafood Series, let’s explore definitions of sustainable seafood, where and how it is caught locally and how mullet can fits in this larger picture.
Many organizations are concerned with sustainable seafood and they all of have slightly different definitions. Because I am partially funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) I will begin with the definition from their Fishwatch program: “Sustainable seafood is fish and shellfish caught for human consumption by fishermen operating under sustainable fishery management systems that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them.”
That’ is a mouthful of a definition, so let’s break it down a little. Sustainable fisheries management systems in the U.S. are managed by NOAA, which oversea all the fish stocks managed in U.S. waters. The agency's job is to set limits on how much can be caught, when it can be caught and what gear can be used.
The goal is to make sure there are enough fish in the water to reproduce so that we have a continual stock of seafood, to ensure that the gear used doesn’t cause undo harm to a healthy environment and to provide fishermen and wholesalers enough fish that they can sell.
NOAA is required by U.S. law to manage the each fish stock to prevent overfishing, rebuild fish stocks that have experienced overfishing and ensure safe and sustainable supplies of seafood. There is a challenge to gathering enough data about our fisheries to ensure a perfect outcome every time but the U.S. and NOAA have a system in place to correct mistakes. For many of the most valuable fish stocks the rules of how much can be caught when and how may vary each season as federal scientists gather new information.
Photo by Brian Tietz
Because NOAA is a federal agency, it doesn't cover state waters which are where most of our mullet is caught so who can we turn to for information on mullet’s sustainability? And, don’t forget by sustainable we mean -- are we leaving enough in local waters to reproduce, are we protecting the local estuaries from harm from the gear and are the fishermen able to make a living and support their families? In Florida the mullet fishery is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC.
FWC sets regulations on both the recreational and commercial mullet fisheries and conducts a stock assessment to determine if their regulations are working by ensuring that the fish are not overfished, meaning the population is not too small nor undergoing overfishing, meaning the fishing rate is too high. The 2008 and 2014 stock assessments showed us that the mullet fishery is very sustainable, that the mullet populations are quite healthy and that fishing pressure is not too high.
If you are a person who likes assurance from a third party or non-governmental organization another popular site to learn about sustainable fisheries is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. They call striped mullet a “best choice” meaning they think it is fished in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner causing “little harm to habitats or other wildlife”.
So, based on scientific research, we’ve answered some aspects of the question -- is mullet a sustainable seafood as it's caught in the estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico? It is neither overfished nor undergoing overfishing and the methods to catch it are not causing undo harm to our environment, according the the reports. So, does this correlate with how fishermen are doing? That’s definitely a question to explore in another blog. In the meantime if you are looking for a locally-sourced sustainable seafood, mullet does fit the bill.
WATCH: Mullet: A Tale of Two Fish online at video.wgcu.org.
To learn more about mullet, visit http://taleoftwofish.com.