When you buy a piece of cod, do you wonder how many are left in the ocean? Are you curious about what kind of gear was used to catch the fish? Gillnets? Hooks? Or, maybe it was a bottom trawler? Do you consider a different choice – maybe there is a more sustainable fish to buy?
These are important questions to ask, but there’s something more basic to consider as well. Where do these fish live? What essential requirements do these animals have to survive and thrive in the ocean?
Figuring out what “sustainable seafood” means is a familiar dilemma for New Englanders. We have some of the most productive fisheries in the world, but we also have some of the most heavily fished areas in the world. New Englanders work very hard to manage our fisheries, and there is much we are still learning. Yet, there is one simple fact that scientists and many fishermen are very confident about – if fish don’t have healthy habitat, then we don’t have fish.
We have some very special ocean places in New England. Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range about 80 miles off the coast of Maine, is home to the deepest and largest continuous kelp forest in all offshore waters along the US east coast. Stretching 22 miles long and 17 miles wide, Cashes Ledge provides food and shelter to an enormous diversity of creatures – from bottom-dwelling tube worms and sponges to endangered North Atlantic right whales and highly migratory blue sharks and Atlantic bluefin tuna. Cashes Ledge is also rich in a variety of groundfish including Atlantic cod, white hake, monkfish, haddock, and redfish. Many kinds of offshore sea birds can be found dining here, such as sooty shearwaters and Wilson’s storm-petrels
The reason for such enormous diversity and richness lies in the mountain range itself, whose pinnacles interrupt the primary Gulf of Maine current and create a stunning oceanographic phenomenon known as internal waves, which carry high levels of nutrients and oxygen from the sea surface to the sea floor. This unusual circulation pattern results in an incredibly productive ecosystem. It’s no wonder that scientists have used Cashes Ledge as an oceanographic research lab for decades. It represents one of the healthiest existing marine habitats, and if more of the ocean was like it, there would be a lot more fish.
In 2002 many habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine, including Cashes Ledge, were protected from harmful bottom trawling, and these areas have begun a slow recovery. But as large reductions in the catch of cod, yellowtail flounder, and other groundfish loom in New England, there is increasing pressure to open these areas again. Places like Cashes Ledge must be protected if we are going to keep relying on our oceans to feed us and allow our ocean ecosystems to regenerate and thrive. These are irreplaceable resources, and the permanent protection of marine habitat should be a top priority for any sustainable fisheries management plan.
While it is important to think about fish in numbers – how many we catch, how big they are, how many are left – it is equally important to consider the ecosystem on a larger scale, with all its moving parts, dependent on each other for survival. When do the plankton bloom, and where? Where are the currents taking the food? Where will certain fish spawn if their favorite ledge is dragged? How will the animals adapt to our warmer, more acidic oceans?
So, as we celebrate National “Sustainable” Seafood Month, take a moment to consider where your seafood lived before it was on your plate. The ocean ecosystems that produce the oxygen in 2 out of every 3 breaths we take, regulate our climate, drive tens of billions of dollars of economic benefits, and provide us with considerable recreational activities won’t continue to produce such benefits unless we do a better job at protecting the basic components of a healthy ocean. And, while you enjoy the good decision you made about your sustainably caught fish, also be thankful that the fish came from a good home, and do what you can to help keep it that way.